There’s no escaping it. IT is a people business. Technology does not exist for the sake of technology. Your work as an IT professional supports businesses that are made up of people. And it’s true what they say about people; no two are exactly alike.
To survive in IT, your ability to understand a broad range of people and personalities will be as important, if not more important, than your ability to understand technology. To understand people the most important skill for you to have is empathy.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.
In other words, it’s your ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see things from their perspective.
Empathy is what will allow you to understand what a person expects, wants, and needs from a situation. Whether you’re fixing a broken printer, designing a new system, or making a sales proposal, it is empathy that will lead you to the outcome that the other person wants.
People are people, and they deserve to be treated as people. Your customer isn’t a problem. Your boss isn’t an asshole. Your co-worker isn’t annoying. They are all people who have needs, just like you.
DEALING WITH MANAGERS (ESPECIALLY THE BAD ONES)
I’ve worked for some great managers in my career, people who taught me incredible business and life lessons. But I’ve also stuck it out with some less than ideal bosses because I liked the job I had.
Experience has taught me that even a bad boss can be fine to work for, if you apply your skill of empathy. Remember: empathy allows you to understand what a person expects, wants, and needs from a situation.
If your boss expects you at your desk by 8:30am and that is something you’re willing to comply with, then why not just do it? Yes, we’d all prefer flexible hours and a boss who measures our performance on results instead of arrival time. But if the worst thing about your job is your boss wants you to be at your desk between certain hours, is that the hill you want to die on?
Maybe it is, and more power to you. Fight the good fight and show your boss that your performance has nothing to do with arbitrary desk hours. Or quit and find something more to your liking. But don’t do it out of frustration and a lack of understanding of what your boss really wants. Your boss just expects you at your desk at 8:30am because it makes them feel that their team respects them, and they like knowing their team is on deck and dealing with the important work of the day by that time. If you can empathize with that, the insistence on arriving on time becomes far less annoying.
The same goes for sudden, urgent requests from your boss. If they tell you to generate a report of something by the end of the day when you’re already super busy with something else, don’t say yes. But don’t say no either. Apply your skill of empathy to the situation. Here’s an example.
Boss: “I need a report of all email distribution lists that aren’t being used anymore. And I need it by the end of the day.”
You: “That’s not one of our standard reports, so I’ll need to look at how that can be done. May I ask first, what is the problem or decision that is behind this request? I want to be sure that the report I create is on target for what you need.”
Boss: “The CEO has had complaints that there are too many lists to choose from and it makes it hard for people to find the right one to send to. She wants to get rid of any we don’t use.”
You: “Okay, I understand. Like I said, that’s not a standard report, so I’ll need to look into it first. I’m working on our ticket queue right now which has some jobs due today. Should I leave those while I look into this for you, or can you wait for an answer tomorrow?”
Boss: “All right, work on those tickets first then get me the answer tomorrow and I will go back to them.”
Now, it’s important that when you make a commitment that you honour that commitment. Your manager is answering to your customers, so when you promise your manager something, you’ve effectively promised your customers.
You: “I looked into the inactive email distribution lists. We don’t have a report that answers that question, but there is some log data we could use to make a reasonable guess. It only goes back 30 days though, which is risky if we’re talking about deleting the groups. I suggest we raise a ticket to develop a script to pull info from those logs for the next 90 days. Then we can look at the report and submit change requests for approval to delete the groups that look unused.”
Do you see how empathy helps you get to that point in a conversation? To some people the request seems like an annoyance. Who really cares if a few unused distribution lists are visible in an address book? They don’t cost anything to sit there.
But that’s not what your manager sees from their perspective. Your manager:
- has been asked to solve a problem that the CEO has (people complaining)
- has committed to finding a solution to the CEO’s problem
- wants to show the CEO that their team is reliable and can be counted on to solve problems
You’ve also demonstrated to your manager that you are responsive to their needs, and are able to take a sensible approach to achieving outcomes.
You might be thinking this seems fine in an example like the above where a seemingly reasonable manager is involved. But what if you have a manager who’s constantly bombarding you with low priority distractions and unclear instructions. A manager who tends to ask for specific actions, rather than explain desired outcomes. A manager who just expects you to ‘work it out yourself’ when conflicting priorities arise. Or a manager who over-promises and commits to deadlines without any care for what is realistic.
