What I have learned throughout a career in I.T.

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What kind of I.T. person are you? Sometimes where you work defines a lot of the characteristics of what you do in your job. Sometimes the type of person you are decides those factors for you, as well. Today I’m going to walk down memory lane throughout my career, and in this essay-length blog post, I’ll highlight a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.

If you’re good at what you do, you might not get noticed.

It takes having certain experiences to learn what kind of I.T. person you really want to be. Eventually, if you move up through the ranks, you get to have more choice in the matter. But it’s important to know who you are and what kind of drive you have to make those decisions in order to ensure you aren’t miserable while climbing that corporate ladder.

One of my earliest jobs in the tech industry was a low level help desk job. I had no problem being the low man on the totem poll, but the person I worked for was the kind of person who felt the need to justify their existence to the rest of the office every single day.

I was made to crawl around under desks, interrupting employees from their jobs, at every given opportunity. Senseless workstation upgrades without employees requesting them were common place. Personally, I found my interrupting of the staff counterintuitive to what I thought I.T. was meant to be, and I thought many of the superficial upgrades were a waste of company resources. This job taught me the first kind of I.T. person that I did not want to be, and that was one who seeks attention and glory from everyone they work with.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that Information Technology is a department that should exist in nearly every profession. Practically every job has a computer in the work place. Even the guy who changes my tires, as blue collar as they come, and he hates technology with a passion… he still orders his tires online and prints sales receipts for customers from his computer. He does not have an I.T. department, but he does rely on technology to some extent. I.T. is ever-present, and while it can be taken for granted, I don’t feel that it always is.

It’s true that many I.T. departments have seen shrinking budgets, which has lead to many cutting corners only for it to be a major issue when struck by ransomware, but for the most part, I’m a firm believer that I.T. should be in the background. We grease the wheels so that the rest of the company can get their jobs done and make money for the company. We should be out of the way whenever possible. I understand that this department is usually considered a negative, part of the “cost of doing business.” The argument of “being seen” by getting in people’s way and crawling under desks and interrupting them does make some sense. We need to make sure that, in a “cost / benefit analysis” our benefits can be seen. But your Director should be on your side when talking to the higher-ups, and when asked questions like “what am I even paying you for?” I like to answer: “is everything working the way it’s supposed to? Then you’re welcome.” You don’t take your car to the mechanic when it’s working fine, but you don’t want to wait a week when you have a problem. That’s why you have in-house I.T..

I feel strongly that the fact that I did not have to force you to stop what you were doing and crawl under your desk should be considered a good thing, and it’s all about making sure they understand that.

Micro-management is a waste of time.

Why would you hire someone if you did not trust them to do the job you hired them to do?

I turned down a job offer, once, because of how quickly I was able to spot micro-management tendencies of the I.T. Director. I noticed them in the director, and in the subordinate who was permitted to be a part of the interview process. It seemed clear to me that the help desk staffer was apathetic, and did not mind that kind of close hand over him. But he was young, and also seemed absolutely defeated in the position he was in. He was there to collect a pay check. Our meeting was too brief to tell whether or not he had what it took to shine on his own, but it was more than enough time to see that he expected to be shadowed on every task that he was assigned.

What’s the point? Why are two people doing what one person should be doing? And why is the Manager okay with this? The manager clearly had control or trust issues of some kind, and had the feeling that they were the best person at the job and nobody else could ever know what they know. The sad truth is, we’re all replaceable. But this department head seemed to be ensuring the longevity of his position within the company by keeping his subordinates down.

His behavior and language in my interview struck me as strange. He structured many things in ways that would force you to rely on him for the answers. All roads lead back to this one person. It made me uncomfortable, and it’s important to remember in a job interview that you are interviewing the employer just as much as they are interviewing you for the position. I knew that I appreciated my independence, and that I enjoyed being able to impress employers by showcasing my own skills, not just proving that I can only do as I’m told. That is how I knew I would not be a great fit for that job.

You will encounter three types of “end users.” Show them respect.

In my years making this career work for me, I’ve learned that there are three main types of “end users.” The goal is to never “talk down” to any of them. Even though I sarcastically said “you’re welcome,” a few paragraphs above — you never want to have the tone of “Nick Burns, your company’s computer guy” when you say it.

Just because you may know more than somebody about this particular subject in no way makes you better than them. Because, given another subject matter, they can likely decimate your knowledge in their arena. You are co-workers. You are part of the same team, you’re here to help them get their job done, so that they can earn the company the money that goes in to your pay check.

