It’s a Field, Not a Road

Over the years I have become aware of a tendency in the Information Technology arena to find strong expectations of exactly how much someone should know about certain technologies based on their job title and length of time having worked in IT.  Of course, someone’s current job title and experience level should give you some, if only a little, insight into what they are doing on the job today, but it should rarely give you much insight into what they have done in the past or how they got to where they are today.

There are some abundantly common “paths” through IT, especially in the small and medium business markets, which help to stereotype the advancement of an IT professional over time.  The most common path goes something like this: high school, four year college degree, one or two basic certifications from CompTIA, entry level helpdesk job, better help desk job, deskside support job, basic Microsoft certification, system administrator or IT manager position.  This path is common enough that many people who have taken it simply assume that everyone else in the IT world has done so as well and this assumption creates a lot of problems in many different areas.

First of all, it must be stated, that there is no standard path in IT, not even remotely.  Too often IT professionals, applying their own experiences to their view of other people, see IT as a road when it truly is a field (pun only partially intended.)  IT has no defined entry point nor exit point from the industry.  IT is a massive field made up of many different sub-disciplines that exist in little, if any, linear progression of any sort from one to another.  There are far more lateral moves in IT than there are ladders to climb.

Besides the completely untrue assumption that any specific education and certification requirements exist in order to enter IT, the widely held belief that helpdesk positions are the only entry level IT position that exists and that they are only a stepping stone job are completely unfounded and untrue.  Many, likely most, IT professionals do not enter the field through helpdesk, call centers, or even deskside support and probably not through any type of Windows-centric support at all.  While end user focused,  helpdesk remains only a small percentage of all IT careers and one through which only a portion of IT professionals will pass.  Windows-centric support is one of the most important foci within IT and clearly the most visible to end users and those outside of IT; this high level of visibility can be misleading, however.  It is equally true that helpdesk, call center, deskside support and the like are not stepping stone jobs exclusively and are career options in their own right.  It is unfortunate that such a high percentage of IT professionals view such positions as being inappropriate career goals because it is widely recognized that a lack of skilled and dedicated people in those specific positions is often what causes the most friction between end users and IT departments.

I have found on several occasions hiring managers who discounted hiring anyone who was truly interested in helpdesk or deskside support as a career and who enjoyed working with customers; and only desired to hire someone who looked down on those roles as necessary evils that should be passed over as quickly as possible en route to a more “rewarding” career destination.  I find this sad on many levels.  It implies that the hiring manager lacks empathy for other professionals and does not consider their individual desires or strengths.  It implies that the company in question is institutionalizing a system by which people are not hired to do something that they love nor something that they are good at but only hires people willing to do a job role that they don’t want to do in the hopes of eventually doing one that they do want to do.  This rules out anyone actually qualified to do the desired job since those people will go straight into those positions.  It almost guarantees, as well, that end user support will be poor as no one is hired that is specifically good at or interested in that role.  The hiring manager clearly sees end user support as not being a priority and the entire idea is that anyone going into that role will “succeed” by moving out of that role as quickly as possible, and thus leaving end users with a lack of continuity as well as a never ending cycle of churn.  Believing that IT is a road and not a field has tangible, negative consequences.

Seeing IT careers as a direct path from point A to point B creates an inappropriate set of expectations as well.  It is not uncommon at all for someone to say that anyone with five years of experience in IT must know how to <insert somewhat common Windows desktop task here> based on nothing but their length of time working in IT, completely ignoring the possibility that they have never worked on Windows or in a role that would do that task.  While Windows is common, many people working in IT have never performed those roles and there is no reason why it would be expected that a specific task like that would be known automatically.  This goes beyond the already problematic attitude that many people have that the tasks that they personally did in a specific job role are the same tasks that everyone in that job role have done.  This is, of course, completely untrue.  A Windows system admin at one company and a Windows system admin at another company or even just in another department, may do similar tasks or possibly completely different tasks.  Even a decade in those roles may produce almost completely unique experiences and skills.  There is just so much potential in IT for doing different things that we cannot make specific task assumptions.

This assumptive process carries over to certifications and education as well.  While many fields succumb to the cliche that anyone over a certain level must have a college education, it is far less common for that assumption to be true in IT.  Few fields find university training to be as optional as IT does, and remembering that alternative means of entering the field exist is critical.  Many of the best and brightest enter IT directly and not through an educational channel.  These candidates are often years ahead of their “educated” counterparts and often represent the most passionate, driven and capable pool of talent; and they are almost certainly the most capable of self motivation and self education which are both extremely important traits in IT.

