Category Archives: IT Hiring

Why We Avoid Contract to Hire

Information Technology workers are bombarded with “Contract to Hire” positions, often daily.  There are reasons why this method of hiring and working is fundamentally wrong and while workers immediately identify these positions as bad choices to make, but few really take the time to move beyond emotional reaction to understand why these working method is so flawed and, more importantly, few companies take the time to explore why using tactics such as this undermine their staffing goals.

To begin we must understand that there are two basic types of technology workers: consultants (also called contractors) and permanent employees (commonly known as the FTEs.)  Nearly all IT workers fall into a desire to be one of these two categories. Neither is better or worse, they are simply two different approaches to employment engagements and represent differences in personality, career goals, life situations and so forth.  Workers do not always get to work they way that they desire, but basically all IT workers seek to be in either one camp or the other.

Understanding the desires and motivations of IT workers seeking to be full time employees is generally very easy to do.  Employees, in theory, have good salaries, stable work situations, comfort, continuity, benefits, vacations, protection and so forth.  At least this is how it seems, whether these aspects are real or just illusionary can be debated elsewhere.  What is important is that most people understand why people want to be employees, but the opposite is rarely true.  Many people lack the empathy for those seeking to not be employees.

Understanding professional or intentional consultants can be difficult.  Consultants live a less settled life but generally earn higher salaries and advance in their careers faster, see more diverse environments, get a better chance to learn and grow, are pushed harder and have more flexibility.  There are many factors which can make consulting or contracting intentionally a sensible decision.  Intentional contracting is very often favored by younger professionals looking to grow quickly and gain experience that they otherwise could not obtain.

What makes this matter more confusing is that the majority of workers in IT wish to work as full time employees but a great many end up settling for contract positions to hold them over until a desired full time position can be acquired.  The commonality of this situation has created a situation wherein a great many people both inside and outside of the industry and on both sides of the interview table may mistakenly believe that all cases are this way and that consulting is a lower form of employment.  This is completely wrong.  In many cases consulting is highly desired and contractors can benefit greatly for their choice of engagement methodology.  I, myself, spent most of my early career, around fifteen years, seeking only to work as a contractor and had little desire to land a permanent post.  I wanted rapid advancement, opportunities to learn, chances to travel and variety.

It is not uncommon at all for the desired mode of employment to change over time.  It is most common for contractors to seek to move to full employment at some point in their careers. Contracting is often exhausting and harder to sustain over a long career.  But certainly full time employees sometimes chose to move into a more mobile and adventurous contracting mode as well.  And many choose to only work one style or the other for the entirety of their careers.

Understanding these two models is key.  What does not fit into this model is the concept of a Contract to Hire.  This hiring methodology starts by hiring someone willing to work a contract position and then, sometimes after a set period of time and sometimes after an indefinite period of time, either promises to make a second determination to see if said team member should be “converted” into an employee, or let go.  This does not work well when we attempt to match it up against the two types of workers.  Neither type is a “want to start as one thing and then do another”.  Possibly somewhere there is an IT worker who would like to work as a contractor for four months and then become an employee, getting benefits but only after a four month delay, but I am not aware of such a person and it is reasonable to assume that if there is such a person he is unique and already has done this process and would not want to do it again.

This leaves us with two resulting models to match into this situation.  The first is the more common model of an IT worker seeking permanent employment and being offered a Contract to Hire position.  For this worker the situation is not ideal, the first four months represent a likely jarring and complex situation and a scary one that lacks the benefits and stability that is needed and the second decision point as to whether to offer the conversion is very scary.  The worker must behave and plan as if there was no conversion and must be actively seeking other opportunities during the contract period, opportunities that are pure employment from the beginning.  If there was any certainty of a position becoming a full employment one then there would be no contract period at all.  The risk is exceptionally high to the employee that no conversion will be offered.  In fact, it is almost unheard of in the industry for this to happen.

