Mentally Tough Rules for IT Managers

As an IT manager, are you “living the dream?” Or do you find yourself frequently wondering how different your life would be if you were selling shoes or painting houses for a living?  It isn’t easy being a good IT manager.  In this column, I’ll share with you seven “mentally tough” rules for technology managers that can help you get through those days when it feels like you’re “living the nightmare.”

Being “Mentally Tough” Takes Practice

I first read the “Mentally Tough Rules for Racquetball Players” in an issue of National Racquetball magazine from the 1980s. I’ve saved the page for over 20 years and referred to the rules many, many times when I needed to keep my cool, both on the racquetball court and in the corporate IT world.

Here are the rules as originally written for racquetball players. These rules aren’t just for racquetball players, though. They’re awesome for people who play any other competitive sport.


I will not turn against myself during tough times.
I will come prepared to compete every day.
I will put myself on the line when I compete.
I never surrender.
When it’s tough, I will stay in control with humor.
The crazier it gets, the more I have got to love it.
 I love to compete more than winning.

I love these rules, and it occurred to me that it only takes a few tweaks to customize them for IT professionals:


I will not turn against myself (or my team) during tough times.
I will come prepared to compute every day.
I will put myself on the line when I compute.
I never surrender.
When it’s tough, I will stay in control with humor.
The crazier it gets, the more I have got to love it.
I love getting it right more than being right.

 How do the rules apply to you as a technology manager? Let’s count the ways.

1. I will not turn against myself (or my team) during tough times.

“Tough times” refers to any time deadlines are looming, stress levels are high, and you’re tempted to get mad at yourself or the people who work for you. If you’re having a day on the racquetball court, it won’t help your shot-making to yell at yourself or smash your racquet against the wall. By the same token, if you’re having a bad day at work, it’s counterproductive to get angry at yourself or at the people on the team you manage.

 2. I will come prepared to compute every day.

I changed “compete” to “compute” in this rule because that’s what we as technology managers do, right? We compute. We help other people compute. The demand for computing never rests in our work lives, so we have to be on the ball and on top of our games every single day.

 3. I will put myself on the line when I compute.

This rule supplements rule #2.  It isn’t enough to merely show up prepared for work – you have put yourself on the line. On the racquetball court, “putting yourself on the line” means pushing yourself to your physical limits and chasing down every single ball. In the IT Department, it means taking responsibility for making sure you and your team members are meeting your users’ expectations.  It means pushing yourself to be as smart and effective as you can be as a manager.

4. I never surrender.

This rule reminds me of the tag line in the movie Galaxy Quest, “Never give up! Never surrender!” On the racquetball court, it means never throwing in the towel just because you’re losing the game or the match. In the IT Department, it means not settling for a half-baked solution or a half-truth explanation about why something isn’t working as designed. It means never clocking out mentally just because it’s been a long, difficult day, week, or month.

5. When it’s tough, I will stay in control with humor.

This rule is the hardest one for me to follow.  If you’re like me, and you can become a bit of a hot-head when you’re under pressure, use this rule to remind yourself to lighten up, Francis! When I’m on the verge of losing my cool on the racquetball court, I have a couple of jokes and images I think about that always make me smile. I use those momentary distractions in my head to re-focus my thinking on what needs to be done.

6. The crazier it gets, the more I have got to love it.

You know why this rule is important? Because you have to be a little bit crazy to go into the information technology field in the first place! I pity the fools who went into IT thinking that their work lives would never be crazy. Systems and routers go down. Code breaks. Users do stupid things. Vendors fail to meet their SLAs. And the worst things always happen at the worst possible times. That’s life in IT. Love it or leave it, baby!

7. I love getting it right more than being right.

The point of this mentally-tough rule for racquetball players, “I love to compete more than winning,” is to remind players not to be bad sports when they lose. That’s easier said than done, of course. Most people who play competitive sports, especially individual sports like racquetball or tennis, hate to lose. But you can’t win them all, so you have to enjoy the competition.

