Before I worked in the IT industry, I co-owned and managed a coin-operated video game arcade. When I tell people about that part of my job history, they inevitably ask me the same question. “Did you get to play video games all day?”
The answer is no, I did not get to play video games all day. In fact, I barely played them at all.
Most of my days were spent cleaning, dispensing change, restocking the candy and prize displays, more cleaning, more dispensing of change, repairing faulty games, clearing all manner of objects out of the coin slots, and more cleaning. I also had to do the bookkeeping, banking, payroll and marketing while dealing with any other problems that came up on any given day.
Short story: while the temptation to ‘just play games’ was always there, there were always other, more important, things to be done first.
What does this have to do with working in IT?
Well, I’ve had many aspiring young IT pros tell me that what lured them to the industry was the thought that they’d get to play with computers all day. As the ‘family tech expert,’ they were always tinkering with PC hardware, fixing their parents’ computer or building gaming rigs for their cousins. All fun stuff for them. Fun stuff they figured they’d get paid to do if only they worked in IT.
WHAT WORKING IN THE IT INDUSTRY ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE
Despite the fact that I spent my early years in the IT industry working in help desk and desktop support – an area of the industry where you’d most expect to be spending your days tinkering (playing) with computers – I barely ever touched an actual computer (other than my own) in all that time.
We never got to build computers, or fix broken ones. The vendors did that for us. Instead, we spent our days dealing with other matters: creating accounts, resetting passwords, clearing jammed printers, reinstalling software, resetting more passwords, helping Bob get the margins in his Word document just right, finding Jane’s files that had been accidentally moved somewhere, and resetting some more passwords. Boring grunt work.
Why did we do all of that boring grunt work? Because that’s what the business needed us to do. We didn’t get to tinker with gadgets and deploy servers because we were curious about how they worked. We were there to help the employees of the business do their jobs.
Every now and then something that helped the employees of the business do their jobs was also something new and interesting we could derive personal enjoyment from. But those instances were the exception, not the rule.
I say this not to discourage you from working in the industry. I say it because, in order to extract what you need from the industry (i.e. find a role within the industry that gives you something close to your perfect day), you need to understand how it works, and what the motivations are of the people you’re working for.
Every business you will ever work for uses your job function, either directly or indirectly, to make money. That is to say, you’re either:
- Producing revenue directly from your efforts, or
- Your efforts support those people in the business who do produce revenue.
Additionally, everyone in the business you’re working for is looking for ways to achieve their personal objectives. Often times, they have more objectives than they can reasonably expect to achieve in a week, month, or year. In a 2016 blog post, Jeffrey Snover, a Technical Fellow at Microsoft and the creator of PowerShell, wrote:
The most important thing to understand when dealing with people from Microsoft is this: We all have ten jobs and our only true job is to figure out which nine we can fail at and not get fired.
Now, Microsoft is an extreme case. But in most businesses, people will still be juggling three to four things and deciding which one they can let fail. If you’ve ever gone to your boss with a ‘great idea’ and been shot down, it’s probably not because your idea is dumb. It’s more likely your idea doesn’t move your boss closer to any of the priorities they’re focusing on right now. (If your idea does do this, and they still say no, you’re probably not making a clear enough case for it.)
Throughout your long IT career, most of your employers will view your job as a necessary part of their business goal, nothing more. They may tell you what those goals are in the broad sense, but the finer details will seldom be shared. This means there will be times you find yourself missing key information about why a request has been denied or a decision has been made.
Why did the business announce millions of dollars in profits, but reject your request for $10,000 to replace an aging server? It could be as simple as that ten grand already being allocated elsewhere in next year’s budget. Spending that ten grand on a server harms the other business goal that lost that money from its budget. Sure, in an emergency they’ll come up with the cash. But that’s a different situation.
In short, things don’t always make sense when you don’t have the full story. It’s helpful to keep that in mind.
This extends to customers as well, regardless of whether the customer is another company you’re selling products and services to, or the internal users you support. Your customers view IT as a means to an end, and that end is whatever their job task happens to be at that time.
If their job is entering numbers into an Excel spreadsheet for a monthly report, then a dodgy old keyboard full of sandwich crumbs is as disruptive to their job as a crashed database is to someone else’s job. As much as you would love to be writing code in a new language, building scalable cloud infrastructure, or fighting off foreign hackers, there are times when the proverbial crumbs in the keyboard will be what you need to work on instead. The customer only cares about finishing their spreadsheet.
At this point you might be thinking that there’s no fun to be had in IT. You might be contemplating a career in fence painting instead. You’re pretty certain no one is going to call you at 3am with a fence painting emergency that a $15m sales deal is hinging on. Plus you get a day off whenever it rains.
While the above might be true, it’s also true that no job is going to be fun to go to every single day.
