“Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, my side, and the truth.”
J. Michael Straczynski, “Babylon 5”
Recently I’ve been contemplating more how IT works. Not individual systems or technologies, research or development, but how the field of IT works. What does it mean to be an IT worker? How does one be a good IT worker? Good, of course, is a multi-layered term. In this case, I’m not referring to ethical, but effective. (That being said I believe there’s a requirement for ethical behaviour in IT in order to be effective in IT, at least in a reflective sense.)
The quote from Straczynski, used in Babylon 5, is pertinent for many systems where it’s easy for us to look for black and white definitions. As an example, I often think of it in relation to friendships. In a friendship between two people, you have three personalities involved – the personalities of the two individuals, and then the personality of the friendship itself. Who is the combined entity, the friends, when they’re together? Your side, my side, and the truth: You, me, and us together.
There are many ways people can be effective in IT, and the field of IT you work in will help to format parameters around that effectiveness. There’s also individual parameters of course: each person is the sum of their experiences and that changes what stimuli and details they need in order to be effective.
Here’s one way I think of in terms of being effective in IT, having worked in infrastructure in one form or another my entire career: be the customer, be the integrator, be the vendor.
I have been the customer. I started my career as a Unix system administrator for a multinational company. Without a doubt, I had customers of my own during that tenure, but I was also the customer. I was the customer who engaged systems integrators, and vendors alike, to ensure my needs, the needs of my employer, and the needs of my customers were met. I had daily tasks, regular reporting and projects. I was not the business. I facilitated the running of aspects of the business by doing my job well. I did not dig for coal or smelt metal, but I helped to maintain systems that helped in those processes. I learnt many of my formative lessons there, not just “boot -fl 0,s”, “telinit 6”, or “:q!”, but the really important lessons: such as how essential it is to be a lazy system administrator (“if you have to do it more than once, automate it”).
I learnt a lot being a customer, but my education in IT was not complete. I left the customer environment and moved into the system integration space. I worked for two relatively small system integrators over almost a 15 year period, witnessing both stellar successes and amazing follies in every corner of experience: vendors and customers, my own employers, and yes, of course, myself too. As an integrator I sat perpetually on the bridge, straddling the gap between the customer and the vendor. Sometimes I would have to stand facing the customer, others I would stand having to face the vendor. And I’d occasionally find myself having to remember that I must face myself, too. I learnt how to juggle a plethora of conflicting priorities: of having to stay a page ahead of the customer in product manuals, of having to translate documentation into real-world lessons, of talking to businesses ranging from 10 person companies to global fortune 500s. As an integrator I learnt how to do everything. Implementation, support, architecture, time management, training, documentation, management and diplomacy.
I learnt a lot by being the integrator, but my education in IT was not complete. I left the integrator space in 2014, and after a short stint as a contractor (itself a valuable lesson), I entered vendor-land for the first time in my career. That was a set of new lessons for me – as an integrator I’d thought I had good insight into how IT must work from a vendor perspective. But I quickly found IT from a vendor perspective has depths of detail and focus you don’t get elsewhere. IT is not a part of the business to an IT vendor, it is the business. (Or rather, what is just an IT function to a customer, and a product to sell for the integrator is part of the DNA of the vendor.) There is a level of product information you can choose to be casually exposed to within a vendor that exceeds what most people ever get to exposed to outside the vendor. That’s not to say product information doesn’t make it outside the vendor, but within the vendor you get to be involved in discussions about product direction at a more intimate level. You get access to engineers, to support, to product managers in a way that can only happen when you’re all working for the same company.
Being a customer is a passionate role. Being an integrator is a passionate role. Being a vendor is a passionate role – but each type of passion works differently. Experiencing each form of passion is a truly enriching experience.
There is a truth to being the customer. There is a truth to being the integrator. And yes, there is a truth to being the vendor, too. In here I’m not referring to “does X do Y?”, I’m referring to the more complete truth – the truth of self; what does it mean to be the customer, the vendor, the integrator? It is the truth of perspective.
My education in IT will never be complete. (Another lesson of being in effective in IT is to always admit your education is not complete. If there’s nothing left to learn there’s no passion left to find, no incentive left to drive you.) Yet my career has been made more effective by knowing each of those truths. For me at least, understanding in IT is a three-edged sword. Perhaps it might be for you, too?