It must be noted that, for most IT professionals, the idea that a Contract to Hire will truly offer a conversion at the end of the contract duration is so unlikely that it is generally assumed that the enticement of the conversion process is purely a fake one and that there is no possibility of it happening at all.  And for reasons we will discover here it is obvious why companies would not honestly expect to attempt this process.  The term Contract to Hire spells almost certain unemployment for IT works going down that path.  The “to Hire” portion is almost universally nothing more than a marketing ploy and a very dishonest one.

The other model that we must consider is the model of the contract-desiring employee accepting a Contract to Hire position.  In this model we have the better outcome for both parties.  The worker is happy with the contract arrangement and the company is able to employ someone who is happy to be there and not seeking something that they likely will be unable to get.  In cases where the company was less than forthcoming about the fact that the “to Hire” conversion would never be considered this might actually even work out well, but is fall less likely to do so long term and in repeating engagements than if both parties were up front and honest about their intentions on a regular basis.  Even for professional contracts seeing the “to Hire” addendum is a red flag that something is amiss.

The results for a company, however, when obtaining an intentional contractor via a Contract to Hire posting is risky.  For one contractors are highly volatile and are skilled and trained at finding other positions.  They are generally well prepared to leave a position the moment that the original contract is done.

One reason that the term Contract to Hire is used is so that companies can easily “string along” someone desiring a conversion to a full time position by dangling the conversion like a carrot and prolonging contact situations indefinitely.  Intentional contractors will see no carrot in this situation and will be, normally, prepared to leave immediately upon completion of their contract time and can leave without any notice as they simply need not renew their contract leaving the company in a lurch of their own making.

Even in scenarios where an intentional contractor is offered a conversion at the end of a contract period there is the very real possibility that they will simply turn down the conversion.  Just as the company maintains the right to not offer the conversion, the IT worker maintains an equal right to not agree to offered terms.  The conversion process is completely optional by both parties.  This, too, can leave the company in a tight position if they were banking on the assumption that all IT workers were highly desirous of permanent employment positions.

This may be the better situation, however.  Potentially even worse is an intentional contractor accepting a permanent employment position when they were not actually desiring an arrangement of that type.  They are likely to find the position to be something that they do not enjoy, or else they would have been seeking such an arrangement already, and will be easily tempted to leave for greener pastures very soon defeating the purpose of having hiring an employee to the company again.

The idea behind the Contract to Hire movement is the mistaken belief by companies that companies hold all of the cards and that IT workers are all desperate for work and thankful to find any job that they can.  This, combined with the incorrect assumption that nearly all IT workers truly want stable, traditional employment as a full time employee combines to make a very bad hiring situation.

Based on this, a great many companies attempt to leverage the Contract to Hire term in order to lure more and better IT workers to apply based on false promises or poor matching of employment values.  It is seen as a means of lowering cost, testing out potential employees, hedge bets against future head count needs, etc.

In a market where there is a massive over supply of IT workers a tactic such as this may actually pay off.  In the real world, however, IT workers are in very short supply and everyone is aware of the game that companies play and what this term truly means.

It might be assumed that IT workers would still consider taking Contract to Hire because they are willing to take on some risk and hope to convince the employer that conversion, in their case, would be worth while.  And certainly some companies do this process and for some people it has worked out well.  However, it should be noted, that any contract position offers the potential of a conversion offer and in positions where the to “Contract to Hire” is not used, conversions are actually quite common, or at least offers for conversion.  It is specifically when a potential future conversion is offered like a carrot that the conversions become exceptionally rare.  There is no need for an honest company and a quality workplace to mention “to Hire” when bringing on contractors.

What happens, however, is more complex and requires study.  In general the best workers in any field are those that are already employed.  It goes without saying that the better you are, the more likely you are to be employed.  This doesn’t mean that great people never change jobs or find themselves unemployed but the better you are the more time you will average not seeking employment from a position of being unemployed and the worse you are the more likely you are to be unemployed non-voluntarily.  That may seem obvious, but when you combine that with other information that we have, something is amiss.  A Contract to Hire position can never, effectively, entice currently working people in any way.  A great offer of true, full time employment with better pay and benefits might entire someone to give up an existing position for a better one, that happens every day.  But good people generally have good jobs and are not going to give up the positions that they have, the safety and stability to join an unknown situation that only offers a short term contract with an almost certain no chance conversion carrot.  It just is not going to happen.

