Category Archives: Career

The Home Line

In many years of working with the small and medium business markets I have noticed that the majority of SMB IT shops tend to one of two extremes: massive overspend with an attempt to operate like huge companies by adopting costly and pointless technologies unnecessary at the SMB scale or they go to the opposite extreme spending nothing and running technology that is completely inadequate for their needs.  Of course the best answer is somewhere in between – finding the right technologies, the right investments for the business at hand; and some companies manage to work in that space but far too many go to one of the two extremes.

A tool that I have learned to use over the years is classifying the behavior of a business against decision making that I would use in a residential setting – specifically my own home.  To be sure, I run my home more like a business than does the average IT professional, but I think that it still makes a very important point.  As an IT professional, I understand the value of the technologies that I deploy, I understand where investing time and effort will pay off, and I understand the long term costs of different options.  So where I make judgement calls at home is very telling.  My home does not have the financial value of a functional business nor does it have the security concerns, nor the need to scale (my family will never grow in user base size, no matter how financial successful it is) so when comparing my home to a business, my home should, in theory, set the absolute lowest possible bar in regards to financial benefit of technology investment.  That is to say, that the weighing of options for an actual, functional business should always lean towards equal or more investment in performance, safety, reliability and ease of management than my home.  My home should be no more “enterprise” or “business class” than any real business.

One could argue, of course, that I make poor financial decisions in my home and over-invest there for myriad reasons and, of course, there is merit to that concern.  But realistically there are broad standards that IT professionals mostly agree upon as good guidelines and while many do not follow these at home, either through a need to cut costs, a lack of IT needs at home or, as is often the case, a lack of buy in from critical stakeholders (e.g. a spouse), most agree as to which ones make sense, when they make sense and why.  The general guideline as to what technology at which price points set the absolute minimum bar are by and large accepted and constitute what I refer to as the “home line.”  The line, below which, a business cannot argue that it is acting like a business but is, at best, acting like a consumer, hobbyist or worse.  A true business should never fall below the home line, doing so would mean that they consider the value of their information technology investment in their business to be lower than what I consider my investment at home to be.

This adds a further complication.  At home there is little cost to the implementation of technologies.  But in a business all of the time spent working on technology, and supporting less than ideal decisions, is costly.  Either costly in direct dollars spent, often because IT support is being provided by a third party doing so on a contractual basis, or costly because time and effort are being expended on basic technology support that could be being used elsewhere – the cost of lost opportunity.  Neither of these take into account things like the cost of downtime, data loss or data breach which are generally the more significant costs that we have to consider.

The cost of the IT support involved is a significant factor.  For a business, there should be a powerful leaning towards technologies that are robust and reliable with a lower total cost of ownership or a clear return on investment.  In a home there is more reason to spend more time tweaking products to get them to work, working with products that fail often or require lots of manual support, using products that lack powerful remote management options or products that lack centralized controls for user and system management.

It is also important to look at the IT expenditures of any business and ask if the IT support is thus warranted in the light of those investments.  If a business is unwilling to invest into the IT infrastructure an equivalent amount that I would invest into the same infrastructure for home use, why would a business be willing to maintain an IT staff, at great expense, to maintain that infrastructure?  This is a strange expenditure mismatch but one that commonly arises.  A business which has little need of full time IT support will often readily hire a full time IT employee but be unwilling to invest in the technology infrastructure that said employee is intended to support.  There seems to be a correlation between businesses that underspend on infrastructure with those that overspend on support – however a simple reason for that could be that staff in that situation is the most vocal.  Businesses with adequate staff and investment have little reason for staff to complain and those with no staff have no one to do the complaining.

For businesses making these kinds of tradeoffs, with only the rarest of exceptions, it would make far better financial and business sense to not have full time IT support in house and instead move to occasional outside assistance or a managed services agreement at a fraction of the cost of a full time person and invest a portion of the difference into the actual infrastructure.  This should provide far more IT functionality for less money and at lower risk.

I find that the home line is an all around handy tool.  Just a rough gauge for explaining to business people where their decisions fall in relation to other businesses or, in this case, non-businesses.  It is easy to say that someone is “not running their business like a business” but this adds weight and clarity to that sentiment.  That a business is not investing like another business up the street may not matter at all.  But if they are not putting as much into their business as the person that they are asking for advice puts into their home, that has a tendency to get their attention.  Even if, at this point, the decisions to improve the business infrastructure become primarily driven by emotion, the outcome can be very positive.

