Working in IT – reflecting on a 20 year career

The end of 2018 represents 20 years of full time work in IT for me. It’s been a long time and I’ve worked with and for some great people… and some not so great people. Let’s go back to the beginning when it all began….

As a kid I was always interested in computers. Not necessarily the nuts and bolts of them per se, but what they could do for me. For games, for writing and for all sorts of things. The first computer we ever had was an Amstrad – a now defunct company attempting to take on the big boys and marketing their computer as being IBM compatible and running DOS. Ah those were the days. We had a pretty flash machine too – 512K of RAM and a 20MB hard disk drive! Yep, flash as a rat with a gold tooth. We had basic programs and games on it and it was fun to play. Dad had a laptop with a black and white LCD display and I enjoyed using that to write stories and stuff as I got older. School didn’t really have much in the way of computers and the Apples they did have weren’t of great interest to me (oh how that has changed!)

My first PC looked a bit like this. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PC1512

When I got to Uni I was amazed that every room at the college had been wired for networking! Incredible! But I didn’t have a computer so not a biggie. Girls and beer were far more interesting. The Uni had a big drive towards more computer work and so my interest in computers was reignited. The hard work began in earnest and soon enough we were running our statistics in the computer labs. I managed to get my hands on a second hand computer running Windows 95 (with 40MB of RAM!) and a little hard disk mostly for games and some uni work. I also managed to get on the Computer Users Group as the desktop support guy, helping people to change printer paper, passwords and the like. Later I upgraded to a faster P3-450 and was moved into the role of supporting the Windows Lab, with a server and 7 or 8 computers. It’s probably worth pointing out that my area of study was actually psychology and it was only through stats and experimental stuff that I had anything to do with IT.

While I was wrapping up my degree with a summer session subject I was asked to do some casual work for the Department of Psychology at the University. I agreed and that turned into a full time job. The Head of Psyc was a forward thinker and the department had several computer labs and quite a bit of server hardware supporting the staff and students. My boss at the time was great at extending my knowledge and it was here I branched from Microsoft’s Windows desktop and server products and into the murky world of Unix and Linux. I also got right into desktop support and worked with my former lecturers which was an interesting dynamic.

Prior to this work I’d come across Red Hat Linux on a tiny server one of my mates ran. I had no real reason to do anything with it, so I didn’t touch it much. My boss in Psyc introduced me to two key operating systems that had a huge impact on my career and my work today – Solaris Unix and Debian Linux. I messed around with other desktop Linux type systems, but found that for a server, Debian couldn’t be beaten. If you don’t know – Debian is the foundation of Ubuntu and Linux Mint and a host of other operating systems. We had some great little servers running, including one that had a failed hard disk but still served all it’s applications from what had been stored in memory! The shoestring budget we ran some of this gear on left a mark on me to this day – as a server, I’ll still go for an Open Source option before I investigate paid ones. The robust community support and solid performance has never let me down and I’ve kept a hand in it for years.

As computing became more prevalent throughout Uni life, the Faculty under which the Department of Psychology operated, decided to take the IT Team out of Psyc and into the Faculty at large. We took over the operations of the whole Faculty and while the new challenge was great, I felt a loss at being removed from the community in the Psyc department. The Faculty office didn’t really belong to any one department and we were even more removed from that. Our little tribe was tiny and we really lost some of the interpersonal relationship dynamics as a result of the move. Looking back, I realise that the value of those relationships in how our job was executed was critical. I tell people wanting to get into IT that interpersonal relationships are every bit as important as your technical abilities are when you are trying to get into this field as a career. Some of these young’uns listen and some aren’t really capable of good relationships and their success in the field reflects that.