Similarly I was recently introduced, for the first time, to assumptions about certifications.  Certifications are specific to job roles and none would apply broadly to all roles and none would be sensible for someone to hold if a higher certification was held or if they have never passed through that specific point in that specific job role.  The example that came up was with a hiring manager who actually believe that anyone at ten years of experience would be expected to have both an A+ and a Network+ certification.  Both are entry level certifications and not relevant to the vast majority of IT careers (the A+ especially has little broad applicability while the Network+ is much more general case but still effectively entry level.) While it would not be surprising to find these being held by a ten year IT veteran, it would make no sense whatsoever to be used as filtering agents by which someone would rule out candidates for lacking.  This is completely ridiculous.  Those certs are designed only to show rudimentary knowledge in specific IT career paths.  Anyone who has passed that point in their career without needing them would never go back and spend time and money earning entry level certifications while already at a career mid-point.  Once you have a PhD, you don’t go back and get another Associates degree just to show that you could have done it, the PhD is enough to demonstrate the ability to get an entry level degree.  And most people with a significant history in the field will often have passed the career point where those certs made sense years before the certs even existed (the Network+, for example, did not exist until I was in IT for more than a decade already!)

I am particular sensitive to this issue both because I spent several years as a career counselor and helped to put IT professionals on a path to career growth and development and because I myself did not take what is considered to be a conventional path into IT.  I was lucky enough to have interned in software development during the middle and high school years and was offered a position in UNIX support right out of high school.  I never passed through any Windows-centric roles, nor did I ever work on a helpdesk or do deskside support outside of a small amount of UNIX high end research labs.  My career took me in many different directions but almost none followed the paths that so many hiring managers expect.  Attempting to predict the path that one’s career will take in the future is impossible.  Equally, attempting to determine what path must have been taken to have reached a current location is also impossible.  There are simply too many ways to get from point A to point B.

Embracing uniqueness in IT is important.  We all bring different strengths and weaknesses, different ideas and priorities, different goals and different things that we enjoy or despise doing.  The job that one person sees as a necessary evil another will love doing and that passion for the role will show.  The passionate, career-focused helpdesk professional will bring an entirely different joie de vivre to the job than will someone who feels that they are trapped doing an undesirable job until another opportunity comes along.  This doesn’t mean that the later will not work hard and try their best, but there is little that can be done to compete with someone passionate about a specific role.

It is also very easy, when we look at IT as a singular path, to forget that individual roles, such as helpdesk, actually have progressions within the role itself.  Often many steps exist within specific roles.  In the case of a helpdesk it is common to refer to these as L0 through L3.  Plus there are helpdesk team leads and helpdesk manager positions that are common.  An entire career can be had just within the helpdesk focus sub-discipline within IT.  There is nothing wrong with entering IT directly into the role type that interests you.  There is also nothing wrong with achieving a place in your career where you are happy to stay. Everyone has an ideal position, a career position where they both excel at what they do and are happy doing indefinitely.  In most fields, people actually strive to achieve this type of position somewhat early in their careers.  In IT, it is strangely uncommon.

There is a large amount of social pressure within IT to have “ambition” pushing you towards more and more challenging positions within the field.  Partially this is because IT is such an enormous field that is so dynamic that most people really do enter wherever opportunity presents itself and then attempt to maneuver themselves into positions that they find interesting over a period of many years.  This creates a culture of continuous change and advancement expectations, to some degree. This is not entirely bad but it often marginalizes or even penalizes people who manage to find their desired positions, especially if this happens early in their careers and even more specifically if it happens in a role which many people see as a “stepping stone” role such as with helpdesk or deskside support.  This is not good for individuals, for businesses or for the field in general.  It pushes people into roles where they are not happy and not well suited in order to satisfy social pressures rather than career aspirations or business needs.

Ambition is not necessarily a good thing.  It certainly is not a bad thing.  But too often hiring managers look for ambition when it is not in anyone’s interest.  Hiring someone young or inexperienced in the hopes that they grow over time and move into more and more advanced roles is an admirable goal and can work out great.  But avoiding hiring someone perfectly suited for a role because they will want to stay where they are well suited and where they excel makes no sense at all.  In an ideal world, everyone would be hired directly into the perfect position for them and no one would ever need to change jobs.  This is best for both the employees and the employer. It is rarely possible, but certainly should not be avoided when the opportunity presents itself.

Creating stereotypes and using them to judge IT professionals has negative consequences for everyone.  It increases stress, reduces career satisfaction, decreases performance and lowers the quality of IT service delivery while making it more expensive to provide.  It is imperative that we accept IT as a field, not as a road, and that we also accept that IT professionals are individuals with different goals, different career motivations and different ambitions.  Variety and diversity in IT are far more important than they are in most fields because IT is so large and requires so many different perspectives to perform optimally.  Unlike a road that travels a single, predictable path, a field allows you to wander in many directions and arrive at many different destinations.

3 thoughts on “It’s a Field, Not a Road”

  1. I agree that it’s a field and not a road. I think the tendency in the Information Technology arena to have high expectations of exactly how much a professional should know about certain technologies based on their job title and experience in IT is also formed by culture. In some societies those who work in this field are expected to know more than their colleagues in other countries.

  2. I agree, expected knowledge by country or region is very big. Even within a single country we see this. Like in the US, IT workers from NYC or Silicon Valley often have much higher expectations put on them than their counterparts in smaller or more central markets.

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