The 9 Things You Should Know Before Starting Your IT Career

It’s about more than just the technology

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This fall will mark my fifteenth year of working in Information Technology and adjacent roles. I started out as a student worker at my university back in 2006, learning the ins and outs of networking technology from a bunch of grizzled and good-hearted vets of the industry. Since then, I’ve worked in a bunch of different roles from help desk to server admin to data engineer, at organizations both large and small, for colleges, hedge funds, and healthcare providers. I earned a Masters in a data-related field, and I’ve worked in five different states up and down the east coast of the U.S. (and I wouldn’t be surprised if I add one or two more to that list before I retire).

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).

Each of the technological solutions to this problem has various costs in terms of time, effort, and dollars. And from a knowledge standpoint, you might have a great handle on how to enact these solutions — but are you sure you’re solving the right problem?

It’s possible that the user trying to send the data was asked to do so by someone else. And when you ask that person what they actually need, they might tell you that “the auditor needs information X, which can be found in file Y”. Sure, Y is too big to send — but if you extract X from it, the requested data is small enough to be emailed on its own, no problem.

In this case, the technology problem is a file that is too large to be sent via email. However, the business problem is that a third party needs access to information X — but the need has been miscommunicated and therefore poorly understood between the originator, the requestor, and the IT professional.

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.

Remember, though, that IT is about solving business problems — not technical ones. Some issues will have you falling down a rabbit hole so deep that the time spent finding a solution costs more than the solution is worth. At some point, you’ll need to start asking yourself if it’s worth it to spend another fifteen hours — or over a third of the hours in a standard workweek — to solve a particular problem on your own, or if you should ask for someone’s help, or if you should request that the department purchase a piece of software that solves the issue for you.

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.

Firstly, your users know a lot of things that you don’t know — whether it’s about billing, or business, or finance, or insurance, or medicine, or the functioning of the organization. Keep in mind that you would look equally as ignorant floundering among the basics of their domain as they might seem to you when they can’t locate their mouse pointer. Remember, it is not their role in the organization to have a deep understanding of technology — just as it’s not yours to have a deep understanding of their domain.

Secondly, assuming that your users are creating problems for you out of ignorance will make it harder to do your job. For one thing, it will cause you to miss patterns that could be indicative of a larger issue. Your annoyance at User A for not knowing how to send email, User B for not knowing how to access the file system, and User C for not knowing how to use a printer might distract you from the fact that all three of them are actually experiencing the same issue — a network failure — that you’ve mistakenly labeled as unrelated user errors.

Thirdly, people can tell when you’re judging them. They know when you’re annoyed at them. It’s obvious when you don’t want to be helping them. That makes it difficult to establish healthy working relationships. It causes users to be less likely to remember important details or to want to otherwise help you fix their issue — and that includes allowing you to teach them how to troubleshoot the problem for themselves and their coworkers in the future. And there absolutely will come a time, whether you expect it or not, that you will need to rely on them for their expertise — and it may be harder to get the information that you need if you’ve been obviously resentful towards them for their needs in the past.

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.

Over time, the technical debt of band-aid solutions really starts to stack up. The best way to avoid this is to do things right the first time — which is not always realistic, given the IT workload. So the second best way to avoid this is to keep a running list of your quick fixes, prioritize them by most likely to cause you pain in the future to least likely, and dedicate a little bit of time each week to “Make them right”. Otherwise, they will come back to haunt you — and they will do so with a vengeance.

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.

“I feel like the maid. I just cleaned up this mess! Can we please keep it clean for…ten minutes!?” — Mr. Incredible

There are some non-technical benefits to this kind of work, however, the most important being the facetime you have with a lot of different people in a lot of different areas of the organization. If you take the time to talk to your users — not just about their broken computers, but about the work that they’re doing, their weekend plans, and even the photos they have on their desk — you’ll start to develop the ability to connect with people, put them at ease, and quite possibly even make them happy to see you when you pass them in the hallway.

Learning how to talk to people goes beyond just workplace comfort. Explaining technical problems and considerations to non-technical audiences — which you’ll find yourself doing a lot — goes a long way towards improving the efficiency and clarity of your communication overall. The practice of explaining complex technical information in simple, yet accurate language will not only allow you to empower the organization and its members to use technology in a better way, but it will also provide you with greater insight into the technological solutions you offer and the problems you solve.

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.

There’s so much more to learn from IT than how to fix a broken PC — if you spend the time developing those skills as well, both you and your organization will benefit.

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.

Again, no IT worker is an island. Develop your working relationship with your IT coworkers, and your job — and your ability to handle it — will improve.

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.

You will need to learn how to disconnect from the stresses of the work day, because you do not want them to follow you home. They don’t deserve to follow you home — especially if you’re working hard to improve your abilities and do your job well. If you’ve done the best you can do, then the issues of the day, whether technical, personal, or personnel, deserve to stay at the office.

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.

Similarly, there are other people whom I’ve had great luck with. Even when they’ve presented me with the most difficult of problems, I’ve been able to solve their issues quickly, gracefully, and sometimes even charmingly. It’s nice to have them to sing my praises, especially as a counterpoint to those people I seem destined to screw up with.

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.

The second group of people are the other IT employees in the organization. Remember, IT is a team sport — there are constantly issues to fix and initiatives to take on that will see you working with everyone from help desk to network engineers to sys admins. In time, they will come to rely on you just as much as you rely on them — so your attention to your working relationships with your IT peers is incredibly important for your long-term success.

Both of these groups of people need to trust you — but the way in which you earn their trust is very different from each other. For your IT coworkers, you need to be competent above all else — which means you take care of the things that are asked of you, delivering on them when you say you will, and in a good way, and specifically in a way that doesn’t create more work for your peers. For your end-users, you can be the most intelligent, incisive, and effective IT administrator in the world — but if you have a poor attitude or a poor affect, they will gladly trade you for someone who isn’t as competent so long as they feel like they can trust the new person more than you.

For your IT peers, pay close attention to the technology and your work habits and they’ll trust you to deliver. For your end-users, pay attention to your soft skills, managing their expectations, and being honest about both your successes and your difficulties, and they’ll trust you to take care of their IT needs both today and in the long run.

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.

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