Techies told to take 'soft' approach to office success

Repeated efforts at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. to try Linux on the mainframe faced opposition, some of it from IT employees worried that a mainframe-server consolidation would be a threat to their jobs. But their resistance offered James Vincent, a mainframe systems engineering consultant at Nationwide, a lesson that he put into use after the project was approved.

When recommendations for running Linux on a mainframe were made internally in 2000, 2002 and 2004 at the Columbus, Ohio-based insurer, there were people "who fought tooth and nail to keep it from happening," Vincent said at this week's Share user group conference. Finally, with strong backing from Nationwide's upper IT management, work on the project began in 2005. Part of Vincent's job involved working with the employees who had feared it, including IT staffers who worked on Unix systems.

"At first blush, they feel you are taking away their job from them," Vincent said. But as a result of the prior battles, he developed a better sense of where the opponents were coming from. And Vincent said that with "kinder words," he helped convince them "that this is the right path to take."

The experience that Vincent gained is an example of what George D'Iorio would call "soft skills" -- a catch-all term used to describe the skills needed for developing effective relationships with co-workers and vendors, running meetings and ensuring that ideas and goals are concise and clear.

D'Iorio manages the enterprise server team at a large retailer that he asked not be identified. He also conducts training sessions on topics such as "Getting Your Message Across" and "Influence Tactics," as he did at the IBM-oriented Share conference. In addition, he is one of the organizers of Share's professional development program.

"Effective communication is a necessary skill in any kind of leadership, whether technical leadership or people leadership," D'Iorio said. "And I think sometimes the professional skills [in IT] are so much focused on the technology that the other soft skills get overshadowed."