IT Management

The Grace Hopper Guide to Exceptional IT Leadership

Published by in IT Management

Grace Hopper.

For techies, and especially female techies, that name brings to mind an incalculable list of merits and achievements that have made her a hero for many IT managers today.

Aside from working on the UNIVAC 1 (the second commercial computer in the United States), founding programming language COBOL, and popularizing the term “debugging” after dislodging a moth that flew into the Mark 2 computer system, Grace Hopper also served in the Navy for more than 40 years, earning the rank of Rear Admiral.


Talk about living an accomplished life.

But what Hopper valued more than computer science, or even the Navy, was the education of young minds.

“They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up,” she said. “They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”

Very true and very Hopper. Because not only do the values of training young talent and taking chances make tech great in the first place, but they’re also the qualities of any exceptional IT leader.

Unfortunately we all can’t be Grace Hopper herself, but we can at least aspire to what she embodied as an influencer and as a leader.

So let’s take a moment, especially since it’s Women’s History Month, and take a look at some of Hopper’s most memorable quotes so you can learn from Amazing Grace herself.

“You don’t manage people, you manage things. You lead people.”

By far my most favorite Grace Hopper quote, I think this is as a good reminder that all IT leaders need from time to time.

As a leader, it’s easy to become locked into your position. Becoming stuck in the process and progress of projects can make you forget the subtleties of management, including that human element that sets leaders apart from managers.

While we can agree that sometimes tech has a life of it’s own, we’re still largely in control of these technologies. They follow our commands. But people aren’t the same way and we can’t forget that, even in a tight deadline or time crunch.

This is where emotional intelligence comes in.

Each individual has their own source code, their own set of instructions that shapes the way they operate and function. As a leader, you have to be able to understand each of your team members’ individual codes, which may be written in a variety of languages.

See where I’m going with this?

Because having emotional intelligence, or soft skills, is beneficial for a number of reasons, one of which is that your team members will feel more valued and appreciated because you’ve honed your abilities to “to read coworkers’ emotional states… [and detect] when co-workers may be frustrated, busy, confused[,] or embarrassed.” It proves that you’re paying attention and that you see your team members as people, not just workers.

According to a study in Leadership 2.0, Rich Hein summarizes, “people with average IQs [outperform] those with the highest IQs a stunning 70% of the time. This fact illustrates how the smartest person in the room isn’t necessarily the best person to lead and manage your development teams or your IT department….[T]hose with a higher emotional intelligence will deliver better results in areas like team leadership, influencing people, organizational awareness, self-confidence and overall leadership.”

If you aren’t sure whether or not your emotional intelligence or EQ needs work, Hein proposes for you to ask yourself these four questions:

1. Do you find yourself on the defense more than not?

2. Are you indifferent or disinterested in what coworkers or subordinates think of you or what interests them?

3. Do you accept accountability or do you regularly push blame off onto others?

4. Do you have difficulties empathizing with your employees or coworkers?

If you responded yes to any of these questions, you might have a few things to work on. And if you do, this list of TED Talks is a good place to start.

“I’ve always been more interested in the future than in the past.”

We live in an era of nostalgia. We look back lightly on the past, love to torture ourselves with the hindsight of what we could’ve done/should’ve done, not to mention talk of how things were simpler back then (even though they probably weren’t).

As an IT professional, having reverence for the past, especially the technological past, is great, especially when you look at how far we’ve come. Today, technological change happens overnight. It’s pretty humbling to think about.

But what’s interesting about the future is that it hasn’t yet happened. It has the potential to change.

So what does this mean for you as an IT leader?

As a leader you’re constantly looking for new talent or grooming your team members to the potential you saw in them during the interview.

And that’s the key here: Potential.

“The fundamental idea that we need to pay attention to potential, is what really resonated with me…,” Linda Hill told the Harvard Business Review in an interview with Claudio Fernández-Aráoz. “Because we all know that no matter what we know now, it’s not to be good enough for the future, because we live in a very dynamic world.”

This potential, whether tapped or untapped, is the key to rising above new challenges. It not only shows that a candidate has room to develop and grow, but that they have something to offer beyond the job requirements. It means that as their role evolves and changes, they will as well, an essential skill for navigating the ever-changing tech industry.

“Leadership is a two-way street, loyalty up and loyalty down. Respect for one’s superiors; care for one’s crew.”

