IT Happens Outside of IT
One of the most important ideas that I coach is the concept of breaking into IT by staying away from IT. Scratch your head for a moment and get past the nagging thought that what I just said makes no sense. Now move on. I'll explain.
Many who are struggling to enter the IT field view their first major career step as getting a job in an IT department. This myopic view has been advanced to a degree by the growth of the industry over the past few years. The advent of the chief information officer (CIO) as a corporate executive is a new concept.
In the past, IT largely fell under the watchful eye of the chief financial officer (CFO). Technology managers existed, but not technology senior executives. A somewhat rogue and decentralized culture formerly existed in the IT world.
The pressing need to ensure that technology closely aligns itself with corporate objectives drives the requirement for a strategic executive. This tighter level of executive management promotes the idea that all technology jobs necessarily fall under the purview of the CIO.
In a traditional IT organization, you might see a senior-level executive (CIO, director of technology, VP of technology), managers over working groups (application development, networking, user support), and their staff. Furthermore, you might be under the impression that you must find a way into this structure to start your IT career.
That idea is far from the truth.
For many who are currently at the top of their IT careers, their path was much different. In fact, a majority of senior technologists who I know started out working in a user department, not in the IT or data processing units. Several reasons can explain this:
Working in an IT department typically provides a higher degree of specialization.
IT often creates a myopic view of the business world.
You can develop numerous valuable relationships outside of technology.
Working in an IT department typically provides a higher degree of specialization. In most cases, you fall under a specific classification, as in help desk, network support, application development, systems analyst, and so on. Rarely do the job classifications cross. When a task hits a particular level, it is passed on to the appropriate group.
However, when you are a technologist in a user department, you are expected to handle virtually everything. The idea of different roles disappears. You are the in-house technology professional. Whether that places you in the capacity of installing hardware and software, supporting and training users, or writing code, you are expected to take on the tasks.
User departments make no distinction between a help desk/PC technician and an application developer. Both are known as the "computer guy." User departments' lack of distinction in this area makes working for them both exciting and dangerous. You are given charge over all of the technology, whether hardware or software related.
IT often creates a myopic view of the business world. It is a well-documented complaint of senior management that their IT departments do a poor job of understanding or speaking in business terms.
A joint study conducted by KPMG and ComputerWorld asked CEOs and senior management about how they felt their IT dollars were spent. To a large degree, the CEOs felt that IT did not deliver solutions that were well aligned with actual business objectives.
Many went even further, stating that they distrusted their IT departments, feeling that in many cases, their convoluted language was being used to hide ineffective projects, create confusion, and pad budgets.
This perspective by CEOs is something that I have shared for years. In 1996, I started giving a presentation titled "Why Technologists Must Learn to Speak Business." (You can find an article of the same name at http://www.cbtoolkit.com.) In the article, I admonished technologists to begin speaking to management and businesses in business terms and removing techno jargon from their language entirely.
One advantage to breaking into IT by becoming a departmental technologist is that you are forced to speak in terms that the general department speaks. You learn the business from the business unitthe people managing and performing the work. Your work is directly applied to production of the product or service of the company.
This was the path I took, and it has served me well. Many of my clients in my technology consulting practice rely on me for assistance in operations, marketing, and other nontechnology-related ventures. One commented once that he did not view me as a technology professional but as a business consultant and mentor who had extremely strong technical knowledge. I associate that skill with the experience I obtained as a business analyst in a nontechnology department.
You can develop numerous valuable relationships outside of technology. These relationships can easily become the core of your professional contacts network. Many will provide you with opportunities at other companies when they leave or through their extended contacts.
I developed many relationships during my years as a business analyst. Some of those relationships became or referred me to contracts when I became a consultant. These people knew the types of solutions I offered and knew of my professionalism. They were happy to refer me to associates or to recommend me to their employers.
Politically, and from the perspective of production, you often gain much more visibility in a nontechnology department. Your solutions are more apparent to the users, and your name becomes synonymous with what you produce. This, of course, can be a double-edged sword. If you do not produce, this will be apparent, too.
Working in a department other than IT offers more interaction with users. This increases the opportunity to develop your interpersonal skills. Over the life of your career, this interaction and the development of the associated skills can pay tremendous dividends.
Given the choice between obscurity and the risk associated with being in the forefront of solutions, I'll choose the latter.
A technologist/programmer who builds an application within the IT department typically is viewed as one of many producers in that venue. However, the same developer who is working to create an application in a user department, while working with and within that department, gains a sort of "hero mystique."
The "hero" stands out because he is providing a valuable service that no one else in the department can. In addition, a departmental technologist is often exposed to technology and projects that would never enter his area in the traditional IT department structure.
Exposure to new technology and nontraditional IT projects is a key reason not to overlook opportunities that place you outside of IT. Remember that each job is a progression toward your long-term goal. However, the perks and opportunities offered outside of the technology department can have long-lasting effects on your career. They can provide you with a greatly accelerated path of professional development.