clip_image002This following post has been contributed by Colin Chaplin, a freelance Infrastructure Architect who helps large organisations transform Microsoft-based infrastructure.   

When I joined the Scouts and gained my Computing badge, by writing a word processor for the ZX Spectrum (complete with intro music – a feature that’s not yet made it into Word 2013), I had an inkling that I was going to have a career in computing. What I didn’t realize then was that the most effective people in IT weren’t just good in front of a keyboard, they would also be on top of technical issues, could make the right decisions, influence other people and achieve great outcomes for their career and the business.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learnt. These are not how to be an “IT Manager” or diminish or discredit in any way your critical technical skills, but instead offer a few suggestions that could enable you to become an IT Pro, or a better IT Pro.

Embrace the paperwork

I’ve seen many a gifted technician stumbling when following practices that are common across our Industry, like change control or design documentation. In the example of Change Control, they will offer up a few words of what the change is in relation to, perhaps, a few bits of syntax and a vague description of how a rollback might be achieved. They understand the change, the fact it’s not that complex and are confident that any unexpected issues can be dealt with. They may also be unable to understand why a simple change is summarily dismissed.

The process is not simply a mechanism to slow you down; it’s a tool to help the business introduce change in a structured way and understand the business impacts. It’s highly likely that most people reviewing the change will not have the technical ability to assess the intricacies of the work being done.

Similarly, design documents are critical artifacts in progressing solutions; but often reading first drafts is an exercise in pain, frustration and confusion.

So why the rough ride?

Any document should take the reader through the issue in hand, explaining the business reason for the change, perhaps also providing a little technical explanation without patronizing the reader - all criteria should be fully explored. In this planning, it may even throw up issues that initially were not considered that can be easily countered at the planning stage.

Never, ever, use text copied from a website or PDF, unless you explicitly mention this in the text and use it for a limited purpose. It insults the reader. Ensure there are sufficient diagrams in the text that graphically cover all the text that’s written and make heavy use of tables and bullets to be clear and concise.

The goal is to build confidence in the reader that the person who has submitted this work has thought carefully about the work and treated the process with due respect; perhaps even a textual ‘arm around their shoulder’ to let them know this has been done before and it’s going to be OK.

This shouldn’t involve glossing over issues or risks, as that is counterproductive. In fact points that are controversial should be made very clear, perhaps even almost provocatively stated. The rationale here is to ensure that when live, no one can claim to be in doubt of the planned solution. It’s easy to change words on a page.

Own your own career

Almost by definition, we’re dealing with ‘new’ all the time and have to adapt. Many people in the IT industry see a week’s technical training course as some kind of panacea, assuming their company is generous enough to pay for them when times are tight. Others shrug their shoulders over a lack of technical qualifications as their employer will not pay for them. Neither is acceptable and as an IT Pro you should be looking to take ownership of your own development.

Training materials are cheap to come by; for the price of a night out you could have a solid study guide, there are also excellent free resources like the *Microsoft Virtual Academy to take advantage of. Armed with a reasonably powerful machine with plenty of memory you can run labs with practically any scale of solution, or better still pop up a virtual lab in Azure and close it when finished – this is a beer money approach to self-training, but very effective. Similarly, supplier exams tend not to be too expensive if self-funding is required.

In terms of formal training, think of wider skills outside an IT classroom. Whilst you may never want to be a project manager, presenter or security specialist, a little training in their area allows you to ‘talk their language’ and engage with them using their terms.

It costs about the same to go on a formal course as it does to go to a trade show like TechEd or SpiceWorld – I would always recommend trade shows as it’s an amazing opportunity to hear from people at the pinnacle of our industry and get ideas that may be years away from fruition where you are, but it will get you thinking and using these ideas as opportunities arise. Discussing with peers how they have done something and then being able to explain in your company how a similar organization solved a problem is a powerful tool.

*Microsoft are actually currently running a great MVA initiative called MVA Hero, which should help a few of those tethering on the ‘training’ edge, to jump in and get skilled up.

Know why you are there

Businesses and organisations tend to exist for one reason; sadly it’s not to allow the IT guys to build wonderful solutions. Much like the typing pool, as soon as IT staff are not needed, they will be removed. I’m not sounding a death knell just yet, but if you think of the business in IT terms, then that’s how you’ll be defined by others. Understand the business, what makes it tick and keep up to speed with developments in that industry as you do with IT, then apply that knowledge when making decisions or attempting to solve problems.

Working in IT, you’re probably seen as the all-knowing-IT-soothsayer - this needs to be handled carefully. Firstly, don’t guess or assume if asked a technical question that’s outside your skill set. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know – but I’ll find out”. Instead, attempt to avoid scenarios like this and be one step ahead by running through any new upcoming technologies in your own virtual lab environment.

There are always technical challenges along the way, but it’s never usually the deciding factor in any outcome. That’s people, money and time. While thinking about the technical aspects at the start of a project is probably the most compelling part, we must consider the business in terms of people, money, and time. If you’re lucky, you will have two of these – and considering what you do and don’t have can sharpen your thinking on the technical issues.

Know that working in IT is awesome, and be proud to be an IT professional

I love what I do; in the most part working in IT is well paid and the opportunities continue to amaze me. We get challenged every day in different ways, our work usually makes someone else’s life a little better and makes business move. So go forward and be an IT Pro!


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