My rewrite of this rule is aimed at IT managers who think they always have to be right, and that their way is the only right way to get something done.  If you truly love “getting it right” more than “being right,” you and the people you manage will benefit from your lack of ego.

Are YOU mentally tough?

To share your thoughts on being “mentally tough,” please post your comments below or send a Letter to the Editor at [email protected]

Are the people on your team mentally tough? Download a sample Skills Matrix for free!

This skills matrix was developed by contributing writer Mike Sisco to help IT managers take an inventory the skills for each person on your team.  You may be surprised to find out how many skills you have at your disposal that you didn’t know you had!

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Pat Vickers, Expert in Help Desk Management

7 Things a Help Desk Analyst Needs From the Help Desk Manager

Good support techs are hard to find and even harder to keep. It’s a tough and often thankless job. Callers often abuse them, other IT employees take them for granted and the hours can be terrible. More importantly, the combination of being able to understand the technology and work with people is exceptional.  There isn’t much a help desk manager can do about those things. What a manger can do is ensure the analysts have everything they need to do their job to the best of their ability.

1. The right tools

No job is easy without the right tools. Whether the job is to repair plumbing, cook a great meal or diagnose a computer problem, having the right tools is essential. For a help desk the right tools are:

a)      Schematics on all supported hardware

b)      Good remote control tool

c)       Documentation on all supported software

d)      Admin rights to every supported system

2. Appreciation for a job well done

Award ceremonies can be fun but giving out the same plaques every year or month isn’t true appreciation. The way appreciation is properly shows is to personally thank the employee. Managers should occasionally stop by the desk of someone who has done well, maybe even invite that employee out to lunch. While there the manager should thank the employee and be specific about why that employee is appreciated. A follow up email that can be kept for their records is a nice touch but the personal visit will stay with the employee for weeks.

3. Training

Nothing changes faster than technology and the Help Desk analyst must be at least one step ahead of callers every day. Whether in a classroom, book or computer based. Training for the Help Desk analyst is essential. Of course time and money are always an issue. Anticipate and plan for slow periods by keeping up to date training programs available. Even if only for an hour, taking advantage of low call volume to increase skills is the best possible use of a Help Desk analysts time.

4. Help in the trenches

Most Help Desk managers spent quite enough time on the phone, before they were promoted, and have no intention of going back. This is a mistake. While a manager’s time is best spent managing, the occasional foray back to the trenches not only keeps him or her sharp and in the game. More importantly, the extra help on a really busy day will be greatly appreciated by the analysts. It’s always good to know the boss can do the job and not just boss.

5. Trust

Trust can be the toughest thing for any manager to give. For one thing, some employees just don’t deserve it. Most do and they should be left alone to do their job. Whenever possible a manager should deliver the requirements and then let the analysts figure out the best way to deliver. Micromanaging by scripting or insisting information be gathered in specific order are indications of mistrust and make an analysts job, more difficult, not less. New employees or those who aren’t performing need those things. Give the rest the room they need to do their jobs.

6. Reasonable Requirements

Reasonable requirements vary from office to office, depending on what is supported and the sophistication level of the users. It’s impossible for anyone outside to say what is reasonable and what isn’t.  Looking at history and working with trusted employees is the only way set the parameters. Once those parameters are set the expectations shouldn’t be raised, without serious reevaluation. In other words, once an employee has reached a productivity level considered excellent, stop raising the bar. Doing so just forces the employee to have a bad month, in order to start all over again.

7. Occasional work off the phone

A help desk analyst should spend the vast majority of work time, on the phone.  The most important tasks on any help desk are answering the calls and helping the callers. Everything else is secondary. There are some tasks that are not phone related and giving analysts time on those tasks, when call volume permits, is a great way to recharge batteries. Examples are giving training as well as receiving it, documenting procedures and testing new software and hardware.

These seven things are important, doable and make a difference. There is more though. Please post a comment below and tell us what you need from your manager and why

For more great information on how to manage your IT employees check out The Practical IT Manager Gold Series by Mike Sisco. It’s a great resource.

