We’re building IT teams wrong — and it’s our own stupid fault

Having been recently made redundant (for the fourth time in my 25 year IT Infrastructure career — thanks for nothing, job security) and realising I’m now an old man (shut up 42 is old), I’ve become somewhat circumspect about some things I used to hold great anxiety over and reflective about other things I used to think where quite black and white.

The biggest question facing me with this latest bout of unemployment is pretty straight forward but laden with logic tests: “What do I want to do now?”

At 42 I’m hardly done with the workforce. I have a bank, wife and 2 kids that will see to that. I have to find some way to make money to meet the commitments I have and continue to provide with my wife for our family.

I’ve spent some time in positions where I’ve had to hire people and I’ve always found it pretty rewarding. Looking for the person that not only fits the skill set at hand but also will work in the social and cultural environment you’re trying to develop.

Information Technology, like many other career paths, is good at putting people in boxes and remunerating those boxes based on what the role requires. In simple terms:

Entry level/HelpDesk/Service Desk roles: $A
2nd level/System Administrators: $AA
3rd level/Technical Architects/Senior Admins: $AAA
Team Leaders/Infrastructure/Operations/Managers: $AAAA+ (that’s a real sliding scale).

If you like fixing PCs or working with software packages then a simple in is the HelpDesk role. Answer the phone/email queries and work with the person to sort out their issue. Fill in the boxes for the Ticket Management System and escalate or close the call. If you show proficiency then you might get to work with the 2nd level team and up that path becomes your progression as your career builds.

You may not have great interpersonal skills (how many IT people do?) so time on the HelpDesk is usually something you’ll want to move away from quickly. People who are after IT support are so needy, or just plain rude. Besides servers don’t talk back and they’re much easier to fix.

Great hard and soft skills are picked up during this phase of your career. You (should) learn conflict resolution methods, get involved with well managed projects that deliver disciplines that will help in every situation, and very important customer service skills.

On the HelpDesk you are usually dealing with people when they are most angry, most desperate and most demanding.

If you’re any good, you’ll get a promotion to become a Systems Administrator or the like. You’ll have to learn more and you may even start to specialise. It’s also your only chance to get a reasonable pay increase — more is expected, so there’s more dollars attached. Now your career is really going places.

Someone new will need to be hired to the HelpDesk, and the cycle begins again.

But what if… what if you found your niche in helping people and you were good at it and you didn’t want to become a System Administrator? You’re stuck on pittance and branded as someone who has no drive or motivation to succeed.

This is the model that most career paths follow — and because of it we’re missing the real opportunity.

Every layer in this process is important so why not find people that are a very good fit to fill each role and reward them accordingly?

I acknowledge that there’s never a bottomless pit of money to dish out to employees, and sharing the available cash can be quite a challenge. Won’t the organisation benefit from motivated, successful employees who love doing their job because it suits them and not because they’re motivated to do other things they may not be as good at just so they can get more money?

IT skills can be taught much easier than customer service skills. If you can fill your HelpDesk with talented, smart, efficient customer service people who have some idea when it comes to IT, as opposed to people who want to be System Administrators or Network Architects but know they have to pay their dues, then your customers — external or internal — are already the winners.

I’ve had my priorities wrong in the past. I thought that guy who had been in that job for 10 years but got the job done on time and with few errors was a deadbeat. No drive. No motivation. In believing that I sold myself a dud. That guy loved his job and had no interest in being something else. He continued to learn new processes, procedures and used industry trends to do the thing he loved even better year on year.

It’s a similar issue facing modern teaching.

As inspired teachers show initiative and develop new ways to deliver curriculum they progress to the point where to earn more cash they have to be taken out of the classroom. That’s 100% counter-intuitive.

Governments and Education Boards are only just realising now that keeping good teachers at the whiteboard is the best outcome for their customers — students and their families (and, by extension, society). I’ve worked in schools and seen great teachers become bad-to-adequate administrators because that’s not their thing. They want to teach; they don’t want to look at timetables or bus schedules.

If you can find the right people to work in the roles you have, then that’s great.

If you can find the right roles to fit people that are passionate, dynamic and motivated, then your business will be far more successful than any other because your team will do the job well.

So while people continue to consider HelpDesk roles to be entry-level (and everyone has to start somewhere) with limited scope for development and remuneration, it’ll be a rare occurrence that the people that fill those roles will be the right fit.

Rare like me not being made redundant.

I love interacting with people.
I love fixing technology problems and translating them to non-technical people.
I’ve got skills up the wazoo through all the layers listed above.

I’d be the perfect fit for an organisation that was after a HelpDesk superstar. Nobody wants to look at me for these roles because they think I’d be “wasted” on the HelpDesk.

If only they knew…