Being an IT Manager: Joys and Headaches

  • Service Provider

    I had a late night meeting recently with a software development intern who recently came to work for us. We met at a coffee shop near where he lives, at eleven at night. In most professions I imagine that going to a meeting with a new staffer in the late evening would seem odd but somehow, in IT, it seems almost normal.

    We talked for hours. We talked about project ideas, career goals, academic pursuits and ended with a two hour architectural discussion about the new project he’ll be working on. Leaving our meeting at four in the morning, it was invigorating to see him excited about software development and working in IT in general.

    Moments like this one remind me of just how much I love what I do and how awful it would be to do anything else. After twenty years in the field, I still love the excitement and variety of working in IT and especially of being a technical IT manager.

    Seeing that passion in someone just entering the field is exciting too. Hopefully, twenty years from now, that young intern will be meeting a new intern of his own, late at night and reminiscing about his first time getting coffee with his boss – way back when.

    Driving home, watching to make sure that the sun wasn't about to peek over the horizon, I was contemplating just what makes IT and specifically IT management the best job in the world. I've been a manager for a decade now.

    A decade. Time sure has flown.

    Being an IT manager means managing change. It means staying technical, very technical, while also working with people. I am not a traditional manager, simply keeping the employees in line and seeing that everyone keeps working. My job is to guide, to mentor and ultimately, I believe, to inspire.

    To inspire? Really? Absolutely. If I was to describe my job in as few words as possible I would say that my job description is to "Inspire and instill passion." When pressed I would probably add "while providing gentle guidance and course correction."

    I remove roadblocks. I provide assurance. I sign off on and accept responsibility for potentially risky decisions. I shield from the outside world. I facilitate creative brilliance.

    My staff are professionals. Brilliant, quirky, hard working, self-motivated IT professionals – each carefully selected in the hopes of finding someone who brings both technical skill and unmitigated drive to the organization. These are not people whom I need to manage in the traditional sense. These are people who need me to keep the path open so that amazing productivity and cool, unique solutions can just happen naturally.

    This isn't the HR department. This isn't accounting. This is IT. If you need me to watch over your shoulder all day long to make sure that you’re still working then you’re in the wrong field. I’m not here to convince you to do your job. I’m here to make sure that you have the resources necessary to do your job to the best of your ability.

    From time to time I am called upon to engage in technical pursuits. I may help with system engineering tasks, respond to an emergency when a server is down, help with a software architecture discussion, perform a peer review, give my opinion about the merits of one technology over another.

    I am tasked with leading by example. I read books, magazines, websites, e-zines, blogs and listen to podcasts from IT Conversations. I do this everyday. When my junior staff see how much time I spend educating myself after having been in this industry for so long it helps them to see how much there really is to learn and how exciting that process can be.

    In IT we can never stop learning. Our industry is one of constant change and keeping up with it is possibly the most critical skill that we can develop. I strive to create a culture where we learn from and support one another – where we grow together as a team.

    Challenges (My Blackberry…)

    While I love being an IT manager, I am also aware of the dark side of working in the IT field and of being an IT manager in particular.

    The hours can be, and often are, long. Brutally long. The very nature of working in IT means that your work tends to become integrated with your life, making it difficult to separate the two.

    IT management is not a "leave the office at the office" kind of career and stress follows you home. Vacations can easily become nothing more than working from an alternative location involving a hotel and your family enjoying Disney World – while you work at a laptop and have room service bring your lunch.

    IT management has a natural level of stress and urgency that exists in few other fields. When HR or Accounting have an emergency it is seldom a "right now" kind of emergency. IT, on the other hand, is almost always involved in situations involving a need for immediate attention.

    It is not uncommon for IT-related problems to impact large segments of the business, making them almost completely unable to work and, in many cases – like losing a website, database or other business-critical application – may result in a situation that can be measured in dollars lost per minute.

    As an IT Manager I am tied to my BlackBerry. I sleep with it beside my bed and check it on every occasion upon which I might awaken. I then check my mail thoroughly first thing every morning and check it as I go to sleep at night. Sometimes I even keep my BlackBerry under my pillow.

    Email is only the first tie between the office and myself. There is also Twitter and RSS. With staff and clients around the world IT never sleeps. It doesn’t take a very long of continuous connected before any amount of disconnection begins to introduce its own stress and worry. Even the idea of downtime can be stressful in and of itself, making it very difficult to relieve the pressure.

    IT is demanding in other ways as well. Working in IT means always staying on top of the latest technologies, trends, policies and techniques. While this is exhilarating it can easily become overwhelming. Being an IT manager is not something that you “possess” but something that you maintain. And you must maintain it. Every day you have to work to keep up with the general pace.

    The IT field rewards those who keep pace with change but punishes harshly those who fall behind. Staying on top of such a large industry is difficult at best and doing so while avoiding burnout is practically an art form. One which few ultimately master.

    Of course, I can hardly talk about the dark side of IT without taking into consideration the current economic condition. Like many fields, IT is often hit excessively hard by the whims of business and the natural changes in economic climate.

    One year IT professionals are overwhelmed with the number of job offers and opportunities only to be left on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign, "Will Code for Food" the next. Not that I think that IT has it worse than most professions. The media loves to glorify IT when times are good and scold it when times are bad. We are the whipping boy and the poster child, heroes and villains.

    It is difficult to ascertain the exact state of the discipline at any particular moment as the field is so large and poorly defined and statistics so misleading. Even as an industry insider it can be impossible to reach a consensus about whether we are currently in rich times or fallow. Either way the opportunities tend to be there for the making – IT provides a potential for moving against the market in general.

    No career will ever be perfect and for someone like me choosing the path of passion and creativity over one of stability and safety is an obvious one. I wouldn't have it any other way. Balancing life at work and life at home is, and will continue to be, challenging.

    It is not only a challenge because of my workload or hours of availability but also one of constant social upheaval.

    When I first began working in IT email was very new and just beginning to take its place in business and in academia. Within a few years email had become ubiquitous and the landscape changed forever. Now we have instant search, massive online documentation repositories, social networking, instant messaging within and without the corporate environment. Portable always-on connectivity keeps us connected to this new social communications structure that blends our jobs into our lives as easily as our meals and our sleep.

    Working in IT continues to be both exciting as well as scary. If it wasn't scary I don't believe that it would be so exciting. No matter how much I work or how much pressure is applied to me, I am fortunate to wake up each day feeling excited that what awaits me will allow me to grow, learn, explore, create and (I hope) enable others to do what on their own would be impossible. IT is, above all else, a field whose purpose is to promote the potential in others.

    I have no idea what tomorrow will bring to IT, but I am confident that it’ll surprise me and challenge me. That might be what I look forward to the most.

    Originally published in Datamation on May 18, 2009.

    I did not remember this article at all and stumbled on it this evening. Blast from the past. In the article I was amazing that a decade had flown by. Now nearly another decade has passed!