While leadership on your part is important, mutual respect is essential for a successful team. As a leader, ensuring that you take the time to recognize each of your team members’ achievements and listen rather than speak can do wonders both for your leadership and team morale. They will they feel valued and encouraged to continue to do great, meaningful work.

On a similar note, team members must also show respect for their leaders, particularly since this lack of respect is a sign of distrust and can poison team morale. It leads to a toxic environment, where the focus becomes a see-saw of power rather than tackling tech projects. Productivity is hindered and the subsequent lack of leadership results in chaos.

So as “Amazing Grace” said, respect must go both ways.

Still, for women, minorities, and those who intersect between the two, respect means something a little more.

You know that diversity in tech is a problem, and one that continues to pervade the space. Because here’s the thing: women used to be a growing sector of the computer industry, but now they’ve fallen at the rate of almost 25% over the past 23 years. And people of color have always faced discrimination in society, making the workplace no different than the outside word. Women of color, of course, suffer on both ends.

But what does respect and loyalty have to do with leadership?

Simple: negative team cultures often force women and minorities to leave. Sexism and racism, even if meant in jest, is detrimental. It sends the message that this behavior is tolerated or even encouraged, and demonstrates a lack of respect for these professionals. They aren’t seen for what they have to offer, essentially denying their personhood.

Tackling these forms of oppression are daunting. I understand. But while you can’t change society, you can change your workplace by “conduct[ing] internal research to identify areas of possible bias, identify key metrics for tracking the results of interventions, and…make a change that will curb the effects of these subconscious prejudices on an ongoing basis,” says Joan C. Williams, professor at the University of California, Hastings.

To address this, you have to determine the specific problems within your business and address them head on. Determine what unconscious biases pervade your organization and craft concrete solutions for intervention and easy implementation. However you choose to do it, realize that it’s an issue that needs to be addressed on a daily basis. Take a zero-tolerance stance and stand up for employees that may be suffering in silence from everyday, subtle discrimination.

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

Keeping up with the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of technology is essential to staying relevant and doing your job well.

You have to adapt to change, even if you still want to cling to your old ways.

The resistance is understandable. These ways are familiar, comfortable, and you know how to approach those type of problems with tried and true solutions.

But that’s not what leads to innovation and that’s not what makes a great leader.

Think of it this way: when you start working out, when you really commit yourself to walking into that gym everyday, it’s hard. You’re clothes are soaked with sweat, you’re trying to chug a needed gulp of water during some heavy breathing, and your muscles feel like jelly. Walking the stairs is a nightmare.

But after a while, your body gets used to the stress and you no longer find your workouts challenging. You settle into a comfortable pattern. You don’t challenge yourself and your workouts are no longer effective. There’s no point and no further results. You have plateaued.

So what’s the benefit of challenging yourself?

Not only does challenging yourself lead to improvement and success (or failure, which you can still learn from), but it also teaches your team members the same. You must lead by example, which can be challenging at times, but that’s what separates a manager from a leader.

Plus, you can’t expect to be innovative or productive without feeling a bit of stress. It propels you into action and forces you to tackle your problems. But be sure it also doesn’t overwhelm you. That can be equally detrimental and make even the simplest of tasks an insurmountable obstacle.

So channel your stress into concrete action and just do it.

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

Okay. Let’s be clear here. I’m not advocating anything illegal.

But what I think Hopper is really speaking to is pushing forward with tasks that need to be done.

As an IT professional, you’ve probably encountered a handful of times (or more) when another non-tech professional or executive doesn’t understand why certain projects take more time or why a solution they propose wouldn’t work or be feasible.

This is where you have to put your techie foot down and do what’s best for your company.

As Paul Glen of Computerworld puts it, “IT is the doctor” and shouldn’t function as first responders to a crisis. They should be consulted for their expertise on best approaches or how to effectively solve problems. (And if they aren’t already, IT managers also need to be included in meetings that intersect with business objectives to give a dose of reality, especially when it comes to project deadlines.)

When IT settles into a responder roles, “we not only miss the opportunity to serve our constituents well, but we also transform our self-image,” he says. “Instead of thinking of ourselves as competent, caring experts to be consulted the way a patient would consult a doctor, we imagine ourselves being involved in retail transactions with customers.”

Sometimes, you have to defy what your superiors say to get a job done well and to get it done fast. Your boss should forgive you, especially if you’re acting in the best interest of your company.


Have any favorite Grace quotes of your own you’d like to share? What has Grace Hopper’s influence meant to you? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to “[s]ail out to sea and do new things.”

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