20 Things I Learned in Corporate IT
It may not be as sexy as working for FAANG or startups, but the skills you learn go beyond software development
We don’t have ping-pong tables, nap pods, dietitians, chiropractors, or pets sleeping under our desks. We have cubicles, open floor lined with desks, and large conference rooms sandwiched in between executive offices. In 2019, working for Corporate IT seems like the last resort for a technologist. Everyone goes to interviews at FAANG and startups. Even smaller companies with fun data science projects will attract more new graduates than Corporate IT departments.
I worked in Corporate IT (investment banking) my entire career. I rose through the ranks, made global moves, and moved cross-functionally. I dealt with bureaucratic hooplas, learned to survive in toxic environments, and weathered countless rounds of layoffs. I also participated in fun projects, developed innovative solutions, and worked side by side with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
Disclaimer: I worked in investment banking, an industry that had a big budget to spend on IT. A lot of my experiences are just my experiences. You may have a different experience altogether. This article is meant to enlighten and inspire technologists who thought working for Corporate IT is a step-down. It’s not, it’s a step sideways. Today’s Data Science jobs require a lot of the skills that a Corporate IT technologist practices every day.
Here’s What It’s Like to Work in Corporate IT
1. You develop systems and not just software
In Corporate IT, as a developer, you work on the development of entire systems (Frontend, backend, services, data ETL, data warehousing, and data mining). If you’re lucky to be a part of a small development team, you may be able to work on new projects from end-to-end. These projects might take one to two years, but you participate from the beginning to the end, across different platforms, developing many parts of the system, and writing in different languages. If you start as a junior developer, having this type of experience is invaluable. It can affect the way that you think as a developer. It not only allows you to think more about platforms, architecture, upstream, downstream, and your client’s needs, it also allows you to learn from many kinds of developers: frontend developer, backend developer, network engineer, database guru, etc.
2. You learn to think in terms of plug and play.
In Corporate IT, you’re often plugging into downstream systems or developing components to plug into existing systems. Legacy systems are always a consideration when you make development decisions. Although this can complicate matters, you’re challenged to think outside the box. Often, you’re walking a thin line between optimization, cost, and viability. As a developer, it prevents you from having tunnel-vision and allows you to see the big picture.
3. Training is paid for and structured
The best part of working for Corporate IT is training. Often, development team managers will sign you up for a certain amount of training, just to keep you from being complacent between projects. The training is often based on your individual career path within the company. If you’re working in an industry that involves sophisticated business knowledge, you may also be given business training. As our technology roles grow to be more multidisciplinary, having a variety of knowledge, besides technology, is invaluable.
4. You’re not on the edge of technology but you are on the edge of reliable technology
In Corporate IT, although there’s a lot of experimentation with new technology, it often takes a while before new technologies can be incorporated into development projects. In my experience, the infrastructure team often tests new technologies and recommends best practices. This is also due to the lengths of corporate licensing agreements. On the other hand, one upgrade has the potential to wreak havoc on different projects and affect different business areas. Therefore, it usually takes some time for the infrastructure team to figure out all the risks and come up with the right recommendations.
5. You develop systems centered around data.
In the era of Big Data, it’s exciting to work in Corporate IT due to the vast amount of data you work with. Even before the movement toward Big Data, data has always been a major issue in Corporate IT. Housing data, mining data, and making sense of data for business needs has always been a struggle. With the big data movement, there are now more tools available to analyze this data. The “data-centric” thought process is often embedded in everyday IT tasks — it’s never an afterthought. It’s moved to the center of most projects.
6. You work on global teams
One of the greatest skills I learned in Corporate IT is communication. Communication is complicated in the corporate setting. Even junior developers may be thrust immediately into working on Global teams. In this kind of setting, conference calls, chats, and internal emails all help to sharpen your communication skills. On top of that, in Corporate IT teams, there’s a line of hierarchy. Learning to communicate up, down, and sideways are all important to a developer. From early on, you’ll learn to communicate complex technical concepts using clear and concise language to a variety of technical and business people.
7. You work cross-functionally almost every day, even when your job description doesn’t say that
You might be working on development projects for one specific department and report to one development team manager. Even then, you’ll also be working cross-functionally. There are always support rotations for developers to interface with system support personnel or infrastructure support personnel. Roughly 10% to 20% of your time will be spent taking support calls. At the same time, because business requirements drive all development projects, there’s always a business analyst, a project manager or testers from the business side that you interface with frequently. Regular IT socials will involve colleagues in other IT departments.
8. You work with older technology that most people have forgotten about
This is the one pain point that most technologists in Corporate IT complain about. Most people have forgotten about Mainframe Systems and JCLs. But in corporate IT you’ll still be dealing with data coming from these legacy systems. Once in a while, due to the number of people on vacation at the same time, you’ll receive a phone call about a system that uses this ancient technology. This is when you learn that a remote developer far away somewhere in Europe or Asia is the only expert who still knows how to handle it.
