It is an old story in SMB IT, IT managers who get their start young, stay with a single company, work their way through the ranks and become venerable IT managers who have never worked outside of their current environment. Just like the “good old days” when people stuck with a single company for their entire careers, this too sounds like a wonderful thing. But IT has long rewarded “job hoppers”, those technically minded folk who move from shop to shop every few years. The lack of direct upward mobility within single shops has encouraged this process – incremental promotions could only be found between companies, seldom within a single one.
Some people support and some people dispute the idea that there is value, or significant value, to be had by changing companies. The idea is that by moving between environments you will glean techniques, procedures, processes and general experience that you will then bring with you to your next position – that you are a cumulative product of all of your past environments. This concept, I believe, has some merit, moreso in technology than in other fields.
In technology fields, I believe that the value of moving between jobs, after a reasonable amount of time, is generally of much better value than is staying put. The reason for this is relatively simple: Most small businesses lack an ecosystem of support and training for IT professionals. It is well known that IT professionals, working in small shops, lack the interaction with peers and vendors generally accepted as necessary for healthy professional development and which is common in enterprise shops.
An IT professional, after spending many years in a small shop, effectively all alone, tends to feel isolated lacking the professional interaction that most specialists enjoy. Most small professional or artisan shops have a number of specialists who work together, share research and experience, are encouraged to work with competitors or vendors, to attend trade events, training, etc. Few fields share the odd dispersion of IT professionals with only one or two people working together at any given company with little to no interaction with the outside world or with peers at other companies.
This isolation can lead to “IT insanity” if left unchecked. An IT professional, working in a vacuum with little to no technical or professional feedback, will lose the ability to assess themselves against other professionals. As often the sole provider of technology guidance and policy for potentially years or even decades, a lone IT professional can easily “drift off course” and lose contact and course correction from the larger IT field with only light guidance offered through the filtered world of vendors attempting to sell expensive products and services.
IT professionals suffering from “IT insanity” will often be found implementing bizarre, nonsensical policies that would never be tolerated in a shop with a strong peer-review mechanism, purchasing incredibly overpriced solutions for simple problems and working either completely with or completely without mainstream technologies – mostly dependent upon individual personality. Partially this is caused by an increasing dependence on a singular, established skill set as the lack of environmental change encourages a process of continuing dependence on existing skills and procedures.
IT insanity will commonly arise in IT shops that have only a single IT professional or in shops where there is a strict hierarchy with no movement at the management ranks so that fresh ideas and experience from younger professionals do not feed up into the managers and instead established practices and “because I said so” policies are forced down the chain to the technologists actually implementing solutions.
This is not to say that all is lost. There are steps that can be taken to avoid this scenario. The first is to consider outsourcing IT – any shop so small as to face this dilemma should seriously consider if having full time, dedicated internal staff makes sense in their environment. Looking for fresh blood is an option – getting IT professionals from other shops and even other industries can work wonders. Some shops will even trade staff back and forth in extreme cases to keep from losing existing employees but seeking to “mix things up.”
Short of drastic measures such as changing employees entirely, non-IT organizations need to think seriously about the professional health of their staff and look to opportunities for peer interaction. IT professionals need continuous professional interaction for many reasons and organizations need to actively support and promote this behavior. Sending staff to training, seminars, peer groups, conventions, shows or even out as volunteers to non-profit and community activities where they can provide IT support in an alternative environment can do wonder for getting them out of the office and face to face with alternative viewpoints and get their hands on different technologies than they see in their day to day lives.
IT managers need opportunities to explore different solution sets and to learn what others are doing in order to best be able to offer objective, broad-based decision making value to their own organizations.