"You Must Accept and Adapt to Change."
We ask five questions of NJ Robinson, who serves as Deputy Director of the 794th Communications Squadron of the United States Air Force. He suggests that flexibility and soft skills are keys for longevity and success in the IT service and support industries.
We ask five questions of NJ Robinson, PMP. Robinson, who serves as Deputy Director of the 794th Communications Squadron of the United States Air Force, is part of HDI's Strategic Advisory Board. The board is composed of industry thought leaders, practitioners and solution providers who help us keep close tabs on the customer insights and support center and service management market developments.
Could you describe your current role?
I am the Deputy IT Director for the 794 Communications Squadron on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Air Force Base, where I support our director, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Elithe Zoglman. My role is to support her efforts to deliver Class-A service through the provision Layer 1 infrastructure, Enterprise Land Mobile Radio, IT Project and Knowledge Management, and a host of associated IT- and communications-related services to over 65 organizations across the base.
I started in mid-Jan 2021, at an awesome time when the squadron was only four months old. We are literally building an IT organization from scratch while also providing communication and IT services to customers in the early stages of their own organizational formation. We literally are flying the jet as we build it.
I also have a small coaching/consulting business, Hi-Tech Leadership, where I am focused primarily on the development of the next generation of IT leaders.
What, in your opinion, are the characteristics of someone who is successful long-term in this industry?
When speaking with tech leaders and people who are looking to break into the industry, I often say to experience longevity in tech you must accept and adapt to change. Not only does technology evolve, so, too, do workplace norms, culture, and attitudes. You must first accept change as a fact of life and then learn how to adapt and thrive in the new environment. I have heard many of my generational peers in and out of tech bemoan the ways and attitudes of the "new generation," and I am constantly reminding them that the same was said about us when we were getting started.
What is one piece of advice you would like to share with those who are just setting out on a career path in the service and support industry?
Along the same concept of change, IT service and support peers who desire increased levels of responsibility and leadership opportunities, should know increased levels of responsibility necessitates a gradual shift of focus from technical expertise to people expertise. If you are new in your career, spend the bulk of your time learning the ins and outs of your technical specialty, because your recognition will most likely be attributed to your technical competence first. However, do not neglect developing your "soft skills" as well. As you increase your influence in an organization, be it government, private, or non-profit world, you will begin to rely more on people to get things done rather than your own technical know-how, so spend time learning how to motivate, guide, coach, and communicate effectively.
One habit to develop early in your career is to spend time with non-tech customers or peers (accounting, sales, supply chain, etc.), and seek to understand how they not only view tech, but how they contribute to the organization's mission and how they define success.
There have been so many changes in this industry, both because of new technology and because of the COVID-19 crisis. How do you feel those changes will shape the industry in the next decade?
My hope regarding technology in a Post-COVID-19 world is that small and mid-sized organizations that previously did not view technology as a business requirement will evaluate and invest into technology recognizing it is critical to their survivability. I believe strongly in small business and community non-profits success to help improve economic and social conditions of our underserved communities.
Also, organizations will be more judicious in adopting new and leveraging existing technology. Speaking to the second point, in the Air Force during COVID we learned (or confirmed) that we were doing a lot of "stuff" and using applications that were not value added. We just did it because it was always done. There were things service providers wanted to stop doing but were afraid because they believed it was a customer need, only to find the customer did not use it.
Likewise, there were technology initiatives that my former organization was evaluating that when COVID hit we learned the capability was already existent with some minor add-ons or adjustments. We focused on evaluating, revising, and updating the processes that lead to our biggest challenges. It has always been easy to think a piece of technology will solve a business problem, and COVID has caused my former organization and others in my orbit, to challenge this practice and adopt a better practice of evaluating technology that fits a current process as opposed to building a process (often broken) around technology.
It's clear by your participation on the board that you believe in the role of mentorship in the service and support industry. Can you share a valuable lesson you learned from a mentor, and share who that mentor was?
I have had numerous people throughout my life that provided some key insights and/or critiques that have helped me grow and develop, and I am grateful for everyone that has contributed to my development. Master Sergeant (Retired) Nate Brook is the most influential mentor; he helped me in both my personal and professional development and created the model through which I approach life. He consistently communicated and modeled the importance of continually learning, always presenting a professional image, building relationships, becoming an expert on your job, and taking care of your boss and your team.
I have taken this approach to every position I've held realizing continued success. I honestly don't think I would be where I am and have the trajectory I have without his mentorship. I strive to honor MSgt Brooks today by sharing his messages and modelling his behavior, thus multiplying his influence on those I mentor directly and indirectly. If you came into my office, you will find the initial feedback he gave me in 2002. I display it in every office I occupy as a reminder of how I am to present myself.