Comparing one business to another can result in simple excuses like “they are not as thrifty” or “that is a larger business” or “that is a kind of business that needs more computers.”  It is rarely useful for business people or IT people to do that kind of comparison.  But comparing to a single user or single family at home there is a much more corporeal comparison.  Owners and managers tend to take a certain pride in their businesses and having it be widely seen that they see their own company’s value as lower than that of a single household is non-trivial.  Most owners or CEOs would be ashamed if their own technology needs did not exceed those of an individual IT professional let alone theirs plus all of the needs of the entire business that they oversee.  Few people want to think of their entire company as being less than the business value of an individual.

This all, of course, brings up the obvious questions of what are some of the things that I use at home on my network?  I will provide some quick examples.

I do not use ISP supplied networking equipment, for many reasons.  I use a business class router and firewall unit that does not have integrated wireless nor a switch.  I have a separate switch to handle the physical cabling plant of the house.  I use a dedicated, managed, wireless access point.  I have CAT5e or CAT6 professionally wired into the walls of the house so that wireless is only used when needed, not as a default for more robust and reliable networking (most rooms have many network drops for flexibility and to support multimedia systems.)  I use a centrally managed anti-virus solution, I monitor my patch management and I never run under an administrator level account.  I have a business class NAS device with large capacity drives and RAID for storing media and backups in the house.  I have a backup service.  I use enterprise class cloud storage and applications.  My operating systems are all completely up to date.  I use large, moderate quality monitors and have a minimum of two per desktop.  I use desktops for stationary work and laptops for mobile work.  I have remote access solutions for every machine so that I can access anything from anywhere at any time.  I have all of my equipment on UPS.  I have even been known to rackmount the equipment in the house to keep things neater and easier to manage.  All of the cables in the attic are carefully strung on J-hooks to keep them neat.  I have VoIP telephony with extensions for different family members.  All of my computers are commercial grade, not consumer.

My home is more than just my residential network, it is an example of how easy and practical it is to do infrastructure well, even on a small scale.  It pays for itself in reliability and often the cost of the components that I use are far less than that of the consumer equipment often used by small businesses because I research more carefully what I purchase rather than buying whatever strikes my fancy in the moment at a consumer electronics store.  It is not uncommon for me to spend half as much for quality equipment as many small businesses spend for consumer grade equipment.

Look at the businesses that you support or even, in fact, your own business.  Are you keeping ahead of the “home line?”  Are you setting the bar for the quality of your business infrastructure high enough?

Originally published on the StorageCraft Blog.

Starting the IT Clock Ticking

Everyone is always happy to tell you how important experience is over certifications and degrees when working in IT. Few things are so readily agreed upon within the industry. What is shocking, however, is how often that advice does not get translated into a practical reality.

New IT hopefuls, when asking for guidance, will be told the value of experience but then sent everywhere except towards experience with the advice that they receive. This makes no sense. When applying for IT jobs, hiring managers and human resources departments are interested in knowing when you started in IT and how many years you have been in the field. That’s a hard number and one that you can never change once it has been set. Your start date is a factor of your career with which you are stuck for the rest of your life. You can get a degree anytime. You can get certified anytime. But your entry date into the field is permanent, it is the most important thing that an IT professional hopeful needs to be focused on.

Many things will qualify as the first “start date” in a career. What is important is getting into a real IT position, or a software development position, to affix that date as early as possible.  (Nearly everyone in the field accepts the software engineering field as experience directly relevant to IT even though it is technically not IT.)  This counts towards experience which can, in turn, count towards other things including eligibility for positions, pay increases or even vacation accrual or similar benefits. Often IT professional hopefuls do not think about the range of possibilities for establishing that entry date into the field and overlook opportunities or they downplay the value of the entry date and opt out of opportunities that would have greatly benefited them choosing to focus, instead, or more “socially accepted” activities that ultimately play a far smaller role in their overall career.

The most obvious example of an IT entry date is obtaining an entry level position in the field.  Because this is so obvious, many people forget that there are other options and can easily become overly focused on finding their first “normal” job, typically on a helpdesk, and may lose sight of everything else.

