Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Makes a Great IT Professional

This is purely anecdotal crap from the tip of my pointy head.  I've seen many lists of "top 10" skills or aspects, etc., but this is MY list, so I'm applying my own perspective.  This is all shaped by twenty-plus years of working in software development, infrastructure and server support, consulting, and so on.  None of these attributes alone is a reason to hire or not hire someone.  It's a cumulative score and everyone is different.  Quite often we compensate a low score with another higher score and it all evens out.  Or it may be that one major low score is enough to kill the prospect entirely.  I'm sure I've left some things out, and could have likely chosen better names for these "attributes" (even a better column heading than "attribute"), but it's a start.

Rank Attribute Explanation
1 Eagerness Energy is key in the IT field.  I don't need people that look at the clock more than at their task.  I have to feel a sense of enthusiasm for the job.  Eagerness is a key aspect of enthusiasm.
2 Humility No one is an expert at everything. Even for the few skills we feel confident about, there are plenty of people in the world who know more and perform them better.  Experts are easy to find.  People who understand how to fit into a team and work well with others makes the optimal capability for any operation.  Understanding that what we do in IT is not THE most important thing in this world is part of that.  Having perspective of ourselves, our role in the workplace, our function as a group, and how it fits with life in general are all components of humility.

There's nothing wrong with having confidence.  It's important to be able to explain your accomplishments and what they mean/meant to your business and your customers.  But bravado and egotistical mannerisms are a major turn-off to interviewers and employers.  Those traits almost always create friction with coworkers and are bad for a team environment.
3 Current Skills This dovetails onto "eagerness".  If at least a few of your IT skills are current, it shows eagerness and determination to improve yourself.  How can anyone expect you to help improve my business if you can't show me that you even want to improve yourself?  Don't tell me about Novell Netware, MS-DOS and WordPerfect.  Don't even tell me about LANDesk either.  Windows 7, Office 2010, System Center, Active Directory, Exchange 2010, VMware vSphere, Hyper-V, etc.  Get those on your resume and be able to back them up within a detailed discussion.

I ranked this above experience because many of us don't have the luxury of getting hands-on experience with the newest toys while at our day jobs. Many of us have had to go it alone, at home, into the late hours of night and on weekends, just to keep up with this fast-moving field. Such effort demonstrates eagerness and determination.
4 A Sense of Humor IT operates in groups and teams.  You have to be able to meld with a wide variety of personalities.  From prudish asswipes that never smile, to goofballs that annoy the shit out of everyone around them.  From lazy to driven.  From opinionated to ambiguous.  The more adaptable you are, the more possibilities exist for putting your skills to use.  Having a sense of humor is tantamount to being adaptable.  Let's face it: Nobody wants to work with people that can't smile or laugh.
5 Experience School is great.  Self-study is great.  But having some real hands-on experience in a business environment adds up to more than anything else.  School cannot teach a CS major how to effectively navigate the terrain of business politics, office culture, vendor relations, shifting business requirements, mergers and acquisitions, and the impact of paid training and bonuses.  Those aspects are powerful forces in the shaping of any solid professional.

I ranked this below having a sense of humor because it's easier to find experienced people than people with a good sense of humor.
6 Business Acumen IT serves one purpose only: supporting business operations.  Period.  Even if your business is IT, someone is doing the bookkeeping.  Someone is knocking on doors and getting contracts.  Someone is taking care of legal matters.  Most of those functions CAN be accomplished without an IT department.  Inefficient, yes.  But they can be done.  IT should make them more efficient and more productive.  IT should lower operating costs, provide advantages over competing businesses, and provide a safety net to prevent catastrophic loss of data.  The better an IT professional understands what the business operation needs and WANTS, the better prepared you will be to work together.  Adversarial IT-vs.-Business environments NEVER work out. Every one of those I've encountered has ended in failure.
7 Team Focus I'm not talking about meetings or metrics or reports.  I'm talking about sharing credit for successes and accepting blame for failures.  IT professionals who horde their knowledge and don't share it with their peers are bad for team morale and horrifically bad for an efficient and robust business operation. 
8 Appearance Dress professionally.  At least until you've been told by your employer that you can tone it down later on.  But don't show up for an interview with your hair messy, dirty or wrinkled clothes, worn out shoes (or flip-flops).  That shit is for fast food and gas station jobs.  I totally agree with Neil Patel that dressing sharp creates a powerful impression on employers and customers.  This goes along with Neil's "Lessons Learned from Running a Consulting Company" (reason no. 4)

On a subjective/personal note: I despise IT folks wearing vendor branding and logo clothing.  Don't be an advertising bitch unless they're paying to do it (and if they're paying you, don't ask me to hire you anyway).

As important as appearance is SMELL and BODY LANGUAGE.  If you don't bathe often or use deodorant you're going to offend other employees and that destroys a team environment.  Business does not like anything that destroys or impedes an efficient work operation.  Being less offensive is important to the eyes and the nose.
9 Cohesiveness Strive to get along with your teammates.  Avoid divisive or hot-button topics (religion, politics, etc.).  Make friends, not enemies.  Avoid drama. Keep your personal life personal.  Don't be an introverted paranoid basket case, but be sparing in volunteering your views and stories of personal adventures/mishaps.
10 Be Flexible Don't let your official job description box you in.  The person that looks for opportunities to do more and learn new skills is a powerful resource that adds value.  Higher value equates to pay raises, bonuses, training opportunities, and other perks.  Even if you have no desire to move up within your current organization, flexibility allows you to gather more skills and experience and demonstrates eagerness that your next employer will value.

Summary

If "fitting in" and working within a team environment aren't your cup of tea: Don't work in the IT field.  Find something more complimentary of your preferences to work alone or in a different field entirely.  The IT field ranges from small shops with one or two technicians, to freelance consultants who often work alone, all the way to larger corporate shops with dozens or hundreds of engineers, technicians, administrators, managers, architects, and whatnot.  If the environment you're in sucks, find another.  If the work you do sucks, find something else.  Don't waste your life doing something you hate.  But if you want to pursue working in a team environment, you have to strive to be a better team player. 

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