NOTE: I’ve written a new version of this post and added an audio version. You can view or listen to the new version here.
This is a post I’ve been meaning to make for a very long time now. I’ve had the framework in my head for what feels like forever but I never actually sat down and put it to words. Being unemployed has given me even more time to ruminate on it.
Working in various forms of IT for as long as I have has given me a lot of time to think about the best ways to do my job and it’s also given me a lot of opportunities to see how peers approach it . It still amazes me that even though the IT field has existed on a large scale for quite a while now, so many people still get some of the most basic elements of it so wrong. Stuff that really shouldn’t be hard to understand seems to evade so many in this field. I thought it would be a good exercise to put down some knowledge I’ve taken from my now extensive experience that I think is critical for people to know who want to excel in IT and be both well regarded and satisfied. Many who do this job are often bitter and miserable and while we sometimes have cause to be, I don’t think it has to be that way and I think that a lot of it comes down to the individuals themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing IT people in the world, many of whom are better at this than I am and I’m not saying that the advice I put forth here should taken as bible truth by everyone. I do however, think there are fundamentals here that can be universally applied by all members of this field and most if not all of them are not adhered to often enough. These won’t solve all your problems as someone in IT but I think if you derive your own personal creed from some of these basics, you may find yourself satisfied and I dare I say, enjoying a career that many consider brutal and unfulfilling.
So what has almost 15 years of IT taught me?
1. You Are In the Customer Service Industry
IT is not a standalone career path and like most others, it’s derived from something else. Make no mistake, you may spend your day working with Information Technology but whether you’re a help desk rep or a person maintaining infrastructure, you work in customer service. You may not be working a returns counter in retail but your goal is first and foremost to serve your users (or customers) by providing them as reliable, easy and friendly a technology work environment as you can. Without your users, you have no purpose and neither does any of the stuff you work with.
You may be the one guy in charge of an entire company or you may be a person within a larger team with a narrow scope of responsibility that never involves interacting with a user. It doesn’t matter, your goal and ultimate scope are always customer service. You may be different than the guy working the returns counter in retail but at a core level, you both work in the same field. This should be the driving factor behind everything you do. IT people who either don’t believe this or don’t adhere to it are often the ones regarded as having a bad attitude. If your #1 goal of coming into work is not to provide the best customer service you can, you’re doing it wrong.
2. Your Users Are Not the Enemy
This is really a more general rule but I see a lot of IT people not following it. Do you get annoyed when you go somewhere to get service and it seems like the person is having a bad day and taking it out on you? You know what I mean, when you are there to conduct a transaction and the person treats you like you’re a burden and making their day worse. Don’t you hate that?
That’s exactly how you come across when you act dickish to one of your users. No matter what has happened in your day, be it work related or personal, you should never take it out on your users unless they give you a reason to (and yes, sometimes they can.) The user likely isn’t the reason the server crashed or you were denied an important budget item and they almost certainly aren’t the reason you had a fight with your spouse. Treating users like enemies rather than allies is the biggest single reason many IT departments and user bases don’t get along and often see each other as headaches and impedances.
Without your users, you don’t have a job and without you, they don’t have working technology. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not an adversarial one. Treat your users as enemies and they’ll do the same.
3. There Are No Stupid Questions
You’re super good at this stuff. Of course you are, you wouldn’t have the job otherwise. Thing is, your users likely aren’t super good at this stuff and many IT people often forget, that’s kind of the point. If they were as good with technology as you are, they wouldn’t have a need for you now would they? So don’t be a smarmy prat when someone asks a question that seems elementary to you.
I know computers like the back of my hand. I don’t know anything about fixing cars but I would be pretty annoyed if a mechanic acted like I should already know why my check engine light is on. So why should I roll my eyes and act like I’m talking to a five year old when someone asks me why their bookmarks bar in their browser is missing because they accidentally clicked the wrong thing?
You may be an expert in your field but chances are, you’re basically an ignoramus of 95% of other fields out there. Don’t treat people who didn’t choose to go into IT as though they’re stupid of below you intellectually. Truthfully, while you certainly have to have a good head on your shoulders to do this stuff, let’s not kid ourselves, we aren’t rocket scientists or brain surgeons.
4. Fight For Your Interests
Far too many companies in the world see IT as a burden and a black box. Our departments only cost money, they don’t make it (at least not directly) and the executives see money going into us and because they don’t understand what we do, we’re often first on the chopping block. One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in my career it IT managers and departments that don’t put up enough of a fight to get what they want and need.