A simple project planning tool that will save you countless headaches

What do you think of when you hear the word “management tools?” Soft skills like “ability to listen well?” Software tools like compilers and debuggers?  In this column, I’ll tell you about one of the  management tools I have used the most in my long career: a simple project scheduling template.

Background: Project Management 101

I was first introduced to what we now call “project management” years before there really was such a term called project management. Believe it or not, in the early days of IT we didn’t have project management methodologies, nice tools, or training. Today, project management resources are everywhere.project schedule template

When I first joined IBM in 1976, my Systems Engineer (SE) responsibility was to support existing clients with IBM computers and install new IBM computer systems, usually for small businesses who had purchased their first computer. We called it the “mini-computer” era. It was exciting and lots of fun helping small business owners automate part of their business.

We didn’t have laptops, no software to speak of for personal use – not even project management software. What we did have was a predefined form and a pencil along with knowledge of the tasks required to install a new computer system plus the business applications that went with it.

IBM trained me on their installation process. We didn’t call it project management, but that’s certainly what it was. With this training, IBM provided a blank installation scheduling form (template) by which we could develop an installation schedule for each new client.

30 years later

The process we used to install computer systems in the late 70s and 80s is exactly the same process we use today. You need a project schedule that includes a few basic things like:

–       Tasks required to do the job

–       Responsibility assignment for each task

–       Timeframe for completing each task

IBM gave me a form and a set of standards (tasks required to do the job) so I developed an installation plan, or schedule, for each new computer system I needed to install.  I used the schedule to manage the project, just like we use the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)  today.

Of course, in my IBM days, it was all manual with paper and pencils, so it was smart to have a good eraser close by.

When the PC came out in the early 1980s along with VISICALC, I put this paper form onto a spreadsheet. (I wonder how many people reading this article remember VISICALC, the first spreadsheet application.) It revolutionized much of the manual and tedious administrative work we used to do with pencil and paper that we now take for granted.

I still use this template in Excel spreadsheet format to manage projects. Even though I’m well versed in Microsoft Project, I always revert back to my simple project schedule spreadsheet template whenever I can. For me, it’s just quicker and easier to use and it works just fine in providing what I need to manage a project.

Simple tools work just fine, and you won’t find a simpler tool than this Project Schedule Template.

Download the Project Schedule Template for Free!

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To comment on this column, or to tell us what you think of the free Project Schedule Template, please post a comment below.

Software Review: Good Technology’s mobile application tool illustrates need for mobile device email policy

In this column, I’ll tell you how one Big IT Shop solved the problem of how to enforce the email information security policy in the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) era when 95% of their employees access corporate  email via smartphones, tablets,  and company-issued laptops.

One ISO’s “Good” solution for enforcing email policy

I recently consulted on information security governance with the Information Security Officer (ISO) for a company that provides professional services in the financial consulting industry. The firm’s experts travel all over the place and use  all sorts of devices to get their work done, and the ISO needed a way to secure  sensitive information transmitted via corporate email on the approved devices.

The ISO implemented the mobile content management solution from  Good Technology (“Good”). For the record, I don’t have any affiliation with Good, and I wasn’t involved in the process of selecting Good as this company’s third-party service provider. I’m writing this plug of their system based on my review of  reports that come out of the Good system, and they’re impressive.

In a nutshell, the solution helps enforce information security policy in two important ways:

1) It monitors all outgoing email messages and attachments for sensitive information.

2. It generates a report that goes to the Information Security Department showing which users have violated company policy regarding the use of  sensitive information.

Here’s one cool thing about the Good solution. You can configure it so that only work email – email that goes through the company’s email gateway – is monitored by the Good app. So if someone forwards confidential information from the corporate email account to a cloud-based account, that violation of policy will show up in a report.

Suppose one of your employees with a smart phone leaves the company? In that case, you can use the Good solution to remotely wipe all of the business email messages and contacts from the phone, without deleting any other data or apps.

