IT needs more leaders who possess the necessary breadth of knowledge and experience to help organizations deal with the business challenges of today.
By Charles Araujo
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei and Sir Francis Bacon. What comes to mind when you hear these names? Great thinker? Philosopher? Scientist? Artist?
Any of these and all of these are, of course, correct. These great men were all of these things and more. And they were part of a time that ushered in a great expansion of human knowledge, discovery and exploration.
They were Renaissance men.
The term is now used, for both men and women, to describe people who have deep expertise and experience in a wide range of disciplines and are able to apply this breadth of knowledge to solve complex problems. In many ways, it is the ultimate compliment and a signal of intellectual respect. It is a sign that rather than being a one-dimensional expert in a single domain, you are able to see the world differently and address challenges in ways that others simply cannot.
It is why these great Renaissance men of centuries ago are held in such high regard today. Amassing this sort of breadth of expertise and applying it in meaningful ways is no simple feat, especially in today’s ever changing and complex world. But I believe we are entering a time in which all of us must move ourselves a little bit closer to this ideal. I believe we all must become Renaissance leaders.
The Uncharted Career
Philosopher. Writer, Linguist. Musician. Technologist. Customer service expert.
To the untrained eye, Roy Atkinson may seem to be someone who could never quite figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Atkinson is currently a senior writer and analyst with HDI, the unit of UBM that runs a community of IT customer support professionals. Atkinson and I have crossed paths over the years at conferences and speaking gigs, but during a chance conversation a few months ago I learned that he had a wildly diverse career, long before he entered the IT industry. And as he explained his personal history, I began to understand why Roy had the divergent views and outlooks he did and how his story might be instructive to all of us as we struggle to adapt to the profound changes impacting our industry. I began to see him as a model for what I am calling the new Digital Renaissance Leader.
In my book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, I wrote about the new skills that every IT leader will require to have as we transition into this new age of IT. These new skills are business-oriented and not technical in their nature. One of the things that I have heard from IT pros as they have attempted to adopt these skills is how difficult it is to transition from the hard technical skills of our recent past to these types of softer business skills that are more difficult to quantify. Let’s face it, it’s a whole lot easier to decide that you’re going to learn a new programming language or system administration skill than it is to become a "better collaborator and innovator." So, I found Atkinson’s story both fascinating and instructive.
Atkinson is one of those rare people who managed to make a professional living playing music for over 20 years.
If you are a musician or know a musician, you understand how difficult this is to accomplish. Yet Atkinson did it and had the opportunity to open for and play with some great musicians along the way (think Eddie Rabbit, Orleans), and he even played on Fridays at a club where Billy Joel was the Wednesday night act! He was named the best solo artist in the mid-Hudson region of New York for six years straight before being inducted into Music Machine Magazine's Hall of Fame. But while Roy made a career out of music before he began his career in IT, music wasn’t his first career.
Atkinson began his professional pursuits as a philosopher and linguist. Studying languages from the age of 7, he entered college believing that he would become a professor of philosophy and English literature. But while he pursued his academic career he also worked in a variety of industries, doing everything from working in customer service at the busiest supermarket in North America to digging tunnels beneath New York City to working in sales at the world’s second largest producer of cans (to name only a few of his jobs). Atkinson eventually decided that the world of academics wasn’t for him and dove into his musical career.
But even then, this was not a simple, one-dimensional pursuit. He was an early adopter of using a database to track his fans and taught other musicians how to manage their fan base, send newsletters and use technology to promote themselves. He was also an early adopter of the technology storm that overtook both the production and performance side of the music business in the 1980s.
Eventually, Atkinson decided his interest in technology was eclipsing his interest in music and he made the switch 20 years ago to become an IT professional.