Even worse,  it is common for assumptions to be made about how a first job is typically acquired and then, because of the assumed steps to get from A to B, often the focus shifts to those steps and the real goal is missed completely.  For example, it is often assumed that a college degree and industry certifications are requirements for getting into an entry level position.  Certainly it is true that an education and certifications can make breaking into the industry much easier.  But these themselves are not the goal, they are tools to achieve the goal.  Getting work to start a career is the goal, but often those extra steps get in the way of career opportunities and a loss of focus leads would-be IT pros to misstep and skip career opportunities because they have become focused on proximate achievements like certifications rather than looking at their life from a goal level.

I have heard many times IT students ask if they should take a  job offer in their chosen career or continue with a degree path instead.  Even if the job is very good, it seems that almost ubiquitously the choice will be made to turn down the critical professional position because the student has lost focus and is thinking of the proximate goal, their education, and forgetting about the true goal, their career.  This reaction is far more common than anyone would realize and very damaging to students’ prospects.  Perhaps they often feel that since an opportunity came along before they had completed their studies that good entry level positions are common and easy to acquire, perhaps they simply forgot why they were going to school in the first place and perhaps they simply are not concerned with their careers and wish to spend their time relaxing in college before taking that next step.  Many students probably fear being able to complete their education if they take a position in IT before completing but there are very good options for this that would allow for both the critical needs of their career and completing their education in a good way too.  Taking a career position does not need to have a negative impact on the ability to complete an education if the educational process is deemed to still be important.

There are several avenues that allow for starting the “career clock”, as I like to think of it.  The easiest for most people, especially those relatively young, is to find an internship.  Internships can be found even very young, middle school or early high school and generally into the mid or even late twenties.   Internships can be amazingly valuable, both because they often allow the earliest entry into the field (specifically unpaid internships) generally many years earlier than other options with the fewest up front expectations.  Students pursuing internships from a young age can often get a career jump of two to ten years on their non-interning counterparts!  The ability to leap forward in your career can be dramatic.  Internships abound and few students take the time and effort to invest in them.  Those students honestly interested in an internship will likely have no problems securing one.

Internships can be much more valuable than regular jobs because they, by definition, should include some amount of mentorship and projects designed to educate.  An entry level job typically focuses on simple, highly repeatable tasks that teach relatively little while a real internship should focus on growing and developing skills and an understanding of the IT discipline.  Because of this, a good internship will generally build a resume and establish experience much faster than most other methods, often allowing a wider range of exposure to different areas of IT.

Another good path for getting into IT as early as possible is volunteer work.  This is a little like interning except requires more effort and determination on the part of the hopeful IT professional and lacks the expectation of mentoring and oversight.  A volunteer role is always unpaid but because of this often offers a lot of flexibility and opportunity.  There are many places that need or welcome IT volunteers such as churches, private schools and other non-profits running on tight budgets.  With volunteer work you will often get greater decision-making opportunities and likely exposing the needs to think of IT within financial constraints which, while typically tighter at a not for profit, exists in every instance of IT.  This business exposure is even better for resume building.

Volunteering is generally more difficult to do at a young age and a level of maturity and knowledge is often needed but not in all cases.  Volunteering at a larger non-profit which already has paid IT or more senior volunteer IT might combine volunteering and a nearly intern-like situation.  Whereas a smaller non-profit, often like churches or similar, might result in dealing with IT alone which can be very educational but potentially daunting and even overwhelming to a younger or nascent IT professional in the making.  A volunteer in a small non-profit may be in a position to run an IT shop, from top to bottom, before even being employed in their first traditional position.

Of course no single approach need be taken alone.  Interning with a for profit firm and volunteering as well can be even better, making for an even stronger and more valuable IT entry point.  Sometimes intern or volunteer work may continue even after traditional, paying employment is found because one pays the bills while the other builds the resume.

Even less traditional options can exist such as starting a business on your own, which is generally extremely difficult and often not possible at a young age or finding traditional work while very young.  Starting a business will often teach a large volume of business skills and a small amount of IT ones and can be extremely valuable at a potentially devastating cost.  Compared to other approaches this is very risk under normal circumstances.  It certainly can be done but would rarely be considered the best choice.

