2008-02-10

Does The Perfect IT Person Exist?

It’s all the rage, and another article on it, from eWeek (Building The Perfect IT Person), captured my attention thanks to Digg. I won’t quote much of it, and frankly I’m not a huge eWeek fan. But the article makes a larger point with which I emphatically agree. Good on ya, eWeek!

Business owners & management types want IT folks who aren’t just techies anymore. They want us to understand “the business side of things” so we can more effectively support current and perhaps even be involved in crafting new initiatives.

Whether or not these folks exist (at least in numbers large enough to be statistically significant) is a point of much debate. It’s not much of a debate for me. I see a distinct shortage of IT folks with developed soft skills. After all, it’s the central theme here at wearentgeeks.com. We aren’t geeks. We’re professionals.

What’s that? They don’t want us to be techies anymore? But, and I’ve said all of these at one time, I like technology. I like carefully crafting each server with a custom parts list culled only from my best recommendations. I like hiding in our darkened NOC, safe from the chattering of managers, co-workers and, worst of all, users. I just want to create a component server that does what the application folks tell me it should do; I don’t want to actually be involved in that calculation. I think I should burn down every system and start over from scratch so it will be done the “right way” this time.

Tough.

The organization demands otherwise, and so does our adherence to professionalism. It’s not an end to our techie ways per se. It’s redirecting some of our energy into becoming an integral part of our organization’s business processes. The core of the concept of the perfect IT person demands we embrace dealing with people.

People!

“Technology workers are expected to be able to work outside their comfort zone without stuffing their hands in their pockets and mumbling about rack servers or rolling their eyes when asked to reset a forgotten password. More than a techie, he or she is a meta-techie, having a strong technical base coupled with the ability to explain to nontechies why technology is important.”

Building the Perfect IT Person
http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,2002881,00.asp


Perish the thought, but the CxOs and business folks have a point. Our value to our organizations comes primarily from our ability to grasp complex mental models, rotate them around, see ways to make them better and communicate those observations. We’re at our best when we’re the bridge for people who have a business problem and need a technical solution.

“According to CIOs, companies comprise two types of individuals—those who know business and those who know technology. Few know both. But if you’re the bridge between the two, suddenly you’re valuable.”
Building the Perfect IT Person
http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,2002881,00.asp

Think about it this way. Your organization replaces a team member. Is that person immediately as effective as you are? (if you answered yes, please take a moment to clear your desk and consider your future prospects). They probably are not. Why is that?

We readily accept that each organization is different. Even though we use Exchange, my organization isn’t necessarily the same as another mid-market company. So, to understand how my organization uses Exchange, someone has to understand my organization on some level. And, my organization is a big, stinky collection of people. I can’t be a good mail administrator if I don’t know what my people, or my customers, need from me.

Let’s extend the example a bit further. Database platforms provide the basis for commercial and custom applications. Is a new DBA effective from day one? They may have a skill that immediately adds value, but to really make application sing, they need to know more about it, the business, the processes and the people using it.

If that new DBA doesn’t understand how the application is used, how can they possibly tune it to strike a balance between responsiveness for ad-hoc queries and batch processing performance? Just as germane, what’s the impact to the business if ad-hoc queries run during an overnight?

What are some of the hurdles to becoming an effective lead or senior SA? We need to learn who makes the decisions, who influences the decision and who produces the cash for our projects. In other words, we’re forced to learn how to deal with key people. Becoming a part of the budgeting process is often one of our first business communication lessons.

At the core, most of our issues are sociological, not technical (thanks Peopleware! I’m going to tattoo that quote on me someplace!). We use technology to (hopefully) make people more productive. We must know more about business processes before we can know what “productive” means. We have to be about people to be about business.

The finer point to be made is that most of us already accept a smaller version of the role just to deal with and be happy in our jobs. We’re smart. We’ve learned how to get things done. We’ve adapted to complex environments. We endeavor to do right (or at least to do no evil). It’s in us. We just need to let it out. And, maybe, we could spend a little more energy developing the hated soft skills. It’s good for us, and it’s certainly good for our organizations.

Maybe it helps to think of it this way:
The suits don’t want me to be something I’m not.
The suits ask me to be someone they need.

That’s an opportunity, not a prison sentence.

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