There is plenty of enjoyment to be had in the IT industry. Roles where you get to work on the cutting edge of technology, doing meaningful and fulfilling work, absolutely exist. And they solve real business problems. But you’ll need to work hard for them. They won’t be served up to you on a plate just because you showed up in the industry and expected great things to happen.
It’s also important to note, at this point, that satisfaction doesn’t always need to come directly from the day-to- day work you’re doing. Even if a job isn’t fun to do, it can be very satisfying and rewarding if you feel connected to a higher purpose outside of yourself. As an example, spreadsheets and printers aren’t fun for me. But knowing my work helps people grow their small businesses, or keeps their pension payments arriving on time, or ensures the right spare parts are available to keep airplanes maintained … those things make showing up every day a lot more meaningful to me.
If you can create an environment for yourself where your happiness in the industry doesn’t rely solely on what you’re working on at any given time, this will stand you in good stead for those times in your career when the ideal job isn’t available, and you have to take another role for a period of time.
For now, just remember – you are here to serve the business. If you can’t do that, they’ll find someone else who can.
The Employee Mindset
Your career may open up future opportunities for management, consulting, or even self-employment. But while you’re working as an employee, it’s helpful to adopt mindsets that will help you deal with decisions and attitudes that are outside of your control:
- Get to know your employer’s or customer’s business in as much detail as possible. This will help you understand the business needs that are driving their priorities.
- Accept that your view of things may not encompass the bigger picture.
- Get used to asking this question: “Can you help me understand how this decision was made?” People can get defensive if you challenge their decisions, but are usually happy to explain them to anyone who seems interested.
- While creativity and going ‘above and beyond’ are desirable qualities in employees, if you’re not consistently performing your core duties at a high level, your employer will not be pleased. Maintain a solid foundation of performance and build on that.
CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT
In my first IT job I worked on a help desk. Because we supported people interstate, my phone was specially coded to make long distance calls. I was not able to make international calls, however, because they were expensive. A single phone call could easily cost hundreds of dollars.
On the same day I am writing this chapter, I had a three- way video conference call from my home in Australia with two other people in Chicago and Salt Lake City. We could all see and hear each other in high definition, and share our screens with each other when we needed to show something on our computers. We spoke for nearly an hour. The entire call cost me nothing, and cost them a few dollars a month for the service they use.
Technology moves fast. The technology you work with at the beginning of your career may not exist by the time you finish your career. This is both a good and bad thing for IT professionals.
If you ask an IT professional what they like about their job, they’ll often tell you they enjoy the constant exposure to new technology and the excitement of learning new things every day.
But if you listen to two IT professionals talking to each other about their jobs, you’ll often hear them complain about how the new thing is not as good as the old thing. They’ll reminisce about the old thing and all the ways that it was good. They’ll say if it were up to them they’d have chosen a different new thing to replace the old thing, not the one they ended up with.
Why do those two different conversations take place? The reasons are fairly simple. Despite the impression that technology workers are somehow different to other people, we’re still human. Like everyone else, when we find something that we understand and are good at doing, we get comfortable. Change disrupts that comfort by introducing new things that we don’t understand yet. So we go back to being uncomfortable again.
Some people enjoy that process. They thrive on the discomfort of not understanding new technology. Seeking knowledge is exciting for them. At different times in your career you’ll enjoy that feeling too. Many people switch between being someone who enjoys comfort, and someone who enjoys discomfort, depending on the situation.
How do we deal with constant and, at times unwelcome, change? Do we need to become expert industry analysts, able to predict which emerging trends will break through and achieve widespread adoption?
No, not at all. For one thing, nobody can accurately predict where the IT industry will go 100% of the time. But more importantly, it’s exhausting to try. Your energy is better spent dealing with the challenges that are in your path today.
I, personally, work to a simple mantra: Expect nothing, and accept everything.
NEW TECHNOLOGY, OLD TECHNOLOGY
When I entered the industry, a business ran on a collection of servers in a room. That room was usually within sight of the IT team whose job it was to keep the servers running. My desk was about ten paces from the server room door at the first customer site I worked on. Each server took up space on a bench or in a rack. And the server team, the ones who knew the hardware intimately, were always busy. When they weren’t installing new servers, they were fixing broken ones, or removing old ones. There was always something for them to do.
One day, a new technology called virtualization came along. With virtualization, we could run multiple ‘virtual machines’ (VMs) on one powerful server, instead of running lots of less powerful servers. At first, virtualization was slow and cumbersome to use. But it got better, and virtualization became the first choice of customers looking for maximum efficiency and return on investment (ROI).
Suddenly, the server team had fewer servers to deal with. With fewer servers there was less work for them to do. Those who were willing to learn about the new virtualization technology were retrained into new roles. Those who were not, found themselves out on the street looking for a new job that needed their skills.