When it comes to providing help to people, I’ve come across three main types of people: the first type is the person who wants to know every detail of what you’re doing. They aren’t a threat to your job, they just want to learn. Maybe they can save you time in the future by handling this issue themselves. What’s wrong with teaching them? If they don’t remember, they can always call again. Generally, these people are honestly impressed by your knowledge, and just want to know a little bit about what you know.

The second group are people who just want a generalized breakdown. They don’t care about the technical stuff, but they might want to know “why this keeps happening.” They aren’t looking for things to be “dumbed down,” but they want a relatable example. For instance, even when it’s something very basic, like “why do I have to reboot my computer?” I like to simply tell them “your computer isn’t great at cleaning up after itself, and a good restart really just cleans things out and gives it a clean slate to start over with, like cleaning up a cluttered desk.” It makes sense, and they’re happy to move on.

Third, are the people who simply love to say “I don’t care, just fix it.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. These people could often be your company’s top earners. They’re too busy to concern themselves with what you’re doing. But don’t confuse that for them being condescending to you as a person. If you work in an architectural firm and they just want to get back to what they are doing, maybe it’s because they’ve got a lot of projects on their plate. But you don’t spend your days asking them to make you a blue print and recommend the best materials for finishing your basement. They have their role, you have yours. Get the job done quickly and efficiently and everyone will be happy.

Pressure is not only a good motivator, but can be a great teacher.

Working for a Managed Services Provider (MSP) was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. Dozens, even hundreds of clients could call us at any time, for any problem. Being specifically phone support meant I might have to walk someone through clearing a paper jam on their printer, sight-unseen, or I might have to help them identify which machine in their server rack is the one that needs rebooted. We might have one client running a Cisco ASA series firewall, and two calls later I’m troubleshooting a SonicWall. You never knew what to expect.

To me, that was thrilling, and allowed me to learn about all of these different brands and models. We weren’t the kind of shop that sold one solution to all of our clients, which meant we needed to be ready to work on so many different kinds of hardware and software solutions.

I learned so, so, so much at that job. Very little down time! As I said, it was stressful, it’s not for everyone, but when a company’s primary SQL Database is locked up and nobody can get any work done, or all of their outbound mail is being blocked and they have a deadline to secure a multi-million dollar contract, the pressure cooker teaches you to think on your feet and rely on your instincts. Remember some of the basics of what you have learned and apply those to more complicated solutions.

Comfortability is the enemy of preparedness.

I made it. After a few years of job hopping, I became the sole Information Technology person at a small business. I got the fancy title of Director, even though I was not “directing” anyone. But it was time to put everything I had learned and done to work at once.

I made sure that I wasn’t crawling under people’s desks all of the time. I adjusted my own hours so that I could work some evenings and weekends when upgrades were necessary, but I could sacrifice my own time to make sure the business ran smoothly. I paid attention to the budget, upgraded computers when it made sense, repaired them when necessary, and always made the effort to not talk down to my co-workers. I even applied creative solutions that would lead to cost saving measures.

After the stress of working at the MSP, this was a welcome relief. But then came the comfortability of working in a small office. We had this firewall, and that server, all of our clients are configured just so. I never had to learn another way of doing things again. This, along with being stretched too thin, is another reason that companies are falling victim to ransomware. Not only that, but it leads to a dulling of the skills.

A good programmer doesn’t just learn a single language and call it a day (aside: I make no claims to being a programmer, that is not my role).. Just because the place I work currently has a Juniper doesn’t mean it always will. It also doesn’t mean I will always work there. I did not go to school and learn the things I need to know about my profession. In fact, for those of you who don’t know me, I never even went to school for technology. My Bachelor’s Degree is in English! My passion for technology is what has carried me forward all of these years. My desire to tinker and experiment and learn new things, whether on the job or at home.

Working in a small office where nothing changes can make you complacent. It’s a very serious danger. You may think you’ve found the place you’re going to retire from and gotten comfortable. But if it’s a small business and the owner of the company is older than you, what happens when he retires? Who says the company still exists? And if it does, who says the new boss likes you enough to keep you around?

Every day I’m reading articles. Every day I’m listening to podcasts. Every day I’m watching videos. Download trial software, read white papers, create a virtual machine and connect it to an Amazon Web Services Bucket or a Microsoft Azure Data Lake.

I’m always learning. True, maybe it isn’t in the same detail as before, but technology doesn’t rest. It’s always changing and evolving. You have to keep up with it, or it will pass you by. Feel free to break things up with a comedy podcast, or real life crime dramas, or whatever else you’re in to… but don’t forget to get back to work. Because, if you’re like me, you aren’t doing this as a job. You’re doing this because you enjoy it. You’re just lucky enough to have been able to turn it in to a career.