Likewise when good IT workers are unemployed they are not very likely to be in a position of desperation and even then are very unlikely to even talk to a position listing as Contract to Hire (or contract at all) as most people want full time employment and good IT people will generally be far too busy turning down offers to waste time looking at Contract to Hire positions.  Good IT workers are flooded with employment opportunities and being able to quickly filter out those that are not serious is a necessity.  The words “Contract to Hire” are one of the best low hanging fruits of this filtering process.  You don’t need to see what company it is, what region it is in, what the position is or what experience they expect.  The position is not what you are looking for, move along, nothing to see here.

The idea that employers seem to have is the belief that everyone, employed and unemployed IT workers alike, are desperate and thankful for any possibly job opening.  This is completely flawed.  Most of the industry is doing very well and there is no way to fill all of the existing job openings that we have today, IT workers are in demand.  Certainly there is always a certain segment of the IT worker population that is desperate for work for one reason or another – personal situations, geographic ties, over staffed technology specialization or, most commonly, not being very competitive.

What Contract to Hire positions do is filter out the best people.  They effectively filter out every currently employed IT worker completely.  In demand skills groups (like Linux, storage, cloud and virtualization) will be sorted out too, they are too able to find work anywhere to consider poor offerings.  Highly skilled individuals, even when out of work, will self filter as they are looking for something good, not looking for just anything that comes along.

At the end of the day, the only people in any number seriously considering Contract to Hire positions, often even to the point of being the only ones even willing to respond to postings, are the truly desperate.  Only the group that either has so little experience that they do not realize how foolish the concept is or, more commonly by far, those that are long out of work and have few prospects and feel that the incredible risks and low quality of work associated with Contract to Hire is acceptable.

This hiring problem begins a vicious loop of low quality, if one did not already exist. But most likely issues with quality already will exist before a company considers a Contract to Hire tactic.  Once good people begin to avoid a company, and this will happen even if only some positions are Contract to Hire, – because the quality of the hiring process is exposed, the quality of those able to be hired will begin to decline.  The worse it gets, the harder to turn the ship around.  Good people attract good people.  Good IT workers want to work with great IT workers to mentor them, to train them and to provide places where they can advance by doing a good job.  Good people do not seek to work in a shop staffed by the desperate.  Both because working only with desperate people is depressing and the quality of work is very poor, but also because once a shop gains a poor reputation it is very hard to shake and good people will be very wary of having their own reputation tarnished by having worked in such a place.

Contact to Hire tactics signal desperation and a willingness to admit defeat on the part of an employer.  Once a company sinks to this level with their hiring they are no longer focusing on building great teams, acquiring amazing talent or providing a wonderful work environment.  Contract to Hire is not always something that every IT professional can avoid all of the time.  All of us have times when we have to accept something less than ideal.  But it is important for all parties involved to understand their options and just what it means when a company moves into this mode.  Contract to Hire is not a tactic for vetting potential hires, it simply does not work that way.  Contract to Hire causes companies to be vetted and filter out of consideration by the bulk of potential candidates without those metrics every being made available to hiring firms.  Potential candidates simply ignore them and write them off, sometimes noting who is hiring this way and avoiding them even when other options come along in the future.

As a company, if you desire to have a great IT department and hire good people, do not allow Contract to Hire to ever be associated with your firm.  Hire full time employees and hire intentional contractors, but do not play games with dangling false carrots hoping that contractos will change their personalities or that full time employees will take huge personal risks for no reason, that is simply not how the real world works.

Better IT Hiring: Contract To Hire

Information Technology workers are bombarded with “Contract to Hire” positions, often daily.  There are reasons why this method of hiring and working is fundamentally wrong and while workers immediately identify these positions as bad choices to make, few really take the time to move beyond emotional reaction to understand why this working method is so flawed and, more importantly, few companies take the time to explore why using tactics such as this undermine their staffing goals.