To me those are signs of a bad manager. A manager’s role is not to say yes to everything and then pass the work to you, making it your problem to deal with. Good managers are protective of your time, help you to prioritize workloads, and align your work to real business needs.
If you’ve got a bad manager on your hands, for a job that you like and want to keep, use the following mental checklist to guide your interactions. Do not leave a conversation, or take ownership of work being passed to you, until you can answer these questions:
- Who is asking for this? Bad managers tend to have many ‘great ideas’ in their idle moments, and love to toss them at you to deal with. I call them ‘idea grenades.’ Knowing the difference between a customer/business request and a manager’s idea grenade is important.
- What is the outcome you’re looking for? Too often we’re asked to take an action, rather than achieve an outcome. Many times the action you’re asked to take will not be the right action to achieve the desired outcome.
- What business benefit does this outcome achieve, or what business problem does it solve? Many ‘great ideas’ have no actual worth to the business. It’s important to understand why you’re being asked to do something.
- What in our current workload is this more important than? Prioritizing work is crucial to avoid having the latest ‘great idea’ push aside all the other unfinished work. Your backlog of unfinished tasks will only get longer if the latest request is always treated as the most important.
- Are all the other key people aware of this? Most work doesn’t happen in isolation. You’ll need other people to play their part in achieving the desired outcome. But if other staff and teams aren’t on board with what you’re being asked to do, it can become a case of ‘your problem is not my problem’ when you try to get other people to help you.
- When does this need to be completed? Clear and realistic deadlines are important. So is flexibility. All deadlines are meaningless if work simply takes longer. If you need to push back on an arbitrary deadline, you need to do that up front and not at the last minute as you’re about to miss the target.
Dealing with bad managers can be draining because you have to spend energy to manage a manager. But, that’s still a better situation than letting burnout drain you of every scrap of enjoyment you have in your job.
It’s also worth noting there are two types of bad managers.
The first are those whose management style you struggle with, but you get along fine with them as people.
The second are the ones who are just not nice people. They are the type who plot behind the scenes to gain advantage at your expense and who will throw you under the bus, blaming you for every customer problem.
What can you do if you have the second type of manager?
This is where I need to remind you that people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses. You deserve to be treated well by your manager. And if they won’t treat you well, there are better managers out there who deserve to have you on their team. Go find them.
Being an IT professional means working as part of a team. You can be the smartest, most talented technology worker in the world, but if you aren’t willing and able to work as part of a teamif you’re unmanageableyou’re not going to be successful in the long run.
There’s a good chance you’ve worked with some unmanageable people in the past. Unmanageable people tend to:
- Always think they are right. They don’t respect other people’s opinions, and respond with negativity when others express their ideas and opinions.
- Be set in their ways and demonstrate unwillingness to learn new things or try new approaches. They have reached a place of comfort and complacency, and resist any attempts to push them outside those boundaries.
- Do their own thing, regardless of what the business or the team is trying to achieve.
- Reject criticism, and rarely admit they’re wrong. There is always someone or something else to blame for their failings.
How do unmanageable people survive? I’ve observed two situations in which these people can maintain a career, and even thrive.
The first is when they operate in two modes. To their teammates they exhibit all the characteristics of an unmanageable person. But to their actual manager, they act completely different and mask their true characteristics. The manager may even think of them as a superstar, but be unaware of the toxic effect the person is having on their team.
The second is when they’re promoted as a means of removing them from a position where they are doing harm. Unfortunately this often means moving them into low to mid-level manager roles. If you wonder where bad managers come from, they often come from bad team members.
You can’t control how others behave. All you can do is focus on being manageable yourself. For the most part that means acting like a grownup and a professional.
- If you disagree with someone’s opinion, you can have a constructive discussion about the pros and cons of your opinion versus theirs. But when the team, or your manager, comes to a decision about which way to proceed, be a professional and play your role in helping move forward.
- Avoid the temptation to say ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ Just because it’s the way it’s done today, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way in the future. New technology and capabilities come along that change how we do things all the time. Be open to trying new things and objectively evaluating them against the desired outcomes.
- Always ask yourself whether your actions are helping your team or your business move towards their goals. We can keep ourselves busy all day with work that ultimately achieves nothing of substance. When you strip away the unnecessary, you have more time to focus on what really matters.
