By Mark Beets, GM: Business Development, Entelect

I built an oscilloscope the other day. I don’t need one and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but the point is that I built it and, in doing so, I learnt a few things, like how to solve the technical problem of flicker when refreshing a screen, and how to present information meaningfully on a small device, which is becoming more and more relevant in the field of software development.

For a few hours, I was out of my comfort zone but I was learning, researching and understanding new concepts. The fact that I had an oscilloscope to show for it was a bonus but what really mattered was the journey of creating something, of problem-solving, and that incomparable sense of achievement when it was finally finished. Even if it was 3am and I knew the kids would be looking for breakfast in a few hours.

This process of learning and creating got me thinking about how we approach leadership and management in the fast-moving technology space. In the new age, our comfort zone is the danger zone, and if we don’t occasionally step out of the boundaries of what we know, it’s impossible to stay relevant and to keep our finger on the pulse of this dynamic industry.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
Too often, managers get bogged down by administrative tasks, performance reviews and growing the business. While this is important because it keeps our heads above the trees, we also risk losing touch with the industry because we can’t see the wood for those trees.

Learning is one of the driving cultural principles at Entelect. It’s how we increase our value to our peers, colleagues and clients. It’s how we find new and novel approaches to problems and services. But most importantly, it’s how we stay relevant in our field.

Whether you’re listening to audiobooks in the car, reading up on industry news and developments, attending user groups and forums on new or unfamiliar topics, or finding a creative outlet in a side hobby like the Internet of Things, learning forces you to think outside of the boundaries of what you deal with on a daily basis. It not only exposes you to new technologies but also to different industries, giving you an opportunity to apply your knowledge and systems to other problems.

As managers, we should be able to walk out of a new business meeting and straight into a technology meeting, where we can speak with authority on topics that matter to the coders and the makers. By showing that we have an opinion on something and that we haven’t lost touch with the practical applications of coding, we not only contribute to the development of the software industry but we also earn the trust and respect of our peers. We put ourselves in a position to teach others as well as to learn from others, which brings me to the importance of engagement and knowledge-sharing.

Colour outside the lines
In management, you often reach a level where engagement with junior staff, potential and existing clients, and the industry as a whole is not possible because your focus is on business development.

But what if I told you that the business development we strive for is just on the outside of our comfort zone? It’s on the ground, among the coders who are deploying systems and meeting deadlines; it’s on social media, connecting with people who share your passion for home automation and can help you figure out why your swimming pool light won’t turn off automatically. It’s in the audience at a Bitcoin conference even though you work for an environmental NGO.

By spending time with the coders on site, managers not only get a chance to see what they’re working on and to get a better appreciation of the challenges they face, but they also have an opportunity to connect, to share ideas and knowledge, and to identify opportunities to do things differently or to elevate a task to become a standard.

Two-way knowledge transfer is crucial. Management can help junior staff avoid the mistakes they’ve made in the past and, because they’re in the thick of it, those on the ground often have the best ideas about how things can be done quicker and more effectively, essentially increasing the value you provide to clients. By pulling ideas from the learner, the hobbyist and the person in the delivery stream, managers will instinctively know how and where to grow the business.

The new comfort zone for managers is not behind a desk, it’s on the ground, fetching coffee and pizza while the team works towards deadlines. It’s among the coders and tinkerers at user groups and dev days. It’s attending industry conferences on topics we know little about. It’s engaging on social media, connecting on common ground, forming relationships with like-minded people and building trust, which forms the foundation of our business.

Technology changes rapidly. Getting comfortable with the way things are and by only operating within the boundaries of our business is dangerous territory and puts us on a fast-track to irrelevancy. But by engaging, learning, sharing knowledge, having an opinion and finding a creative outlet, we earn the trust and respect of our colleagues and clients, and there’s no substitute for that in the professional services industry. You might end up with a pile of useless oscilloscopes, but I promise the journey of getting there will be worth it.

Now, excuse me while I figure out how to automate my swimming pool light before the kids wake up for breakfast.

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