Some years later, we started to hear about this new idea of cloud computing. With cloud computing, you could run your VMs in big data centers hosted by Microsoft or Amazon. This meant you didn’t need to deal with the big, powerful virtualization hosts yourself. Again, at first it was slow and cumbersome to use. There were concerns about performance, security, and costs. But as the cloud matured, those concerns were largely solved, and customers began moving their servers to the cloud.
Suddenly, the virtualization team had fewer servers to manage. Maybe even none at all, if their employer went fully to the cloud. Those who were willing to learn about the new cloud services were retrained into new roles. Those who were not, found themselves out on the street.
This pattern of new technology becoming old technology exists across the entire industry. Whether you’re a server engineer, a software developer, a database analyst, or a security expert, the industry is going to keep moving along like an ocean current.
If you want to swim against the current, in the long term you’re going to find it hard to keep your career alive. Those server engineers who ignored virtualization turned out to be wrong, even if it took several years before their lack of virtualization skills really started to hurt their career.
That’s not to say you need to jump on every new trend. It’s possible to make a wrong bet and end up in the wrong place skills wise. The key is to work out where you typically sit on the technology adoption curve. Then you need to figure out the risks of moving one way or another (if at all) on that curve.
THE TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION CURVE
Technology moves through a predictable adoption life cycle. Where you stand on that life cycle influences your career opportunities and your job security. It also influences your happiness. If you have a desire to work with the latest products, then you’ll be unhappy working at a company that is a late adopter of new technology. If you hate change, you won’t enjoy working at the cutting edge.
Adoption of new technologies falls into these categories:
- Early adopters
- Early majority
- Late majority
The categories were described by Everett M. Rogers, an assistant professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, in his 1962 publication titled Diffusion of Innovations.
Innovators go first, and take on a lot of risk in the process. But they get the highest reward for that risk. Many pioneers and thought leaders are playing in this space. In return for their risk they gain access to opportunities for high-priced consulting and product management roles.
Early adopters go second. These tend to be community leaders who are able to translate the work of innovators into practical applications. Many trainers and authors operate in this space because being the first to get a book or training course to market provides the best return. Early adopters can make a name for themselves by being first. This leads to a consistent stream of employment, speaking and consulting opportunities. It can also mean a disrupted lifestyle (e.g. a lot of travel), and high churn rate as they move from job to job chasing the newest technologies.
The early majority show up when a technology has proven that it is viable for widespread adoption. They are able to learn from the teachings of early adopters, and apply those teachings to their own situations. A lot of standards and best practices are cemented during this phase. They tend to have stable job prospects and the ability to move on to new roles when they want to.
The late majority adopt technologies that are mature and stabilized. The late majority is willing to forgo the latest features and benefits in return for the lower perception of risk. The reality may be that they miss out on the best performance, security, and value on offer. They are most at risk of losing jobs to outsourcing and offshoring, due to the lower perceived value of their skills.
Laggards come last. Laggards come in many forms, and it’s not always a bad thing to operate in this space. In my hometown, there was a time when the last few Novell GroupWise admins could command very high contract rates. There were only a few customers in town, and the supply/demand ratio favored the experts. But these opportunities don’t last forever. Laggards run the risk of their skills falling out of date and having no market value at all.
Throughout your career you can move through different parts of the technology life cycle. It will depend on your geographic area, your personal circumstances (e.g. health, age, family), and your natural abilities. A person close to retirement age might be quite happy to run out their final years as a laggard. A younger person with decades of work ahead of them should be trying to move towards the front half of the cycle.
That doesn’t mean everyone should strive to be an innovator. One person will enjoy staying up all night, testing and breaking things in order to work out groundbreaking uses for technology. Another person will prefer to do their 9-5, read books in the evening, and go fishing on weekends. Neither is right or wrong. As long as you’re happy and you understand how your personal lifestyle integrates with your work, you can have a successful career.
Also keep in mind that when you’re hearing the most marketing noise about something, that product is in the early adopter to early majority phase. It’s worth remembering that where the most marketing is happening doesn’t always reflect the most in-demand jobs for your market. Focus on what makes you happy and employable in your area, not the Next Big Thing that is years away from reaching your market.
CHAPTER 1 RECAP
- Working in the IT industry may not involve getting to ‘play with computers’ all day, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had.
- If you understand how business works, and where your role sits in the ecosystem of the business you are working for, you will experience less frustration with decisions you may not understand.
- Sometimes, you might need to find your fun outside of work hours in order to ride out a job that you need badly, but doesn’t stimulate you.
- Change is a part of every industry, not just the IT industry. Accepting change as a constant and being able to embrace change with a good attitude will make you a desirable employee.
- Figuring out where you sit on the technology adoption curve will help you make good decisions about the right employer for you. (Something I’ll touch on more in the next chapter).
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