Some Suggestions for IT Professionals and Students

It’s the bottom of the 9th inning and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays by five runs. The Rays seem to be in a position for an easy win; just three more outs in the game with plenty of breathing room in case the Jays rally. Rays relief pitcher Chad Orvella is called to work, but unfortunately he gives up a walk and then gives up two back-to-back doubles, scoring two runs.

After those mistakes, Orvella is replaced with reliever Shawn Camp who once again walks the first batter he faces, and then gives up a double, scoring two more runs. With the Rays now only leading by one, Casey Fossum is called in to pitch, who gives up a double to score the run that ties the game. As if it couldn’t get any worse, Tim Corcoran walks two batters in a row to load the bases.

Facing Aaron Hill, Corcoran finds himself in a 3-0 count. One wrong pitch and he’s going to lose the game in the most embarrassing form possible; walking home the winning run. On the 3-0 count, Corcoran throws a ball low into the dirt, in turn walking home the winning run.

It’s a scene that is all too familiar with the Devil Rays relief pitching staff. Starting pitchers can pitch a shut-out – even a perfect game – but rest assured the relievers will undoubtedly blow the game more times than not. Baseball games are no doubt a team effort, but oftentimes one person can cause the game to be won or lost.

My apologies for rambling on about baseball, especially to those who hate the sport, but bear with me because I’m trying to make a point: I’m not saying that the Devil Rays lose all of their games because of the relief pitchers. In fact, many times the relief pitching staff has saved games for the Rays. My point is that a team consists of different parts, and when one part is lacking, the team as a whole ends up suffering because of it.

Now, compare this baseball team whose supreme goal of winning baseball games, with a business whose goal is to make money.

For a business to be successful, it undoubtedly takes a team effort to do so. And when one part of that team is lacking, or not operating at its full potential, it directly affects the ability of the business as a whole to make money. The part of a business that I will be discussing is the information technology department.

It is my belief that information technology has changed positions over time to something that just works, rather than working for the business. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines information technology as, “the technology involving the development, maintenance, and use of computer systems, software, and networks for the processing and distribution of data.” Information technology should evolve to where the backend infrastructure becomes more of a utility; and IT professionals should downshift, take a step back, and evaluate the utilities they have and how they can increase the productivity of a business as a whole.

I work as an IT manager for a smaller investment banking firm based out of Tampa, Florida. In the short two years that I have worked with them, I have picked up quite a bit. Being a computer engineering student at the University of South Florida, I was being taught with a very closed mind-set. My goal in everything I did was to simply look at it, possibly make it better, and then make sure that it didn’t break. Nothing in my scope of mind-set had anything to do with evaluating how it helped the business or how I could better adapt it to our business. All I had to do was just make sure that it worked.

A few employees and I would always joke and say that the main role of my job was to keep the chairman’s BlackBerry hand held phone operating at all costs. And for nearly two years that is the course that I steered our IT resources. Never mind that a user can’t efficiently use the latest suite of Microsoft Office applications; as long as the software and backend was working and functional everything was alright and I was doing my job.

When a RAID card in the fileserver decided it wanted to bite the dust and leave us hanging, I corrected the problem and had it back up and running. When Microsoft Exchange decided to take a dump, I was there to rebuild the server and pull our data off of tape backup. Never mind trying to find a solution that would prevent these problems in the future a la redundancy via failover; if they were fixed, it was all right and I was doing my job.

It wasn’t until our chairman decided to take some measures to expand the company with an individual that studied business organization and productivity that I finally learned that in order for my information technology resources to support the company the most, I needed to change my mind-set. After several discussions with this new individual that was brought in, we decided that we needed to take our IT department an entirely different way.

Here is another example: I learned very easily that toaster ovens can be dangerous appliances when not used correctly. One morning I was greeted with the smell of severely burnt food. Upon making my way to the kitchen, it turned out that my sister had neglected to unplug the toaster oven and it had stayed on, cooking her bagel beyond well-done. Strangely enough, one day a house down the street had caught fire and burned to the ground. Firefighters investigated after the flames and smoke had died down and found that the reason for the fire was that the toaster oven was left plugged in and turned on, and had overheated, caught fire, and eventually burned the house down.

Instead of setting fire to overcooked bagels and creating fire hazards for homes, why couldn’t someone think of a way to prevent these things from happening? Well, some genius created toaster ovens that automatically shut off after time so that they wouldn’t overheat and cause burnt bagels and fires. Because one person decided to take a step back and evaluate how the toaster oven and the human interacted, they found a gap and filled it in by making the toaster oven a safer appliance to use.

While other engineers were concerned with simply cooking food in a compact and affordable appliance, another engineer was able to look at the whole thing and make a huge improvement to the product. Now, which engineer do you think got a bigger Christmas bonus?

Compare information technology to engineering a toaster oven. You can simply build a network and software system; you can also build a simple toaster oven. But, where you really add value is when you look at information technology and the toaster oven and evaluate how people interact with it, how you can make the process more efficient, and what you need to do in order to make the process more efficient.

Information technology has been viewed as something that just is; and something that just isn’t when it’s not working. You can have quite an impressive server farm, network, and every software suite you can think of, but what good does it do when the business isn’t using it effectively and productively? In my opinion, information technology should be viewed in two parts: the backend utility, and the ways and processes in which it helps the business.

E-mail and internet have become something as common as electricity and water in today’s world. You don’t expect utilities such as water and electricity to have problems. When people lose electricity for a minute, they get quite irritated. After all, electricity is something simple that should always be working no matter what. I mean, we really need it, and we really can’t function without it.

E-mail has become so commonplace that it should become a utility. IT departments should fortify their internet and e-mail systems so that they don’t have to worry about them. Automatic failover techniques should be in place for redundancy in case there is ever a problem. A couple minutes of e-mail downtime can often be devastating to a business. Instead of just repairing a downed e-mail system, next time take a step back and look at what you need to do to prevent downtime in the future and this will help support the business as a whole.

Information technology needs to merge into something that is constantly watching the business and what direction they are going toward. In doing so, IT professionals can plan ahead and upgrade their backend utilities to blend with the business’s goals. Instead of just rolling out new tools and capabilities on the backend, IT professionals should watch the user community, evaluate how they can best utilize the tools, and then make sure that they are trained on using them most productively.

I have had the privilege of speaking with several business leaders in order to gain guidance in my schooling and career choices. I have talked to several people that work for firms such as wireless communications, business development, software design, and embedded systems. Time and time again I am told that learning the languages and applications are only a small part of the picture. With more and more competition due to outsourcing, businesses today are looking for people that have this knowledge, but can also evaluate how the customer uses a product, and how a product can be most effectively designed for the customer. Skills such as marketing, public speaking, and business development are becoming a requirement along with the basic knowledge of information technology or computer science and engineering.

Having these business-related skills will help improve your value in the marketplace. If a company is interviewing for a job opportunity, they would rather have someone with business skills in addition to core IT and computer science/engineering knowledge. If you can code in C, or if you know every bit of SQL language that can possibly be known, what does it matter if you can’t look at the whole picture and leverage your knowledge to help make the entire process more efficient and productive?

In addition to core curriculum and knowledge, nowadays it is extremely important to gain an understanding of the business function and learn how to evaluate a company’s work flow and cater your abilities to make it better as a whole. Doing so will better yourself so that you will have more abundant and more profitable opportunities in the job world.

Garrett Pence

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