- Accept criticism and own your mistakes. It will help you to grow in the long run.
Being manageable doesn’t mean being a pushover. You still need to protect yourself from overwork. In Chapter 6 I go into personal health, and the important topic of burnout. You also need to protect yourself from abuse, and recognize when your growth as a professional is being stifled. If your ideas are good but never accepted by the team, it could be that you’re being held back by someone else’s ego.
Likewise, if you’re constantly being criticized but never praised, it could be that you’re stuck in a culture of abusive behavior. Criticism comes from all directions sometimes, and it’s hard to filter the good from the bad.
That’s why I have a simple rule: never accept criticism from someone who would never pay me a compliment.
DEALING WITH CUSTOMERS
It’s often said that working in IT would be great if it weren’t for the customers. But obviously, without the customers we wouldn’t have a job in the first place. After all, we’re there to provide a service to people, not play with technology all day.
And it’s an unfortunate truth of the IT industry that, most of the time, we’re meeting customers at their worst. If there’s ever a time where empathy is needed, this is it.
When something is broken, the customer can’t do what they need to do. When you’re the person responsible for fixing it, it’s important to disengage from how they are acting and remember they mostly want to know three things:
- that you understand their problem
- that you understand why it is important to them
- that you’re going to solve their problem for them.
If that’s what they want, give it to them. It goes a long way to calming them down and getting them on your side. Play your cards right and they’ll be raving about you afterwards too.
Start by acknowledging the information they’ve already given you (because nobody likes repeating themselves) and then ask them to confirm it is correct.
I have your support ticket here. It says you’re seeing an error when you try to book meetings for your manager. Is that still correct?
If they confirm that the problem statement is correct, set the scene for what is going to happen next.
This is a new problem and we don’t have any information about why it’s happening. So what I’d like to do if it’s okay with you, is have you repeat the steps you were going through while I observe, and perhaps I will see a clue for what is causing the error.
If you can’t see any solutions right away, and it’s likely you will need to go and research the problem, reassure them that you understand why this problem is important to them.
Okay, I can see that this is going to cause you problems as you try to manage your boss’s calendar, so we need to get this fixed for you as quickly as possible.
Then set expectations for how you’re going to proceed from here. But be cautious about over-committing to something you aren’t sure you can achieve.
I’m going to try and reproduce the problem here and see if there’s a fix available. I will give you a call back within the hour to give you a progress update if I haven’t found a solution sooner.
Nothing will shatter a customer’s good impression of you more than not following through on a promise. If you’ve done the hard work to get the customer on your side and believing in you, only to disappoint them by not staying true to your word, the relationship with that customer will be damaged. But if you earn a reputation as someone who is honest and who follows up when promised, that will go a long way to keeping customers happy with you, even when you don’t always have the answers they need.
If you can’t solve a problem yourself, say so. Let the customer know you’ve spent some time on it and can’t find a solution. Next you’re going to escalate to a colleague or a higher level of support, or if necessary, open a support ticket with the vendor. Again, keeping the customer updated and managing their expectations will go a long way to keeping them happy. They don’t like being unable to work, but they’d rather be informed than uninformed.
Customers see technology as an enabler, or as an obstacle, depending on how well the technology is working that day. And to many customers, technology is a great mystery. This is becoming less of an issue as new generations grow up using technology earlier in their lives. But a large portion of the workforce still struggles with technology today. It’s a source of stress and frustration. They don’t want to understand it. They just want to do their job. So if you can get technology out of their way, make it as invisible and seamless as possible, you’ll make their work a lot easier.
One of the common complaints by IT professionals is that their customers don’t listen to them when it comes to changes and upgrades for their systems. We often attribute this reluctance to the customer being cheap. IT is an expense, and most business owners try to keep expenses low, therefore technology spending is limited.
I can’t say that I blame the customer. If you own a car, and the car has a few problems that annoy you, it’s not an automatic solution to replace the car with a new one. Sure, the new car will have few, if any, problems and will be covered by a warranty. It might also have some new features that make your driving experience more enjoyable. But it’s still a big expense to buy a new car. In your mind you will evaluate the trade-off. Is it worth all that extra money to solve a few minor problems with your car? If it’s doing the job, even to a minimum level of satisfaction, then every day you don’t replace it is a day you’ve got that money available for other things.
