Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

Information Technology Dark Side header image 2

Most IT Jobs Are Like Deodorant

September 25th, 2007 · No Comments

Deodorant is an extremely important part of your life. You might not think so if you don’t use it, but trust me, your cubicle neighbors do! A few years ago I developed an allergic reaction to the deodorant I’d been using for about twenty years. My armpits turned red and swollen, and they stunk like crazy. My doctor gave me some medicine and told me not to use any deodorant until it cleared up.

Nice. It was like getting thrown back into junior high, where I was Pigpen all over again. When I was eleven I thought only stinky freaks used deodorant and was insulted by suggestions that I should use some – no wonder I wasn’t popular! I even tried to punch my older brother when he tried to give me some.

Anyway, I stunk really bad for about a week while I waited for the allergic reaction to subside. It was really embarrassing. I wanted to stay home, but I couldn’t. A few times I felt so stinky I had to apologize to cube mates. Talk about humiliation. Nobody really appreciates deodorant until you can’t use it or it doesn’t work.

If you work in corporate IT, which I define as a technology job that supports the operation of a business, odds are good your job is perceived similarly to deodorant. If you do your job well, no one will notice, but screw it up and… well, you’re Pigpen. Take billing system maintenance in an industry like homeowners insurance, for example. As long as the bills go out every month, everyone is happy. Your billing system doesn’t have to be the best in the world. In fact, it probably wouldn’t make any difference to the company if it was, unless the company takes a fundamentally unique approach to billing that makes it a tougher competitor. In other words, the billing system is, like deodorant, essential but not strategic. It has to be done to keep the business going, but doing it great isn’t a big advantage.

Some IT jobs don’t even support the operation of a business. Instead, they support the operation of IT. These jobs are less like deodorant and more like fancy, high maintenance sports cars (they’re expensive, ego-driven purchases that ultimately don’t help you get from point A to point B any better than a Ford Pinto that runs). In other words, if someone came through the company and just eliminated the jobs, the company’s operations wouldn’t be harmed in the least bit, because the functions represented are non-essential. Here are some jobs that can easily fall into this category, depending on how they’re structured:

  • Process police (PMOs)
  • Compliance organizations
  • Business analysts in IT (easily replaced by simply changing the process)
  • Project managers in silo organizations (there are usually too many)
  • What is the effect of having an essential or non-essential job function? Here are some of the natural consequences of not being that important:

  • Reduced emphasis on training and development (what’s your travel budget for conferences like?)
  • Reward systems that claim to be based on merit but don’t actually distinguish the best from the worst by much
  • Slow or non-existent employee recognition programs
  • Minimal contact with business partners
  • Feeling like you really don’t matter
  • What should you do if you read this post and suddenly find yourself disheartened about the fact that your job is essential at best and non-essential at worst? Can you do anything about it?

    I think you can. You have, in my view, two options:

    Option #1: Leave IT

    A few years ago I worked with a young programmer who was extremely

    bright, but he was going nowhere in IT. In fact, he looked like a total slacker to the casual passerby. When I dug into it, I realized his job wasn’t anywhere near his sweet spot, and it wasn’t the least bit challenging or important. He was completely non-essential, and we had designed his job that way.

    One day he showed me his senior project, and I was blown away. The kid had serious programming skills that we weren’t putting to good use. He was talented and I felt sorry for him, because I knew that if he stayed in IT he would eventually suck. So… when the right moment came, I advised him to get out, and he did.

    Where did he go? He went to work for a software company. Now, he writes software that gets sold on the market. He’s important, and his talents are being recognized. Best of all, he likes his job and is learning. He will never suck.

    If you have talent, and you can’t define your role in a way that makes it strategic, go get a job where you either create the product being sold, sell (or help sell) the product yourself, or strategize on how to make the product more successful.

    Option #2: Make your role strategic
    Successful IT careers are based on redefining your role to make it strategic. Everyone I know who has ever been an IT golden child has managed to do this. They have found a creative, simple way to make their job matter, to make the business able to perform better by doing their job well in creative ways. Here are some tips for doing this:

  • Work on the right projects – get on projects that make the business tougher (like creating a new online sales channel).
  • Avoid the wrong projects – stay as far away from IT process improvement efforts as possible. These are pet projects that don’t help the business.
  • Spend quality time with your business partners – understand the business problems you are trying to solve from their perspective. Appreciate the costs of doing business the way it works today.
  • Generate creative ideas for making the business operate better – apply your technology savvy to the business problems you now understand and make suggestions. If you’ve built a good relationship with your business partner, she’ll listen. Once she agrees, let her champion the idea and together you can make it happen.
  • Face the Music
    Most IT jobs are either essential or non-essential. This is one of the fundamental truths about IT in corporate America. If you are going to survive in IT without becoming a useless, uncreative, unmotivated, unhappy slug, you need to face this fact. You need to see your job for what it is, and then decide whether to make it something better, live with it, or kick it to the curb.

    If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
    Stumble it!

    Tags: Job Advice

    0 responses so far ↓

    • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

    Leave a Comment