An MBA for IT: Fusing Business & Tech at Rollins
Trained to build databases, fix servers and maintain networks, tech gurus are often portrayed as lacking the communication and leadership skills business professionals have.
The stereotypical IT pro, comically represented by the “Saturday Night Live” character Nick Burns (“Your Company’s Computer Guy”), knows the answers to everyone’s questions but has trouble sharing that knowledge in a way others can easily understand.
Although the show’s caricature of industry professionals is meant to be a joke, it addresses an important issue. In the past decade, IT has gone from being a peripheral component of business activity to playing a central role in most corporate communications and transactions.
As IT expands out of the crowded server room into a larger office space, companies are beginning to expect their techies to know about more than Web pages and wireless systems — they want to hire people who have business skills, as well.
At Rollins Inc., a North American pest control company that owns Orkin, CIO Tom Porter looks for experienced IT professionals who also have skills in four key areas: people management, customer management, financial management and project management.
He said that for IT workers to be most effective in their roles, they have to understand how the technical work they do affects the organization as a whole.
“We’re businesspeople with IT skills,” he explained. “So, I’m looking for people who can not only perform the in-depth technical tasks that they need to perform but also are capable of learning about the business and figuring out how the technical skills that they have apply to making the company successful.”
Rollins’ 110-person IT team is made up of the usual suspects — application developers, network engineers, field technician support staff — who work closely with the business units on company projects.
By shadowing technicians in the field and continuously carrying on conversations with their corporate clients, these IT pros learn how to target their efforts to the end-user. With a better understanding of how other departments are using the applications they develop, IT workers are better equipped to help advance the business, Porter said.
IT pros at Rollins also are expected to be able to deal with customer concerns and complaints, even if they don’t work directly with the client base. These communication and interpersonal skills aren’t usually addressed in IT curricula, but it’s extremely important for technical workers to have them if they want to contribute to the success of the business, Porter said.
“At the end of the day, we are a business, and the business is all about making money and performing services for our customers,” he said. “So, everybody needs to touch the people on the customer side.”
Few IT candidates have the strong business skills he would like to see, Porter said.
Thus, when he’s hiring, he looks for qualities that show candidates will fit with the organization’s culture and are willing to learn more about the business as a whole.
Rollins takes great pride in its 100-year-old culture and looks for workers who can think on their feet, have a mature presence and possess a strong work ethic, Porter said. Additionally, the company wants its workers to see themselves as partial owners and be able to make decisions as if they were running their own business.
“The key business skills that we try to really target revolve around the notion that we are, as individuals, part owners of our company,” he said. “We are custodians of corporate resources and, as such, we need to understand the financial implications of everything that we do, whether it’s buying another box of pencils, or whether it’s a multimillion-dollar project.”
To make sure its IT pros have these skills, Rollins offers a combination of online, classroom and on-the-job trainings to familiarize new employees with the inner workings of the organization.
The training starts with online courses that provide what Porter calls “basic training.” These courses give workers the technical and business fundamentals they need to get the most out of the classroom training they’ll do in the future.
On-the-job training is another large part of Rollins’ development program, Porter said.
By working on projects that are involved with other aspects of the business, workers can expand their skill sets and increase their mobility within the company.
Further, trying out new job roles helps people determine where they would like to go in the organization and discover talents they might not have had the opportunity to use, Porter said.
“Through the projects we create, they can broaden their value to the organization,” he said. “I like people to be multicapable, to experience a lot of different things and figure out what they’re really good at and what they’re not.”
By taking an active interest in this development process, Rollins’ IT pros can move both horizontally and vertically within the organization, depending on their interest.
If individuals are happy with their job role but would like more responsibility, Rollins’ leadership assists them in improving the skills they need to advance in their department. If someone is interested in taking on a different job role, on-the-job training and coaching are available to prepare that person for a career move.
For example, with the right initiative, someone working at the help desk could easily make the transition to working in desktop support, Porter said.
For individuals aspiring to move up the ranks, developing traditional business skills is especially important. Because IT pros generally are best at technical, hands-on work, these individuals must be trained in the skills that will allow them to lead.
It can be tricky, however, for people who are used to succeeding based on the quality of their own work to move into a position that requires them to manage teams and get work done through others. So, to support new leaders and ensure the business continues to run smoothly through the transition, Rollins sends its management team through extensive leadership training and provides them with an on-site mentor.
Yet, not every leader has a desire to be a manager — some individuals naturally take charge in a team situation or lead by example without moving into an official leadership position. Because these people can affect the direction of the organization without actively trying, Rollins makes sure these peer leaders are identified and mentored, as well.
Porter said these types of experience and training are valued much more than certification at Rollins. He also said he sees certification as a way for individuals to validate their own skill set and make themselves more mobile within the workforce.
Because he doesn’t think certification adds any value to the company as a whole, Porter doesn’t encourage his workers to take the certification exams — although he will send his IT pros to some certification classes to help them advance their technical skills, Porter said he is more interested in the way this knowledge is applied at Rollins than seeing his workers get industry recognition.
Rollins will pay for the certification classes that are part of a larger training program, but the certifications themselves are a luxury that people need to pay for themselves, Porter said.
“It doesn’t really fit in a lot for my organization,” he said. “I’m looking for experience.”
It is this focus on experience that has gotten Rollins where it is today, Porter said. By targeting and training for applicable business skills in the IT department, the company ensures everyone is working toward the same strategic goals.
By identifying technical workers with leadership potential and developing the soft skills they need to succeed, Rollins creates a chain of management that can successfully execute projects and delegate tasks. Most important, Porter said, is hiring people who fit the company’s culture and can offer improvements, which helps the business continue to advance and compete in the market.
“We want to keep those things that are really valuable about our culture and infuse those into new people that come, but at the same time, we want to learn from other people so we can enhance our culture and make it even more robust and more applicable to the current environment without giving up the things that really got us here,” he said.
– Tegan Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org
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