It’s not until the car completely breaks down that the decision becomes easier. And that’s exactly how our customers think as well. What works today is good enough. The best salesperson in the world won’t overcome that point of view.
Another common problem IT professionals have with their customers is that many customers remain reluctant to change. This has an unfortunate side effect in that, when they eventually do concede that an upgrade or replacement of some part of their IT is important, such a long period of time has passed that the users experience a feeling of shock at just how different the new system is. Because they’ve skipped all the incremental changes over the years, they find themselves being hit with something so different, it pushes them way outside their comfort zone.
While we’re often excited to take a customer from their old system to the latest solution, from the customer’s perspective, especially the end user, it’s highly disruptive. Understanding this will help you manage the customer’s needs and reactions better.
In the end, it’s important to remember that customers are people just like you. Use empathy, treat them well, and they will treat you well in return.
HOW TO ASK GOOD QUESTIONS
You don’t know everything, and you never will. At some point you will need to ask people for help. Either you will ask your colleagues, or you will ask the public on a forum or discussion channel.
There are no stupid questions. And even ‘easy’ questions are fine. I know I don’t mind answering easy questions because it’s a fairly low energy thing to do.
What very few people can tolerate is poorly asked questions. Especially poorly asked questions from a person who never asks good questions. Everyone has a bad day now and then, and asks a bad question. But those who do it repeatedly will find themselves irritating the very people they need help from.
So how do you avoid asking bad questions? Or rather, how do you ensure you are asking a good question?
To begin with, you should always seek to find answers yourself. When faced with a new problem you should:
- validate the scope of the problem
- search your internal knowledge base for a solution
- search the internet for a solution
- refer to documentation for clues as to why the problem is occurring
- attempt to reproduce the problem in a way that reveals a solution
Each of those steps is important, because you will often solve the problem yourself. But when you don’t, you will have a solid basis for asking a good question when you seek help from others. You will already know:
- the scope of the problem (i.e. who is impacted, and how)
- whether there is an answer in your internal knowledge base or on the internet (i.e. is the problem well known)
- whether the documentation explains why the problem is occurring (e.g. if you are running a configuration outside of recommended practices)
- whether the problem can be easily reproduced
This is all crucial information to take with you when asking others for help. Consider a simple scenario of a user experiencing an error when they try to print documents. Imagine the help desk member going to a server engineer and asking this question:
John says he can’t print. Is there a problem with printing at the moment?
The engineer is not going to be happy about being interrupted with a question like that. The help desk member has not brought any of the information that would be useful to the engineer, such as whether:
- John can print other documents, print from other applications, or print to other printers
- the error message John is receiving, if any, is found in the knowledge base or on the internet with a suggested fix
- the printer settings match what is in the documentation
- John’s nearby colleagues have the same problem when they try to print
In contrast, if the help desk member has followed the steps outlined above, they could ask a good question.
John says he can’t print. He gets an error 57 message when he tries to print any document from any application. He tried another printer on a different floor and it worked. I tried printing to the same printer and I get the same error. I checked for previous tickets like this and couldn’t find any that match. There were some old forum posts I found in Google that suggested some changes to a printer setting, but ours is already set that way. I have those links if you’d like to read them yourself. I can’t find any obvious differences between the printers that work and the printer that doesn’t work. Can you suggest what I should try next?
I don’t know too many people who would be unhappy being asked a question that way. In that situation myself I would happily respond with a few suggestions or, if none spring to mind, agree that the help desk should pass the support ticket over to my team to look into it further.
The last step in asking good questions is to close the loop. When you’ve received the correct answer, acknowledge it. Let that person know that the information they provided was what led you to the solution. If there’s more details to share, or if you found the solution yourself, share that knowledge as well. Add it to the notes of the support ticket. Update your internal Wiki. Send an email to your team. Or, if you’ve asked for help on a public forum, write a comment with the solution for others to find later when they stumble across your thread in a Google search.
Asking Good Questions
Nobody can work in complete isolation. At some stage you are going to need the help of others to solve a problem. That means that your ability to ask good questions is an essential skill in your career as an IT professional. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:
- Describe the goal or outcome that you are trying to achieve. Asking people to tell you why a command is failing is not a good question if you haven’t explained what the end goal is that you’re working on.
