Perspective can make or break a career. Maintaining a proper perspective is very often the differentiating factor between a good technologist and an incredible one.
In my 15-ish years in IT, I’ve said a lot of dumb things. Many of them I’ve forgotten, but I can’t shake the memory of one particular phrase I uttered more than a few times back in my early days of my career. Even today, it still embarrasses me that I ever had the mindset to say these words about other people:
“… those stupid end users …”
Yep. I said that. Why would I say those words? Sure, there was some emotion and frustration involved, but even more than that, my perspective was all wrong. Being new to the IT field, my expectation was that it was our job as technical professionals to dictate standards and practices, and that the end users we supported would modify their business processes and their workflow to match those standards. I looked at most business problems as the fault of the users for not following our standards, or not using their software tools properly. Looking back on 15 years of experience, it seems silly that I would have ever held that position. But in my (at the time) limited field of vision, this was my expectation.
Fast-forward a few years. With a little experience under my belt, my perspective had changed. Through a few hard lessons, I had evolved to the point that I fully understood that my principal function as a technical professional was to serve the business, not the other way around. My attitude significantly improved, and I became a more proficient technical professional. But my perspective still had one significant shortcoming: I simply solved the business problems that were brought to my attention. Sure, I had my technical resources in order – my backups were always done and tested, my code used common best practices and was checked into source control, and I did my best to get out in front of performance issues before they ballooned into bigger problems. But I still considered business problems to be outside my purview until my assistance was specifically requested. My perspective was limited in that I was still trying to be a technical professional, rather than focusing on being a business professional solving technical problems.
I still remember when it finally clicked for me. I’d been working in the industry for about four years, and after multiple rounds of meetings to solve a particular business problem, it hit me: my perspective is all wrong. I’ve been looking at this from the perspective of “Tell me your problem and I’ll fix it,” when the dialog should have been “Let me understand what you do and what you need so we can address our problems.” That’s right – it’s not that those end users have business problems. It’s that we have business problems and we need to solve them. There’s nothing more comforting for a nontechnical person to hear, and rarely a statement more empowering for a technical person to make, than a sincere expression of “I feel your pain. Let’s solve this together.” This is true whether you’re tasked with front-line technical support, you’re working deep in a server room, or you’re a senior consultant in the field.
I believe a person can be a moderately successful technologist by focusing strictly on understanding and solving technical problems. Where one becomes a rockstar problem solver is the point at which he or she has the experience and maturity to see things through a perspective other than his or her own, while understanding and feeling the pain points of others.
An empathetic technologist is a crucial part of any superhero team, right?
Absolutely. It’s much easier to build allies and advocates that way, too.
Nice post; liked this one alot
To put your perspective another way; we have to be business professionals who solve business problems through automation and technology.
Eric, exactly right.
Ancillary questions – how can we help those new to the profession gain this perspective earlier in their careers? This blog and others like it will help, but what is missing in technology courses? Or is it truly an experience and maturity issues?
As a side note, the business managers really appreciate someone who looks at the business needs / IT solutions linkage more holistically. That’s when “miracles” can happen.
Steph, that’s a great question. How can one gain perspective without years of experience? I think the key here is to talk to people as much as possible. I like to say, “Get out of the server room every once in a while.” Early in my career, I believed I could be a good technologist without really knowing the business I was supporting. I was wrong. The more I talked to people, I learned not just about the business but about how others did their jobs.
It’s not something that happens overnight, but simply engaging with others – both technical and nontechnical – will enhance one’s perspective and make him/her a better technologist.
I agree with your post up to a point. I do feel it is unrealistic given the demands on our time and resources for IT to understand areas of the business as well as each end user, many of whom are subject matter experts in areas such as Accounting or HR etc
As such, it it right that we should expect clear requirements and realistic timescales, as these are the foundation of a successful project. I am happy to sit down with someone, listen to their problem and make suggestions, but the choice of the solution need to be made by the business, whereas my responsibility is to describe the options as non-techincally as possible and implement the chosen option.
What isnt helpful is when users just want to hand over a requirement or problem to IT so they can get it off their task list. This is often done with a sweeping judgement that its “an IT problem” whereas what is actually needed is teamwork between several departments to resolve an issue which impacts several areas.
Your post also seems to be written in some sort of utopia where all end users are helpful, precise, reasonable people. I doubt this is the case, as I know all IT people arent 😉
An interesting post though
Great post. I have worked with many “user haters”. I also believe that it goes both ways — the business folks hopefully feel that IT partners with them to work on technical solutions. The worst places I have worked treat IT as a cost center composed of prima donnas and Soup Nazis. The combination of bad perspective on both sides leads to a dysfunctional relationship and disaster.
I think that in our IT careers we move thru a continuum of perspectives based on our experience and roles. Noobs are often introduced to IT staffing the Help Desk or working in Support. They only see users that have problems and and products that don’t work. They need help to “curate” their perspectives from those that see the broader picture.
At the other end of the continuum is to partner with the Business to work on technical solutions that improve key success factors and/or provide competitive advantage.
I feel the ultimate goal of an IT pro would be to be able not just to guide and provide expertise in tech solutions — but to know the Business and market and technology so well that you can initiate solutions for the Business instead of merely responding to requests.
Anyway I ramble.
Nice post Tim and I wonder what you think about Shadow IT and how your thoughts on perspective relate? If we find large / growing Shadow IT in a company do we see dysfunction and lack of proper perspective? Does the fact that the Business decides to work around IT change your perspective?
I agree with your perspective. And it does take time to gain experience, but it can also take time for the business to realize that technical professionals can help people address problems, not just fix them. We’ve recently hired a Business Analyst who will help us get a better picture of the business.