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.