- Describe the environment that you are encountering the problem in, such as operating systems, virtualization platforms, versions of software, whether you are remote or local to the problem, and what your role is in the scenario (e.g. end user, support technician, project manager).
- Use simple language, short sentences, short paragraphs, and check your spelling for errors. People will struggle to help you if your question is hard to read.
- Provide specifics, such as error log entries, but prune them to the relevant portions. Expecting someone to read 200 lines of error logs looking for a one-line error is not being respectful of their time.
- Be polite, receptive to suggestions, and respectful of people’s time that they are giving you for free.
HOW TO BE A GOOD TEAM PLAYER
In basketball, a team is made up of players of many shapes and sizes. From the tallest center to the shortest guard, each player brings a unique set of skills and strengths to the game. Some players are great shooters but weak defenders. Some are tall and powerful, but slow. Playing together as a team they can win the game.
In IT we sometimes find that people expect all team members to be equal in skills. If you have four ‘server engineers’ all getting paid roughly the same salary, is it fair that one of them doesn’t know how to troubleshoot a clustered SQL server?
Actually yes, that is fair. Because that team member who doesn’t know about SQL clusters just happens to be great at dealing with Citrix farms.
In a team, everyone contributes to a common goal. That shared goal is only achieved when teams are made up of complementary skill sets. Instead of having identical technical skills, what we really want from team members are common personality traits. And I don’t mean that everyone on the team loves Star Wars or football. I mean that they all share the same qualities:
A committed ‘buy in’ to the team’s goal
Teams work best when they are working towards a common goal. If you feel your goals are not aligned with the rest of the team, take some time to consider why that is. Do you disagree with the goals of the business? Do you have an ethical problem? Or are you just more interested in doing something else?
A focus on solutions rather than problems
When people focus on finding someone or something to blame for a problem, they take time and attention away from solutions. Teams work best when they focus on solving technology and business problems, instead of finding excuses and scapegoats.
A willingness to take on challenges outside their comfort zone
Although everyone in a team brings different skills to the table, nobody should stay boxed in to a limited skillset. Teams grow in value and effectiveness when everyone is willing to step up and tackle new problems that they’ve never seen before.
Reliability and a willingness to take ownership
Teams work well when members can rely on each other to be responsible for the tasks they have been allocated. Team members also need to rely on each other to take ownership of new problems that they discover, and not ignore them or leave them for others to find.
A willingness to help their teammates
Teams are not made up of individuals working in isolation from each other. They are working towards a common goal. So if a team member needs your help, as a good teammate you will help them. Whether that’s by spending time with them, directing them towards other resources, or by taking on other tasks to free up time for them. The team can’t succeed if each team member is only focused on their own individual success.
Respect for each other’s differences
Everyone in a team is a unique individual. Diverse teams are stronger and more effective, because they bring a wider range of life experiences and perspectives to the table. As a team member you must respect and value the differences in your teammates.
The ability to listen to others
Every person in a team has value to add. In discussions, don’t just listen for your turn to speak. Actively listen to what others are saying, acknowledge them, and give them the consideration that they deserve. They may be right, and they may be wrong. But then so might you.
The ability to communicate openly and honestly
Teams need to trust each other to share information. Knowledge-hoarding by individuals will weaken a team’s effectiveness. Furthermore, each team member must be confident that others are being honest and upfront with them in all matters.
Chapter 4 Recap
- Not all managers are good. Not all bad managers are bad people. If you have a career in IT, it’s almost guaranteed that one day you’ll have to manage a bad manager.
- Empathy – the ability to see and understand other people’s points of view, motivations and situations – is key to being able to manage bad managers. It’s also key to effectively managing customers.
- Ask good questions. Good questions provide the person you are seeking help from with all the key information they need, and demonstrate you have tried to help yourself first. Asking good questions will greatly endear you to colleagues, superiors and people in online forums. They will also make people more willing to help you.
- When you work in IT, you will be part of a team. One key to having a long and successful career in IT is being a good teammate. Part of being a good teammate is being someone who is good to manage.
- Being a good team player also requires you to exhibit:
- ‘buy in’ to the team’s goals
- a focus on solutions rather than problems
- a willingness to take on challenges
- a willingness to take ownership of problems you encounter
- an understanding that everyone is different and those differences should be respected
- an ability to listen to others
- an ability to communicate openly and honestly
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