 Sensitive information, you say?

In this case study, the definition of sensitive information is very clearly stated in this company’s information security policies. The problem is, the people who needed to know what the rules are  – the mobile device users – weren’t reading the information security policies. My recommendation to this ISO was to add the rules about sensitive information in email to the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy.

If you don’t want people forwarding corporate email messages to their cloud-based email addresses, you need to tell them.

Use this free download from ToolKite Cafe’s BYOD toolkit to gauge your BYOD readiness

If you don’t currently have a formal program in place to manage your BYOD users, ToolKit Café’s BYOD Toolkit can help. The BYOD toolkit contains standardized templates and sample policy documents you can quickly customize for your organization.

Try before you buy

If you’d like to look at the type of material available in the BYOD toolkit, you can download a free sample BYOD audit program. This sample audit program provides step by step instructions to help you figure out what you have and what you need in the way of policies and procedures related to managing your BYOD users.

Talk Back to ToolTalk Weekly

If you  liked this column, please post a comment below. Follow this link to read another ToolTalk Weekly software review:  Recuva saves the day when files get deleted.

Pat Vickers, Expert in Help Desk Management

Managing People: Introducing A Great IT Boss

One of my first jobs was a low level employee on a phone support team. It was a good job for a twenty one year old college drop out. The pay wasn’t bad. The surroundings were pleasant. I worked nights so I was able to go back to school during the day and eventually earn my degree. The company even paid for it. In some ways it was a tough job though. We were rated on the number of calls we took. More was always better. On busy days calls could exceed 100. We were often monitored then critiqued. It could get pretty stressful.

The art of Critiquing

Some of the managers seemed to think their job was to find out what the employees were doing wrong and make them stop. The guy I worked for, I’ll call him Rob, seemed to think his job was to encourage employees. Sure he monitored our calls from time to time, as was required but when he talked to us about them it was more about what the did right than what we did wrong. In the end he would mention what we could have done better but his critiques usually made us feel better about ourselves and our work instead of worse.

The Problem Employee

I remember a specific support analyst on my team that first year than none of us thought would make it. Chris was passed from team to team and always seemed to be on probation for being late, leaving early and just generally not doing a very good job. Finally she was put on our team under Rob.

Chris told me about their first meeting. Rob started out by asking her if she wanted to be on his team. She said she was OK with it. He said he asked because she didn’t seem like someone who particularly liked her job. Chris agreed. She did not like her job. Rob said that was OK. Liking the job was not required. He told Chris that not everyone was cut out for phone support and there was no shame in quitting. Chris asked if Rob was firing her. He assured her he was not. If she wanted the job it was already hers and all she had to do to keep it was be decent at it, show up on time and do her share of the work, but if she did not want the job she was not doing herself any favors by staying and doing the job badly. Rob asked Chris to think about it and let him know what she wanted to do.

Learn From the Best

I heard the story a year later. Chris had been off probation for more than 9 months and was one of the better employees. She told me that she still didn’t care for the job but it was the best that she could get at the time and Rob was right. Doing the job well did make her feel better about herself and her work.

What I learned from that conversation is that no manager can make an employee do a good job. We can’t micromanage them into or even threaten them into it, but we can treat them as intelligent adults and accept no less from them. Rob didn’t bother to list Chris’s short comings. She knew them. He just asked her to be honest with herself and him and to make a choice. That method doesn’t always work. Some employees never learn and have to be fired. But in that case Rob prevailed and both he and Chris were better off for it.

For more tips on being a great manager you can have a great role model like Rob but you can also get what you need from the Practical IT Manager Gold Series, a fantastic tool kit by Mike Sisco, containing tools and templates designed to make you the best manager you can be.

Add your two cents

Do you know a great IT manager? Please tell us about that person or share your thoughts by posting a comment below. Follow this link to read about a couple of really bad IT managers:

Introducing the Worst IT Managers Ever