Five keys to help software engineers and IT departments work together

The Worthwhile team was recently in a client meeting in which both the IT and software engineering were represented, and the difference in the mindset between the two departments was striking.

Software engineers focused on things like:
* Functionality
* User experience
* Efficiency
* Integrations
* Export options

IT leaders focused on things like:
* Data security
* User permissions
* Permitted browser
* Server access

Of course, all of these things are important. But each role approached these important things from a completely different perspective.

I don’t want to make too much of this snapshot, but it stuck out because it encapsulated the mindset that we often see from people who fill these roles in the companies we work with.

That happens so often because software engineers and IT leaders are charged with very different duties.

Software engineers work to advance the company—build new products, enhance existing ones, and empower improvements in productivity, efficiency, and profit.

IT departments work to protection—protecting the network from outside threats, keeping things running, and enforcing company policies about compliance, security, and even online behavior.

Think of it as a football team. Software engineers play offense, trying to gain yardage and add points to the scoreboard. IT professionals play defense, keeping enemies away and ensuring the company can win.

Both things are important. You can’t win without either. They’re just very different mindsets.

Again, this is generalization, but it’s a helpful lens to see organizations through.

Since these mindsets are so different, it’s imperative for software engineers (and those who charge them with building or improving software) and IT professionals (and those who supervise them) learn to communicate well and work together.

Here are five ways to do that:

Respect the process 

Software engineers are going to explore ideas. They’re going to think about all of the things they could build. Others in the business—starting with IT, but not ending there—need to give room for this creative process.

On the other hand, IT departments are going to highlight constraints. They’re going to focus on why ideas won’t work, or why certain pieces of software should be built or integrated or released to groups of users. This isn’t bad—it’s the job of those who enforce organizational constraints.

Each side needs to respect the process of the other. Software engineers need to acknowledge constraints and find creative ways around them. IT departments need to give room for developers to think through a lot of ideas so they can choose the best one.

Entertain possibilities

As you respect the process, you need to entertain possibilities even when if won’t work in their current form. Software engineers need to listen to the policies IT has in place and begin imagining systems that work within that context. IT leaders need to listen to software ideas and think of ways to include them in the tech stack, even if they don’t seem to fit at first glance.

By entertaining these ideas, you give your colleagues a runway to figure out how to make their idea work in the real world. But if you shut down or criticize ideas before they’re fully baked, you will stymie the creative process and prevent others from figuring out how to make a possibility work. When it comes to ideas, the real world should wait long enough for ideas to find their ways in.

Creative types like artists have brainstorming rules for just this reason. They begin with a blue-sky time of open ideas where no criticism of any kind is allowed. The reason for this is that you need to come up with both good and bad ideas to find the best idea. If you start poking holes in ideas too early, you will miss out on some of the best ideas. So entertain possibilities as possibilities, before you start filtering out ideas that won’t work for one reason or another.

Lose the all-or-nothing perspective

Once the ideas are on the table, it’s time to figure out what parts of the ideas can help your business thrive.

Notice that I said part. You will likely have to put aside some parts of your proposed software, or of your existing tech stack, or even of your policies, to actually advance your business. If you draw a hard line about what you will or won’t do, you won’t get anything done. That’s fine if you want to keep the status quo—but if you want to find sources of ROI, you will need to compromise.

Don’t pile on

Once IT and software developers are on the same page about what needs to be done, it’s time to consider what you’re actually going to implement. And this is where the rubber meets the road.

Software engineers need to work with the C-level and project managers to come up with a scope of work that fits a business case and the timeline and budget it requires. They must be willing to say no to many of the features and functionality that they could build so they can create the code that actually needs to be built.

IT leaders need to understand the business case and find ways to make it work in the tech stack. They need to make sure not to pile on onerous requirements that fail to protect the business’s overall security needs or to empower the business case for the project.

In other words, don’t pile on. Get everyone on the same page about scope and then zealously protect that scope so your business can reap the benefits of the business case as soon as is feasible.

Stay positive

With all this talk of compromise and scope management, you might be sweating a little. That’s only natural. But this is all part of the process of successfully building and deploying software that will create ROI for your business.

So look at the tension you’re feeling as a natural part of the process. Consider the tensions your colleagues in other departments face on a regular basis, and find ways to support them. And when you face an obstacle (which will undoubtedly happen from time to time) embrace a solutions-centered mindset together.


These guidelines aren’t just for IT professionals and software engineers—they’re the hallmarks of a healthy company culture. But they’re important to remember when two sides have duties that can easily place them at loggerheads.

When you start to feel tension between the two camps start to rise, remember these five keys, and realign to make sure that everyone is working together to win the game.

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