What matters most is finding a position that establishes a starting point into IT.  Once that stake is driven into the proverbial ground it is set and the focus can shift to skill acquisition, broader experience, education, certifications or whatever is needed to take the career to the next level.  All of those subsequent skills are soft, they can be enhanced as needed.  But that starting date can never be moved and is absolutely crucial.

It is often not well communicated to high school and college age IT hopefuls that these opportunities are readily available and just how important they are.  So often society or the established education machine encourage students and those in the collegiate ages to discount professional opportunities and focus on education to the detriment of their experience and long term careers.  IT and software development are not careers that are well supported by traditional career planning and are especially not well suited to people who wait to jump into them until they feel “ready” because there will always be those with ambition and drive doing so at a far younger age who will have built a career foundation long before most of their peers even consider their futures.  IT is a career path that rewards the bold.

There is no need to follow the straight and narrow traditional path in IT.  That path exists and many will follow it; but it is not the only path and those that stray from it will often find themselves at a great advantage.

No matter what path you choose to take in your pursuit of a career in IT, be sure to be extremely conscious of the need to not just acquire skills but to establish experience and start the clock ticking.

IT Generalists and Specialists

IT Professionals generally fall into two broad categories based on their career focus: generalists and specialists. These two categories actually carry far more differences than they may at first appear to do and moving between them can be extremely difficult once a career path has been embarked upon; often the choice to pursue one path or the other is made very early on in a career.

There are many aspects that separate these two types of IT professionals, one of the most poignant and misunderstood is the general marketplace for these two skillsets. It is often assumed, I believe, that both types exist commonly throughout the IT market but this is not true. Each commands its own areas.

In the small and medium business market, the generalist rules. There is little need for specialties as there are not enough technical needs in any one specific area to warrant a full time staff member dedicating themselves to them. Rather, a few generalists are almost always called upon to handle a vast array of technical concerns. This mentality also gives way to “tech support sprawl” where IT generalists are often called upon to venture outside of IT to manage legacy telephones, electrical concerns, HVAC systems and even sprinklers! The jack of all trades view of the IT generalist has a danger of being taken way too far.

It should be mentioned, though, that in the SMB space the concept of a generalist is often one that remains semi-specialized. SMB IT is nearly a specialization on its own. Rather than an SMB generalist touching nearly every technology area it is more common for them to focus across a more limited subset. Typically an SMB generalist will be focused primarily on Windows desktop and server administration along with application support, hardware management and some light security. SMB generalists may touch nearly any technology but the likelihood of doing so is generally rather low.

In the enterprise space, the opposite is true. Enterprise IT is almost always broken down by departments, each department handling very focused IT tasks. Typically these include networking, systems, storage, desktop, helpdesk, application specific support, security, datacenter support, database administration, etc. Each department focuses on a very specific area, possibly with even more specialization within a department. Storage might be broken up by block and file. Systems by Windows, mainframe and UNIX. Networking by switching and firewalls. In the enterprise there is a need for nearly all IT staff to be extremely deep in their knowledge and exposure to the products that

they support while needing little understanding of products that they do not support as they have access to abundant resources in other departments to guide them where there are cross interactions. This availability of other resources and a departmental separation of duties, highlights the differences in generalists and specialists.

Generalists live in a world of seeing “IT” as their domain to understand and oversee, potentially segmented by “levels” of difficulty rather than technological focus and typically a lack of specialized resources to turn to internally for help. While specialists live in a world of departmental division by technology where there are typically many peers working at different experience levels within a single technology stack.

It is a rare SMB that would have anything but a generalist working there. It is not uncommon to have many generalists, even generalists who lean towards specific roles internally but who remain very general and lacking a deep, singular focus. This fact can make SMB roles appear more specialized that they truly are to IT professionals who have only experienced the SMB space. It is not uncommon for SMB IT professionals to not even be aware of what specialized IT roles are like.

A good example of this is that job titles common and generally well defined in the enterprise space for specialists are often used accidentally or incorrectly with generalists not realizing that the job roles are specific. Specialists titles are often used for generalists positions that are not truly differentiated.

Two exceptionally common examples are the network engineering and IT manager titles.  For a specialist, network engineer means a person whose full time, or nearly full time, job focus is in the design and planning and possibly implementation of networks including the switching, routing, security, firewalling, monitoring, load balancing and the like, of the network itself.  They have no role in the design or management of the systems that use the network, only the network itself.  Nor do they operate or maintain the network, that is for the network administrator to do who, again, only touches switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers and so forth not computers, printers, servers and other systems.  It is a very focused title.  In the SMB it is common to give this title to anyone who operates any device on a network often with effectively zero design or network responsibilities at all.  No role overlaps.

