I wrote the original version of this post over a year ago but decided to update it with some other things I’ve thought of since.
I’ve been working in IT for many years now. That time and the many positions I’ve held in it has given me a lot of time to think about the best ways to approach my job and it’s also given me a lot of opportunities to see how peers approach it. IT is far from the hardest career path in the world but it’s no walk in the park and it’s harder and more important than many think it is.
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 very 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 they’re 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 dare I say, enjoying a career that many consider brutal and unfulfilling. IT can absolutely be a cool and enjoyable career but like many others, it’s often what you make it and that takes effort.
So what has almost 15 years in the IT trenches taught me?
1. You Are In the Customer Service Industry
IT is not a standalone career path and like most others, it has roots in something else. Make no mistake, whether you’re a help desk rep or a person maintaining infrastructure, you work in customer service. You may not be working a telco’s call centre or the returns counter in retail but your goal is first and foremost to serve your users (i.e. your customers) by providing them as reliable, easy and friendly a technology work environment as you can. Without your users, you have no purpose. Customer service is a wide reaching term and many incorrectly associate it with low-grade, mundane jobs. That’s just not the case.
You may be the one guy in charge of IT for 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 goals and scope are always customer service. You may be different than the guy working the returns counter 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 just doing it wrong and you make the rest of us look bad.
2. Your Users Are Not the Enemy
This is really a more general career 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’re there to conduct a transaction and the person treats you like you’re a burden and making their day worse. Sucks, right?
That’s exactly how you come across when you act dickish to one of your users. No matter what has happened in your day, you should never take it out on your users unless they give you a reason to. 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 enemies. You both work for the same company and even though you have different jobs, you’re supposed to be unified in your goal of making the company succeed so that you also succeed.
Don’t get me wrong, some users are dicks and I’m a firm believer in getting what you give. Forcing a smile when someone’s being unreasonable is a good way to encourage that treatment to continue. Be firm and assertive when you need to be but only then and don’t assume someone is a dick until they show themselves to be one. You’d be surprised how many people who come across as mean when you first encounter them are just having a bad day and how much a smile and a “How can I help?” will flip their attitude right around.
Without your users, you don’t have a job and without you, they can’t do their’s properly. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not an adversarial or parasitic one. Treat your users as enemies and they’ll do the same. Hostility begets hostility. Don’t let them walk over you but don’t give them reasons to hate you.
3. There Are No Stupid Questions
You’re super good at this stuff. You should be if you’re doing it for a living. Thing is, your users likely aren’t and many IT people often forget that. 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 and tech like the back of my hand. Thing is, 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 5 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 an ignoramus of 95% of other fields. Don’t treat people who didn’t choose to go into IT as though they’re stupid or intellectually below you. While you certainly need a good head on your shoulders to do this stuff, let’s not kid ourselves, we aren’t rocket scientists or brain surgeons. We’re important to those people and certainly not lesser than them but let’s not pretend we’re on the same plane of knowledge.
4. Speak Bloody English
The number of IT people I’ve met who talk to their users with the same technical language they speak to each other with and then wonder why their users’ eyes gloss is staggering. Again, if the users understood everything you did, they wouldn’t have a need for you. When explaining a problem or a solution you’re implementing, you need to recognise that you’re not talking to a technical expert.
I didn’t have a hard time learning how to do this but from what I’ve gathered, it’s actually a difficult skill for many, almost akin to learning how to translate between two languages. That may be but knowing how to break tech jargon down into plain language is one of the most valuable skills you can have in IT. It’s something to work on and always be striving to improve. Personally, I’ve found that using a lot of analogies and comparisons to more common things in the real world makes something a lot easier. For example, I’ve often used the analogy of a scratched CD and how that causes skipping to explain bad sectors on a hard drive. I know, I should probably update the analogy to use something more modern than CDs but you get the idea.
Learning this skill is invaluable to defusing tense situations and also to just make your users feel that you’re trying to help them understand their problem. People hate being ignorant of why things aren’t working and even a little bit of knowledge can make them feel a lot better. You don’t need to explain the nitty gritty of everything but even a top level explanation can make a situation much easier for everyone. Get good at doing this.
5. Fight For Your Interests
Far too many companies in the world see IT as a burden and a black box. Executives often don’t understand what we do and that makes them suspicious of us. Our departments only cost money, they don’t make it–at least not directly–and the executives see only money going in and because of their ignorance of our work, 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 hyper 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 efficiency. It doesn’t matter if times are tough where you work, 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. What you do is important and you need to act like it.
Corporate executives may not be IT gurus but you can explain what you need and why it’s beneficial to the company in a way they’ll understand. Learn how to talk business to them instead of tech. It not only makes it easier to communicate your needs, it shows them you’re willing to put in the effort to explain things in a way they’ll understand. You don’t need an MBA to make a business case.
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, I get that 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 frankly insulting way to look at the job market. We’ve never lived in a world where everyone can do what they ideally want and make a living at the same time. 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. You may need a job but if you hate it that much, spend some time getting good at what you actually do love and maybe that can become your job and make you that much happier.
6. Always Be Learning
This is something I’ve sadly neglected way too much in my career because I got comfortable, lazy and frankly, arrogant at how much the experience I had actually meant. 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 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 break things in beneficial ways, coming up with means to solve problems that deviate from the norm. It shows a depth of problem solving and critical thinking skills on your part and the one thing I’ve learned is that the more you hone that skill, the more unforeseen opportunities will just appear in front of you because you know to look for what isn’t readily apparent.
8. Never Be Stubbornly Loyal
Brands have ups and downs in the quality of their products. Vendors have ups and downs in service and pricing. What was great last year could suck this year. I’ve seen so many IT departments that refuse to change who they use in spite of this because they’re comfortable with the familiar and they’re worried about the repercussions that could come from change.
I’ve worked in places where a brand of laptop has gone to crap but they keep buying them anyway because they can’t be bothered to research something else or are scared it’ll be worse. The same thing has happened with software, particularly security tools. I’ve had to fight to change a supplier whose service has gone downhill because some executive is friendly with our sales rep and doesn’t want to offend them. Companies often rely and prey on this response and you can’t give into it.
This is business and you’re supposed to demand the best you can get for the least amount of money possible. If a brand or supplier is no longer providing that, it’s time to move on. If you give in to feelings of guilt and harm your organisation in the process, you’re thinking is backwards. If something isn’t living up to expectations, drop it and find something that will. Sticking with companies that do a lousy job is why they don’t change. Your business is a privilege and the core concept of competition is that everyone’s supposed to fight for that. If they know they can profit off the path of least resistance, they will. Don’t let them.
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 careers but they have all served me well in my time and I think if more IT people followed them, this is one 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!