Nov 12 2008

Manage Your IT Team Like a Startup

Build an entrepreneurial department where ideas flow.

Business owners today are more resourceful and demanding than ever. If you’re a company developing products or services for small or midsize businesses, you have to stay one step ahead of their needs. This has been our focus at LegalZoom.com, where a large number of our customers run small businesses.

So how do you create products and services that impress these tough customers? Start by staffing your IT department with professionals who think like entrepreneurs.

Product innovation requires an IT team that enjoys a challenge. As CIO of LegalZoom.com, I’ve invested a great deal of time building a team of “IT entrepreneurs,” creating an environment where good ideas can move quickly. If the team has an idea, we can often launch within a week, whether it’s a new test product or an important customer experience improvement. Team members work directly with senior management and other departments to implement the idea. There is no such thing as an “IT person” at LegalZoom — just business partners with customer problems to solve.

Open Communication

You don’t have to be a startup to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the workplace. With hundreds of employees and more than a million customers, LegalZoom has left its startup days behind, but the creative energy and enthusiasm for the company remain. This is no accident. The first thing people notice when they walk into our building is the absence of offices, even for senior management. This creates an atmosphere of open communication that actually works. Employees have access to the entire executive team, and new ideas freely surface from all departments.

In larger organizations, IT departments typically operate in a silo, and there is little creative collaboration between IT and internal business partners. When I started my career, business partners were primarily interested in reports and simple automation of business tasks. They were frequently intimidated by technology and had little interest in how it worked. Today, business partners are not only interested about the underlying technology, but they also want a role in creating the solution. Your IT team must be ready to solve new challenges with business partners — not for them.

To stay in touch with customer needs, we recently introduced a new program that lets IT staff listen in on customer service calls. We found that when customer feedback is direct and not filtered through management or customer service reports, the effect on the team is immediate. We are able to quickly tailor technical solutions to improve our customers’ experience. Best of all, the team is motivated when customers share how our products have helped them start a business or care for their family.

Given today’s economy, you would think it’s easy to find the right technical talent — especially for a company that’s still growing. And it is easy if you are looking for single-skill contributors. But a collection of single-skilled employees does not produce a high-performing, entrepreneurial IT department. Technical skills are needed, but so is the ability to work with teammates and other business partners to understand customers and develop new ideas. You know you’ve built a great team when they can argue through a problem, find a better solution and then laugh about it over lunch.

Over the years, I’ve managed IT departments in both corporate and startup settings, and I’ll be the first to tell you there are enormous benefits to managing a team that is enthusiastic about the company and its culture. In interviews, I don’t hesitate to tell candidates, “If you’re not excited about our business and the way we work, then you don’t belong with us.”

Once you have assembled your team, one of the main priorities will be providing continued challenges and setting realistic goals. Like most entrepreneurs, motivated IT professionals will frequently bite off more than they can chew. But with the right team in place, reining in big ideas is a great problem to have.

Tracy Terrill is CIO of LegalZoom.com, the nation’s leading online legal document service. LegalZoom offers cost-effective incorporation, LLC formation, trademarks, patents, last wills and living trusts.