I had great difficulties as part of larger Faculty staff – we were paid as general staff and given that our responsibilities entailed us keeping the whole place running this was grating. Our career trajectories at the Uni were limited – we could stay in the Faculty or go across to the central ITS but even so, still general staff and a cut below the academic staff. The high level of skills and responsibilities we had didn’t match the pay and caused a lot of angst. I topped out there and started to consider options for my next career move. The job market wasn’t great but I managed to land a role in Albury as a Network Engineer with a consulting company. I moved back and out of a big corporate environment into a very different place.

This new, private company was run by a pretty young guy who’d bought in to it and gave me my first taste of what a leader working ON a business, not IN a business was like. He was strategy and big picture focused and had strong ideas about where the business would go. I really enjoyed working for him and at this firm but had personal issues that led me away. It was my introduction to consulting work too – where I fully managed several different clients across all kinds of industries with widely different needs and I had to tailor my approach to each very differently. It was an excellent role in which I was stretched and pushed to extend my work. Linux was a focus here for our clients and my skillset there came in very handy. Lots of Microsoft products everywhere too so it really was a mixed bag of technologies I was supporting. I fell into the role of managing quite a few regional shire councils so I travelled a bit and to this day still enjoy getting out and about rather than being stuck in an office.

From here I was head hunted out to a transport company where I was introduced to logistics. Wow! What an amazingly complicated business that is! Trucks going all over the place, with loads for a million different things and all coordinated out of one office. They actually used a Unix based system for logistics when I started there and I had this tidied up and running nicely in no time. A migration of all email to Exchange and a whole new Logistics package were two of the big projects I worked on there. It was hard being the only IT guy and having very little peer support. After a two year stint I was again head hunted, this time to a telecommunications company where I worked for the next 9 odd years.

This new job was a return to the days of consulting – building the IT side of the business up from zero. The directors were very patient – it took over 2 years to start getting real traction in the region for IT work, but after that it got going. One year I was even the top biller! The lessons out of this work were plentiful. People don’t buy your technical skills – they buy you, your personality and all that goes with it. If you’re disorganised but personable then you can get away with a *lot*. If you organised and personable then clients love you. I made some hideous errors in my time, but had solid relationships that managed to withstand such disasters. I extended my skillset into tender writing and an ever widening array of different technologies and I ran a small team of IT guys and watched our workloads grow. It was a dynamic exciting time during this build up phase and one I enjoyed. The team dynamics are always challenging and trying to balance work and life became increasingly harder. My clients never called to say hi and generally a call after hours was some horrible problem. It became increasingly stressful over time and towards the end of my tenure at this company my home life was impacted negatively. I started looking for work and there is a bit out there, but I just couldn’t seem to get a foot in the door anywhere – until my current job came up and I applied.

Now I work on strategy and projects, spend time planning and thinking about executing the strategic plan. It’s more relaxed because I don’t have the urgent after hours calls, although the tempo of work and the complexity hasn’t diminished a whit at all. I still get a chance to play with my Linux servers and other fun stuff, while extending my skills into strategy and OKRs. So there you have it, one person’s journey – from start to middle (where I am now) in IT. There have been great experiences, horrible experiences and everything in the middle. Here are the key takeaways if you’re thinking about getting in to it:

  • written and oral skills are absolutely essential. Can’t write a paragraph? Can’t talk to people? Work on these things before trying to get started
  • interpersonal skills are highly valuable in IT. While we like to spend time with machines, we still have to work with humans an unfortunately large amount of the time.
  • a strong work ethic and a willingness to go the extra mile is critical. Stuff breaks and it often breaks out of hours, on weekends, holidays or the most inopportune times. You have to be prepared to fix it when needed.
  • resilience. Stuff will go wrong and you question your skills and decisions. Be tough enough to accept mistakes, roll with the punches and still deliver quality service
  • get used to change and constant improvement. IT is a bit like a shark – keep moving or die. I can’t make it more simple than that.
  • Finally, the road in IT can be lonely – we’re often working in a company where we are the only IT person and it can be isolating. It’s hard to share experiences with people who don’t understand so take the time to build a network. There is no need to walk the road alone:
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