I’ve learned a lot from working in IT — not just about technology, but about business, people, and myself. Here are the 9 things I’ve learned that have impacted me the most, and that I think are the most important to know when starting your own IT career.
1. IT is not about solving technology problems
A lot of people think they should work in IT because they’re “good with computers and technology and stuff”. However, IT is not about solving technology problems — it’s about solving business problems using technology.
For example: a user comes to you because they need to send a file to an auditor, but the email system is rejecting the file because it’s too large. If you look at this as a technology problem, there are a number of possible solutions — you can try to compress the item in a .zip file, you can ask the email administrators to up the file size limit, you can set up an FTP server, you can use a third party like Dropbox, or you can even put the file on a thumb drive and physically mail it (I’ve seen it done).
Always make sure that you understand business need before devising a technological response. This will allow you to identify the most cost-effective solution for the problem, saving you time and effort while simultaneously minimizing personal frustration and maximizing your contributions to the organization.
2. Know when to quit
Tenacity is an important characteristic of highly-effective IT workers. You will face many challenging issues, not all of which have an obvious solution, and you’ll need to learn how to push through failure and frustration in order to get the end result you’re looking for.
IT workers need to be tenacious, yes. And there’s a time during a long slog of troubleshooting where the issue at hand becomes personal — a trial of man vs. machine, and one where you’ll be damned if you’ll see the machines win. But the time you spend working out a solution has a real cost — especially when you have a lot of other responsibilities, issues, and initiatives to answer to address. You need to be able to recognize the diminishing returns of fixing one particular problem, know when to swallow your pride as a technologist, and explain that you won’t be able to fix this particular thing on your own.
3. Your users aren’t stupid
If you work in any customer-facing IT role, you’re going to spend a lot of time dealing with user errors. The slightly cheeky IT worker might label these as PEBKAC issues — “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair” — while the jaded, angry veteran might think of them as ID-10T (“idiot”) errors instead.
Yes, dealing with simple errors that your users should have figured out on their own can be incredibly frustrating, as is supporting the repeat offenders of tech-related common sense. However, to label your users as a bunch of idiots because they don’t possess your technological intuition and experience is at best foolish, and at worst, malicious.
Finally, your users just don’t deserve to be thought of as stupid. They have lives outside the workplace. They have interests, hobbies, families, pets, and inner lives — just like you. They’re here to do a job — just like you. And they deserve respect — just like you.
4. Revisit your quick fixes
“Make it work. Make it right. Make it elegant.”
The idea of the above adage, which is taken from software development, is that the first thing you need to do when confronted with a new problem is to understand it well enough to build a working solution Then, you go back and update the solution to ensure that it is flexible, future-proof, well-documented, and follows important conventions. Then, if necessary, you go back to it a third time and update it so that it’s highly efficient and takes full advantage of the language it’s written in.
IT work should be treated the same way. However, it’s all too common to stop solution development after the “Make it work” step. You’ll often come up with band-aid resolutions that you promise to “come back to later” and “redo the right way”. But the constant influx of IT issues and needs means that “later” tends to get pushed off into oblivion. On their own, these quick fixes work great in the short term. However, in the long term, their negative aspects tend to accumulate, causing problems (i.e. even more work) for you down the line.
5. Develop your soft skills
I did not love working on IT help desks. Spending all day wrestling with print drivers, replacing mice, and crawling beneath dusty desks to fix loose Ethernet cables is not my idea of fun — nor is the repetition of the same work, the same problems, and the same people, over and over again.
Improving your communication and other soft skills — such as the ability to talk people off a ledge when they think they’ve lost an entire day’s worth of work (protip: enable autosave for everyone) — will also start to open other doors for you. It improves your networking skills. Your interviewing skills. The positive feedback that you’ll receive for not only being competent at your job, but for helping people to do their job is a major confidence booster.
6. IT is a team sport
No IT employee exists in a vacuum. Unless you’re part of a very small organization — or a very overworked one — you’re going to find yourself as a part of close-knit team that is tasked with carrying the functionality of the entire office on its back. This includes your direct coworkers — others who have the same role as you — as well as members of other IT departments.
You will work with everyone from help desk, to network engineers, to sys admins, to server engineers. Each person in the IT ecosystem has strengths as well as weaknesses, technical as well as personal, and in order to do your job right it’s important to build up your working relationships with your other IT team members so that you always know where to go for information, advice, solutions, and (sometimes) above all: commiseration.
7. Learn to disconnect
IT work can be grueling. It can be thankless. Non-technical management often views your department as an expense, rather than a benefit. When everything’s working fine, they’ll wonder why they even pay you — and when everything’s on fire, they’ll wonder the same thing.
Beyond emotionally disconnecting, you need to disconnect technologically as well. Unless you’re part of an on-call rotation, do not answer work calls or even read work emails after close-of-business. Any after-hours frustrations can and should wait until tomorrow. You need your time to decompress and refresh in order to continue to do your job well, and in order to preserve your mental health.
8. The law of averages will both hurt you and help you
There have been some people during my IT tenure whom I just have bad luck with. Even when presenting me with the simplest of problems, I’ve found ways to mess up the response. I know — for a fact — that they will forever hold the opinion that I am useless, clueless, and a few other adjectives that aren’t appropriate for this platform.
There will be people you just can’t please. There will be people who always make sure you’re on the email chain when they bring donuts in for their department. There will be days where everything goes wrong despite your best efforts —
and there will be days where you’re essentially bulletproof.
If you pay attention, work hard, and care about getting better at your job, you’ll have a lot more positive interactions and good days than bad. However, there is such a thing as luck, and it sometimes will go against you — heavily. Don’t take it personally — and do everything in the meantime to encourage luck, such as it is, to go in your favor.
9. Learn to inspire trust
There are two important groups of people you need to keep happy. The first are your users — some of whom may have some technical understanding of what you do, some of whom may not, but all of whom will rely on your good work in order to do theirs.
IT work is challenging. It’s often frustrating. But working hard to improve at all aspects of these types of roles — from the technology side to the business side, from the computers to the people — will yield the greatest rewards in terms of opportunity, satisfaction, and confidence.