The Art of War and What IT Professionals Can Learn from It

by Rick Conlee (rick.conlee@gmail.com)

Having been in the IT community and its seemingly infinite capacities for the better part of 12 years, I can say that I have seen my share of triumphs and disasters.

I run a small IT management company in Albany, New York - and I have between two and three subcontractors working for me at any one point in time.  Our footprint compared to the larger Managed Service Providers (MSP) and Value-Added Resellers (VAR) in our area is comparatively small.  When we sign on a new customer, they always ask how we are still around - referring to the large shadow cast by our competition.

When I was a student in college, one of my favorite books that has shaped who I am today both personally and professionally was (and still is) The Art of War by Sun Tzu.  There are hundreds of translations and variations of this book, but the core text written by Sun Tzu himself back in 500 B.C. is very short and simple to digest.  It is divided up into 13 chapters detailing the key aspects of warfare and how one might employ tactics and strategy.

The author fought in the Wu-Chu war back sometime around 500 B.C. and was given a small fighting force of around 30,000 to 40,000.  His opponent, Nang Wa, was able to field forces of one million or more and had a huge manpower and financial advantage.  Think of Nang Wa as your largest competing MSP or VAR.  They are big, well-funded machines that could seemingly curb stomp you in one business quarter.

Sun Tzu won that war and, in doing so, he demonstrated a principle that he documented in his writing, and was studied by many famous battlefield commanders.  That principle was his emphasis on light forces being able to maneuver.

In the 20th century, that principle was put into play by people like B. H. Liddell Hart, Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel, George Patton, and Norman Schwarzkopf.  Liddell Hart wrote a study on the usage of mobile armored forces being able to maneuver rapidly against larger forces.  He wasn't taken seriously in Great Britain, but two people who did take him seriously during the 1930s between World War One and World War Two were Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel.  Blitzkrieg as we know it was born during that time.  When the Germans took on the stronger, well equipped Polish and French forces, the world stood in absolute shock while the sound of squeaking tank tracks and the spine chilling air horns fitted to Stuka dive bombers screamed out of the sky on targets all over Europe.  It must have been a horrifying experience.

Since then, there has been an emphasis on teaching maneuver warfare at military academies all over the world.  Innovative ideas, rapid decisive movement, and cutting-edge technology win battles and wars.  But what about small IT companies?  How can they benefit from the teachings of Sun Tzu's The Art of War?

The passages in the book have a very general appearance and can be seamlessly applied to just about anything.  One example comes from the "Tactical Dispositions" chapter in the D. E. Tarver version: "What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels at winning with ease."

Notice how it is short and sweet, but yet so powerful and wise in its delivery.  The slant from that passage can be applied universally throughout your life and dealings.  In the case of being an IT pro, that passage can mean many things, but where you can apply that wisdom with great success is being able to take a disastrous situation (the infamous BSoD on a desktop/laptop) and turn it around, all the while making it look like a cake walk.  You probably do that already on a day today basis.  In doing so, you just became a god to your customer/user/brother-in-law and they will praise your skills to their associates, thus generating some great word-of-mouth and, in many cases, more income.

The world of IT is much like war.  You spend time fighting problems, clients' poor technology decisions, and other firms trying to invade your turf.  By being a smaller IT shop, you can be more dynamic.  Your business decisions are put against real time where bigger firms can sometimes have leadership teams that will go back-and-forth on critical business decisions, sometimes for days on end.  Sun Tzu says: "The good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision."  If a business decision takes more than a day, someone else has taken the initiative so, as in the previous passage, you must be deliberate and timely in your decision making process, and rapid in execution.

Another great passage worth including is: "Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest."  Equipping yourself with tools like VNC, Spiceworks, or Splunk can give you rapid easy-to-deploy access to a client with the ability to collect intelligence on a remote system and will allow you to resolve problems quicker than having to go on site, driving down service delivery and resolution, therefore leaving more time in your IT shop to focus on the core business, and expanding your profit margin.  Mobility in service delivery is a must and cannot be overemphasized.

In conclusion, if you don't already own a copy of The Art of War, I highly recommend you get it (there are free versions of just the core text in EPUB and MOBI formats, as well as online at classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html).

In my humble opinion, if you are starting an IT business, this book is a must read.