Why IT Managers Must Be Storytellers

PRGX Global’s Jason James finds that the creative communication of ideas can be just as critical for technologists as ideas themselves.

A strong technical mind is unquestionably a prerequisite for IT managers, but there are a few other skills that can mean the difference between success and failure in the role. Jason James, the VP of global IT infrastructure support for PRGX Global Inc., points to ancient cave paintings to illustrate another one of them: storytelling.

“Early cave drawings are stories of how people hunted big game,” James says. They provided details of how the hunt was accomplished. “The artists had the hope of immortality through telling their stories.”

Humans have always been drawn to stories, and storytelling is essential to building advocates and getting business teams excited about technology. James minored in anthropology at Oregon State University, and viewing the machinations of the business world through that lens gave him valuable perspective on how to present ideas to non-technologists.

“Storytelling is a challenge for a lot of technologists,” he says. “There are a lot of introverts in the field that were drawn to technology, and they are not necessarily polished communicators. But in order to grow your career, you have to be in front of business leaders, the board, and clients.”

Pitching proposals for technology investments is critical to James’s job at the Atlanta-based firm, a global leader in recovery audit and spend analytics services. It requires him to tell a compelling story about how new technology will benefit the work of business groups, enterprise strategy, profit and loss, and customers. Ultimately, he must answer the question: “How am I going to make business groups more productive, earn more revenue, or save time?”

James’s storytelling ability was tested early in his tenure with PRGX, as he made the case for consolidating and centralizing the company’s geographically dispersed IT infrastructure. “They were being managed effectively, but the overall infrastructure wasn’t very scalable,” James says. “And when you have disparate systems, you’re increasing the potential for failure.” The challenge was great, as the case for modernizing an organization-wide platform that had been working well was difficult for non-technologists to grasp.

Gaining support took twelve months of focused internal marketing efforts. “At first, it was extremely difficult,” he remembers. “There was pushback.” It was important to tailor the story for different audiences.

For finance leaders, it was about saving money on the total cost of ownership and getting a greater return on investment. So, James painted a picture of a more efficient, less labor-intensive approach that would save money in the long run. To the CEO and CIO, the story was more focused on the advantages to the overall business strategy, being able to deploy features more quickly to meet clients’ needs.

James was able to secure the green light for a pilot project for one business unit to make the migration from locally managed to centrally managed data center. “I needed an early win to convince the rest of the business,” he says.

The move was a success—so much so that he converted a key skeptic of the centralization plan, the business unit manager who participated in the pilot project, into a big advocate. “He became one of my earliest proponents for doing the rest of the country when he saw the results,” James recalls. The manager even requested two other locations that were not on that year’s migration list to be moved up in the priority order.

This made it easier, though still challenging, to make the case for a measured migration to the cloud. The advantages of a move to the cloud—improved scalability, flexibility, and data security—are easier for an IT specialist to understand. This strategy requires a significant investment, though, and presented another storytelling trial. Internal processes that have been running for years are stable, reasonably secure, and were producing results. So why move the business to the cloud?

Grand plans call for grand stories, so James put together a compelling narrative. The new infrastructure would offer more features that could be deployed faster. A client that had to have data reside in a certain country because of regulations, for instance, might require an expensive build-out if PRGX had to do the work itself. Using a cloud provider that already had a physical presence in the desired location would be far more cost-effective and could be set up more quickly.

“I had to explain that complicated solution in a way that they could understand and that they could care about,” James says.

Cultivating personal relationships with those in key business roles makes it more likely for your stories to resonate with them, he adds. That means getting out to see them in their domains, even accompanying them when they meet with clients. “You have to have face time,” he says. “People relate more when they know you. It’s very hard to build advocates remotely.”

Before you can craft a good story, you have to learn about some of the things that motivate your audience. Resisting the temptation to jump to conclusions before you have all of the necessary facts and have time to analyze them is an important realization that has come to him over the years. “I was less patient ten years ago,” James observes. “Now, I find myself in rooms listening more than talking. It’s important to listen carefully to the problem statement and not feel like you have to offer a solution immediately.”

James is also a big believer in the advantages of gleaning perspective on technology and business problems from outside interests. For instance, his numerous friends in the film industry (Atlanta has been a moviemaking hot spot in recent years) have given him insight on the technology being used to create and distribute motion pictures.

“My acting friends have taught me things about having poise and presence on stage,” he adds. These are valuable tips for storytellers.

James continues to hone his storytelling skills as his vision for PRGX’s infrastructure evolves. Unlike prehistoric cave artists, he’s not seeking immortality—only better ways to translate his ideas into action.