Likewise in the enterprise an IT manager is a management role in an IT department.  What an IT manager manages, like any manager, is people.  In the SMB this title may be used correctly but it is far more common to find the term applies to the same job role to which network engineer is used – someone who has no human reports and manages devices on a network like computers and printers.  Not a manager at all, but a generalist administrator.  Very different than what the title implies or how it is expected to be used in the large business and enterprise space.

Where specialists sometimes enter the SMB realm is through consultants and service providers who provide temporary, focused technical assistance to smaller firms that cannot justify having those skills maintained internally. Typically areas where this is common is storage and virtualization where consultants will often design and implement core infrastructure components and leave the day to day administration of them to the in-house generalists.

In the enterprise the situation is very different. Generalists do exist but, in most cases, the generalization is beaten out of them as their careers take them down the path of one specialization or another. Entry level enterprise workers will often come in without a clear expectation of a specialization but over time find themselves going into one quite naturally. Most, if not all, IT growth paths through enterprise IT require a deep specialization (which may mean focusing on management rather than technical.) Some large shops may provide for cross training or exposure to different disciplines but rarely is this extensively broad and generally does not last once a core specialization is chosen.

This is not to say that enterprises and other very large shops do not have generalists, they do. It is expected that at highest echelons of enterprise IT that the generalists roles will begin to reemerge as new disciplines that are not seen lower in the ranks. These titles are often labeled differently such as architect, coordinator or, of course, CIO.

The reemergence of generalists at the higher levels of enterprise IT poses a significant challenge for an industry that does little to groom generalists. This forces the enterprise generalist to often “self-groom” – preparing themselves for a potential role through their own devices. In some cases, organic growth through the SMB channels can lead to an enterprise generalist but this is extremely challenging due to the lack of specialization depth available in the majority of the SMB sector and a lack of demonstrable experience in the larger business environment.

These odd differences that almost exclusively fall down SMB vs. enterprise lines creates a natural barrier, beyond business category exposure, to IT professionals migrating back and forth between larger and smaller businesses. The type of business and work experience is vastly different and the technology differences are dramatically different. Both enterprise IT pros are often lost moving to an SMB and SMB pros find that what they felt was deep, focused experience in the SMB is very shallow in the enterprise. The two worlds operate differently at every level, but outside of IT the ability to move between them is far easier.

Enterprise IT carries the common titles that most people associate with IT career specialization: system administration, network engineer, database administrator, application support, helpdesk, desktop support, datacenter technician, automation engineer, network operations center associate, project manager, etc. SMB titles are often confusing both inside of and outside of the industry. It is very common for SMB roles to coopt specialization titles and apply them to roles that barely resemble their enterprise counterparts in any way and do not match the expectation of a title at all, as I demonstrated earlier. This further complicates the fluid movement between realms as both sides become increasingly confused trying to understand how people and roles related to each other coming from the other realm. There are titles associated with generalists, such as the rather dated LAN Administration, IT Generalist and architect titles but their use, in the real world, is very rare.  The SMB struggles to define meaningful titles and has no means by which to apply or enforce these across the sector.  This lack of clear definition will continue to plague both the SMB and generalists who have little ability to easily convey the nature of their job role or career path.

Both career paths offer rewarding and broad options but the choice between them does play a rather significant role in deciding the flavor of a career.  Generalists, beyond gravitating towards smaller businesses, will also likely picking up a specialization in an industry over time as they move into higher salary ranges (manufacturing, medical, professional services support, legal, etc.)  Specialists will find their focus is in their technology and their focus on market will be less.  Generalist will find it easier to find work in any given local market, specialists will find that they often need to move to major markets and potentially only the core markets will provide great growth opportunities but within those markets mobility and career flexibility will be very good.  Generalists have to work hard to keep up with a broad array of technologies and changes in the market.  Specialists will often have deep vendor resources available to them and will find the bulk of their educational options come directly from the vendors in their focus area.