To begin we must understand that there are two basic types of technology workers: consultants (also called contractors) and permanent employees (commonly known as the FTEs.)  Nearly all IT workers fall into a desire to be one of these two categories. Neither is better or worse, they are simply two different approaches to employment engagements and represent differences in personality, career goals, life situations and so forth.  Workers do not always get to work they way that they desire, but basically all IT workers seek to be in either one camp or the other.

Understanding the desires and motivations of IT workers seeking to be full time employees is generally very easy to do.  Employees, in theory, have good salaries, stable work situations, comfort, continuity, benefits, vacations, protection and so forth.  At least this is how it seems, whether these aspects are real or just illusionary can be debated elsewhere.  What is important is that most people understand why people want to be employees, but the opposite is rarely true.  Many people lack the empathy for those seeking to not be employees.

Understanding professional or intentional consultants can be difficult.  Consultants live a less settled life but generally earn higher salaries and advance in their careers faster, see more diverse environments, get a better chance to learn and grow, are pushed harder and have more flexibility.  There are many factors which can make consulting or contracting intentionally a sensible decision.  Intentional contracting is very often favored by younger professionals looking to grow quickly and gain experience that they otherwise could not obtain.

What makes this matter more confusing is that the majority of workers in IT wish to work as full time employees but a great many end up settling for contract positions to hold them over until a desired full time position can be acquired.  This situation arises so commonly that a great many people both inside and outside of the industry and on both sides of the interview table may mistakenly believe that all cases are this way and that consulting is a lower or lesser form of employment.  This is completely wrong.  In many cases consulting is highly desired and contractors can benefit greatly for their choice of engagement methodology.  I, myself, spent most of my early career, around fifteen years, seeking only to work as a contractor and had little desire to land a permanent post.  I wanted rapid advancement, opportunities to learn, chances to travel and variety.

It is not uncommon at all for the desired mode of employment to change over time.  It is most common for contractors to seek to move to full employment at some point in their careers. Contracting is often exhausting and harder to sustain over a long career.  But certainly full time employees sometimes chose to move into a more mobile and adventurous contracting mode as well.  And many choose to only work one style or the other for the entirety of their careers.

Understanding these two models is key.  What does not fit into this model is the concept of a Contract to Hire.  This hiring methodology starts by hiring someone willing to work a contract position and then, sometimes after a set period of time and sometimes after an indefinite period of time, either promises to make a second determination to see if said team member should be “converted” into an employee, or let go.  This does not work well when we attempt to match it up against the two types of workers.  Neither type is a “want to start as one thing and then do another”.  Possibly somewhere there is an IT worker who would like to work as a contractor for four months and then become an employee, getting benefits but only after a four month delay, but I am not aware of such a person and it is reasonable to assume that if there is such a person he is unique and already has done this process and would not want to do it again.

This leaves us with two resulting models to match into this situation.  The first is the more common model of an IT worker seeking permanent employment and being offered a Contract to Hire position.  For this worker the situation is not ideal, the first four months represent a likely jarring and complex situation and a scary one that lacks the benefits and stability that is needed and the second decision point as to whether to offer the conversion is frightening.  The worker must behave and plan as if there was no conversion and must be actively seeking other opportunities during the contract period, opportunities that are pure employment from the beginning.  If there was any certainty of a position becoming a full employment one then there would be no contract period at all.  The risk is exceptionally high to the employee that no conversion will be offered.  In fact, it is almost unheard of in the industry for this to happen.

It must be noted that, for most IT professionals, the idea that a Contract to Hire will truly offer a conversion at the end of the contract duration is so unlikely that it is generally assumed that the enticement of the conversion process is purely a fake one and that there is no possibility of it happening at all.  And for reasons we will discover here it is obvious why companies would not honestly expect to attempt this process.  The term Contract to Hire spells almost certain unemployment for IT workers going down that path.  The “to Hire” portion is almost universally nothing more than a marketing ploy and a very dishonest one.