IT is important, it’s mission critical in fact. A company can survive without almost any other department for at least a short time but no IT people means that if something breaks, they’re effectively crippled. We may not directly generate profits but make no mistake, a successful company without IT is no longer successful and we are instrumental in ensuring profit is made. It doesn’t matter if times are tough or not, you need to be good at explaining why IT needs what it asks for and you need to be willing to take the gloves off, get in the trenches and fight for those resources with everyone else.
If you’re denied stuff you need now, it will only make things much worse later on and you have to be willing to speak up and make that known. Cowering back and letting some clueless executive tell you what can wait is a failure on your part. It’s not easy taking a stand, even less so in companies dominated by type-A salespeople but ultimately, it’s what you have to do to provide the best customer service which as stated above, is the industry you’re in.
5. You Gotta’ Love It
I’ve worked with a lot of people in my time who got into IT when it was the hot, upcoming career path because they saw it as an easy way to make good money. They took a bunch of training, got the paper certifications they needed, punch in, punch out and make their money. That’s a lousy way go about any career.
If you don’t enjoy what you do, how can you do it well over the long term? If this is just a paycheque and not something that interests you, gets you fired up and that you don’t ever think about when you’re outside the office, how are you ever going to do the best job you can? You have to be engaged with what you’re doing. If you’re just going through the motions, you’re not giving the work the attention it deserves.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you just need a job and the argument that “You should do what you love and if you don’t love it, you should do something else.” is a simplistic, reductive and often unrealistic way to look at the job market. There are things I would probably love doing more than IT but in reality, they’re not likely to happen or at least, not to bring me the stability I need. That doesn’t mean I don’t love what I do though because I absolutely do. I love technology and I love discovering how to best use it to improve the lives of others. If you’re working in IT and can’t wait to get home every day so you can focus on anything else, you should probably find and pursue something that interests you more because just going through the motions ultimately serves no one well.
6. Always Be Learning
This is something I sadly neglected at my last employer because I got comfortable and spoiled there and getting laid off unexpectedly gave me a real wake up call. Like almost any other field, there are always new things to be learning about it and you will never be in a state where there’s nothing left to be enlightened with. Really, this should be obvious in the field of technology where things are always advancing at light speed. Yet many people (myself included) think they know all they need to and just sit still.
Even if it doesn’t look like your job needs more knowledge than you have, keep acquiring it anyway. Read articles, do online courses, run experiments, request training opportunities. Do as much learning as you can whenever you can. It may help make your current job better or it could open new and exciting doors for you going forward. Becoming complacent in the technology field is the worst thing you can do and stagnation is ultimately a death sentence for your long term advancement.
I learned this the hard way and now I’m struggling to regain lost ground. Don’t ever let this happen to you.
7, Be Inventive
One of the greatest things about modern technology is how it can be bent and shaped to serve our needs in ways we or perhaps, even its creators never thought of. Some things are more rigid than others but you’d be surprised how if you just colour outside the lines a bit, you can pull off some downright miraculous stuff that can save time, money or just make something more useful to you and your users.
Never be afraid to experiment or to push the envelope of something you have at your disposal. Just because the manual doesn’t talk about doing a particular thing doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, it just means the people who wrote the manual didn’t think of it. The IT people who advance farthest are often the ones who innovate and disrupt, coming up with new and different ways to solve problems that deviate from the norm. It shows a bigger depth of problem solving and critical thinking skills on your part and the one things I’ve learned is that the more you hone that skill, the more unforeseen opportunities will just seemingly appear in front of you because you know to look for what isn’t readily apparent.
So there we have it, some of my tips that I’ve gleaned from my years in IT about how to be better at it. Really, a lot of those rules can be applied to any number of different career paths but they have all served me well in my time and I think if more IT people followed them, this is a career path that would be better thought of. I’m sure there are many more things out there too and if you work in IT and have your own rules and creed, I’d love to hear about them!
IT can be a great and rewarding career but it’s too often thought of as something you do for a few years until you can advance out of it or until you figure out what you really want to do with your life. It doesn’t have to be this way and it’s something you can do for a long time and love doing on top of that if you just look at it a certain way and spread that enthusiasm to those you surround yourself with and serve. Sure, I’ve thought about changing direction before and I may still some day but right now, I’m still looking for an IT job to replace the one I lost. Not just because I’m damn good at it but because I want to keep doing this. This can be something you love doing, just look inwards and find what calls you to it. If nothing does, that’s OK too but you should think about what can make you happier in that case.
We can be heroes but it’s ultimately down to us. Make yourself a hero!