It is often personality that pushes young IT professionals into one area or the other.  Specialists are often those that love a particular aspect of IT and not others or want to avoid certain types of IT work as well as those that look at IT more as a predetermined career plan.  Generalists often come from the ranks of those that love IT as a whole and fear being stuck in just one area where there are so many aspects to explore.  Generalists are also far more likely to have “fallen into” IT rather than having entered the field having a strategic plan.

Understanding how each approaches the market and how the markets approach IT professionals help the IT professional have an opportunity to assess what it is that they like about their field and make good career choices to keep themselves happy and motivated and allows them to plan in order to maximize the impact of their career planning decisions.  Too often, for example, small business generalists will attempt to do a specialization focus, very often in enterprise Cisco networking just as a common example, which have almost no potential value to the marketplace where their skills and experience are focused.  Professionals doing this will often find their educational efforts wasted and be frustrated that the skills that they have learned go unused and atrophy while also being frustrated that gaining highly sought skills do not appear to contribute to new job opportunities or salary increases.

There is, of course, opportunity to move between general and special IT roles.  But the more experience a professional gains in one area or the other, the more difficult it becomes to make a transition, at least without suffering from a dramatic salary loss in order to do so.  Early in an IT career, there is relatively high flexibility to move between these areas at the point where the broadening of generalization is minimal or the deep technical skills of specialization are not yet obtained.  Entry level positions in both areas are effectively identical and there is little differentiation in career starting points.

Greater perspective on IT careers gives everyone in the field more ability and opportunity to pursue and achieve the IT career that will best satisfy their technical and personal work needs.

Contract to Hire

There are so many horrible hiring practices commonly used today one hardly knows where to begin. One of the most obviously poor is the concept of “Contract to Hire” positions.  The concept is simple: You hire someone on a temporary contract and, if all things work out well, you hire them on as a full time employee.  The idea being that the firm can “test drive” the employee for six months and make a sound hiring decision.  Maybe on the surface this feels like a huge win for the employer and the employee, of course, gets to test drive the employer.

But if we look at the idea from an employee’s perspective the misguided nature of this approach becomes very obvious.

There are essentially two types of workers: consultants and traditional employees.  At least people who desire to be one or the other.  Consulting is a unique way of working and a certain percentage of professionals prefer it.  Most workers want to be employees with all of the stability and benefits that that implies.  Very few people desire to be consultants.  It is a very high stress way to work.  This doesn’t mean that people don’t change over time, it is common for young professionals to like consultant work and desire to change to full employment at some later point in their careers.

The description above shows the problem with the contract to hire approach.  Which person do you hire?  The thought is that you will hire the later, the person wanting to be a long term employee with good stability and benefits who seeks out the contract to hire position in the hopes of becoming an employee.  One problem there, however, and that is that people who want to be stable employees don’t want to contract first.  Everyone knows that contract to hire means “contract with little to no chance of being hired afterwards.”  So workers seeking regular employment will only turn to contract to hire positions if they are unable to find regular employment leaving the employer with a strategy of only hiring those that are failing to find work anywhere else – a weak strategy at best.

The other risk is that consultants will take contract to hire jobs.  In these cases, the consultants take the position with no intention of accepting an offer at the end of the contract.  The company may spend six months or even a year training, testing, nurturing and convincing the consultant to love their job and when it comes time to hire them, they get declined.

There is no positive scenario for the contract to hire.  At best you hire a consultant who’s work style opinions are changed by the amazing nature of the work environment and magically they don’t get restless after accepting a position.  But this is far more rare than contract to hires actually attempting to hire someone at the end of the contract.  In the real world a company engaging in this practice is reduced to either hiring the least hireable or consultants with little to no intention of entertaining the “bait” offer.  This also leave the company with the belief that it has a carrot to dangle in front of the consultant when they in fact have nothing special to offer.

It is a case of an employer looking to take advantage of the market but, without thinking it through clearly, is setting themselves up to be taken advantage of.  The best employee candidates will bypass them completely and full time consultants will see the opportunity to strike.

The idea is simple and applies to all hiring.  Don’t hire a person based on factors that don’t apply to the actual job.  Hire employee types for employee positions, consultants for contract positions.  The same as you would not attempt to interview engineers for marketing positions – in theory someone has crossover skills but you eliminate almost any chance of every finding the right person.  Hire honestly to meet your needs and many problems will be eliminated.