9. You work long hours for low pay — there’s no glamour
Working in Corporate IT is not a job to brag about. Despite the fact it’s a professional job, you are typically paid half the salary of startups and FAANG. There’s also no stock options or fancy perks. Sometimes, depending on the team that you work in, you can’t count on job security. Although there’s ample opportunity for upward mobility, you have to play your cards right. This is why you must find the “right” Corporate IT job that suits your skillset. Once you find that, it may be better for your career than working for startups or FAANG.
10. You work with people from many backgrounds
After a while, you can forget that you are in America — the environment feels like the United Nations.
Most developers are first-generation Americans or immigrants in Corporate IT. The senior managers are often Americans. The middle managers are frequently first-generation Americans who are of immigrant descent. It can feel like working in the United Nations. Particularly if there are a disproportionate number of people in your team from one ethnic background, you might feel a bit lonely. I have worked in mostly Indian teams and worked with mostly Chinese teams. At one time, I almost joined a mostly Russian team. Office sports pools often revolve around soccer or rugby. If you mention American football, everyone will think that you’re the new Business Analyst freshly transferred from the business side.
11. You learn to deal with boredom and BS
I call it the B&Bs. But honestly, people who work in Corporate IT knows this. It’s an accepted part of the job to be bored and to deal with BS.
By boredom, I mean coding the same type of systems, fixing the same types of bugs, and working with the same types of data for years on end. Many people who stay on the same team for five years or more are frequently bored from day-to-day work. You can lose motivation pretty fast.
By BS I mean bureaucracy. There’s just a lot of it. Easy things like getting signoff for one little bug fix can take weeks and have to go through a lot of people. As you go up the Corporate ladder, you end up dealing with more and more BS. The upside is that you develop every kind of mechanism to deal with both boredom and BS.
12. You learn to deal with inequality
In Corporate IT, other than gender and racial inequality, you will learn to deal with ageism as well. There are many technologists from the older generation waiting for retirement in Corporate IT. Younger managers are rarely successful in these types of teams. You learn to respect people who are much older than you, no matter what skillset they possess. I found that dealing with the inequalities made me skeptical, sharp, and assertive.
13. You learn to work the hierarchy
After being inside the Corporate hierarchy, you start to feel the weight of it and the restrictions of it. After your second or third year, with a bit of seniority, you will start to push against the hierarchy. If you have colleagues who are successful in working the hierarchy, you can quickly learn from them to get around many bureaucratic hooplas and negotiate your way to success. You also learn the art of managing up.
14. You use performance reviews to get your next job
In the corporate environment, it’s all about meritocracy. If you don’t negotiate around the time of your performance review, then you’ll be taken for a ride. Almost everyone who’s doing good work will try to negotiate next year’s pay package around performance review time.
15. Even though you’re a developer, you learn troubleshooting skills that will put any all-star system support person to shame
Usually, in Corporate IT, members of the development team are the third and fourth lines of support. This usually requires around 10 to 20% of a developer’s time. You’ll interface with system support teams (1st line and 2nd line support) from different regions. Especially during releases, you will be the go-to person to resolve the most critical issues. Since data complicates matters exponentially, you will likely trace that piece of “rogue” data through many systems and system components to hunt down a potential bug that generated it.
16. You use a whole week each year to investigate all the corporate perks and take full advantage of them
In between projects, to deal with the persistent nag of boredom, when you can’t refactor another piece of code, you will log in to that website that contains all your corporate perks. You’ll figure out all the discounts to shows, movies, chiropractors, childcare, sports gyms, and even bakeries. Just making all the appointments, and signing up for all the discounts can take a full week.
17. You will learn to network fast
When you work in Corporate IT, the buzzword is always “layoff”. You’re working under the threat of it. Even in good years, you are going out for drinks with friends who work in the same industry. It can help to know who’s just left what position at which firm to scope out your own next emergency career move.
18. You will pull all your hair out and have nightmares about the legacy codebase you just checked out
Do I need to explain this one? I mean, just the horror of finding those ten lines of code that does absolutely nothing written by a team years ago! People I know have quit their jobs because they couldn’t see the end of refactoring code that should have been scrapped altogether.
19. You will have completely ineffective technical managers
Yes, you may not be able to admit this to yourself when it happens to you. I mean I have seen some really good technical managers. But there’s always that one ineffective technical manager. Usually, they have been with the company for 15 years and they know the systems inside and out. They will likely work at their jobs until retirement. But you don’t have to work on their team. When you encounter them, just try to survive. If you do a good job, opportunities will come along when you can move out of that team and into better pastures.
20. You will learn: it’s a small world
I worked in a big industry — yet, everyone seemed to know each other. There may be hundreds of thousands of people who work in your industry. But, they don’t all work in your city. The chances are, there are just a few thousand people in your city who work for companies in your industry. When there are just a handful of good managers, who each have a small group of loyal developers following them from company to company, the world can feel pretty small.
Corporate IT may not be glamorous. It may not be your first career choice. But it’s still ripe with good, solid opportunities to develop your career. If you’re just starting your career, know that the hurdles you deal with in Corporate IT can set you up for much bigger opportunities later on. You learn to see the “big picture”, work with data, and work with an amalgam of technologies. At the same time, you learn to deal with corporate hierarchy, learn soft skills, and learn to work with different types of people. In a few years, you may become a prized candidate at a startup or another technology company.
What are you waiting for?