The other model that we must consider is the model of the contract-desiring employee accepting a Contract to Hire position.  In this model we have the better outcome for both parties.  The worker is happy with the contract arrangement and the company is able to employ someone who is happy to be there and not seeking something that they likely will be unable to get.  In cases where the company was less than forthcoming about the fact that the “to Hire” conversion would never be considered this might actually even work out well, but is far less likely to do so long term and in repeating engagements than if both parties were up front and honest about their intentions on a regular basis.  Even for professional contractors seeing the “to Hire” addendum is a red flag that something is amiss.

The results for a company, however, when obtaining an intentional contractor via a Contract to Hire posting is risky.  For one, contractors are highly volatile and are skilled and trained at finding other positions.  They are generally well prepared to leave a position the moment that the original contract is done.

One reason that the term Contract to Hire is used is so that companies can easily “string along” someone desiring a conversion to a full time position by dangling the conversion like a carrot and prolonging contract situations indefinitely.  Intentional contractors will see no carrot in this arrangement and will be, normally, prepared to leave immediately upon completion of their contract time and can leave without any notice as they simply need not renew their contract leaving the company in a lurch of their own making.

Even in scenarios where an intentional contractor is offered a conversion at the end of a contract period there is the very real possibility that they will simply turn down the conversion.  Just as the company maintains the right to not offer the conversion, the IT worker maintains an equal right to not agree to offered terms.  The conversion process is completely optional by both parties.  This, too, can leave the company in a tight position if they were banking on the assumption that all IT workers were highly desirous of permanent employment positions.

This may be the better situation, however.  Potentially even worse is an intentional contractor accepting a permanent employment position when they were not actually desiring an arrangement of that type.  They are likely to find the position to be something that they do not enjoy, or else they would have been seeking such an arrangement already, and will be easily tempted to leave for greener pastures very soon – defeating the purpose of having hired them in the first place.

The idea behind the Contract to Hire movement is the mistaken belief by companies that companies hold all of the cards and that IT workers are all desperate for work and thankful to find any job that they can.  This, combined with the incorrect assumption that nearly all IT workers truly want stable, traditional employment as a full time employee combines to make a very bad hiring situation.

Based on this, a great many companies attempt to leverage the Contract to Hire term in order to lure more and better IT workers to apply based on false promises or poor matching of employment values.  It is seen as a means of lowering cost, testing out potential employees, hedging bets against future head count needs, etc.

In a market where there is a massive over supply of IT workers a tactic such as this may actually pay off.  In the real world, however, IT workers are in very short supply and everyone is aware of the game that companies play and what this term truly means.

It might be assumed that IT workers would still consider taking Contract to Hire because they are willing to take on some risk and hope to convince the employer that conversion, in their case, would be worth while.  And certainly some companies do this process and for some people it has worked out well.  However, it should be noted, that any contract position offers the potential of a conversion offer and in positions where the to “Contract to Hire” is not used, conversions are actually quite common, or at least offers for conversion.  It is specifically when a potential future conversion is offered like a carrot that the conversions become exceptionally rare.  There is no need for an honest company and a quality workplace to mention “to Hire” when bringing on contractors.

What happens, however, is more complex and requires study.  In general the best workers in any field are those that are already employed.  It goes without saying that the better you are, the more likely you are to be employed.  This does not mean that great people never change jobs or find themselves unemployed but the better you are the more time you will average not seeking employment from a position of being unemployed and the worse you are the more likely you are to be unemployed non-voluntarily.  That may seem obvious, but when you combine that with other information that we have, something is amiss.  A Contract to Hire position can never, effectively, entice currently working people in any way.  A great offer of true, full time employment with better pay and benefits might entice someone to give up an existing position for a better one, that happens every day.  But good people generally have good jobs and are not going to give up the positions that they have, the safety and stability to join an unknown situation that only offers a short term contract with an almost certain no chance conversion carrot.  It just is not going to happen.

Likewise when good IT workers are unemployed they are not very likely to be in a position of desperation and even then are very unlikely to even talk to a position listing as Contract to Hire (or contract at all) as most people want full time employment and good IT people will generally be far too busy turning down offers to waste time looking at Contract to Hire positions.  Good IT workers are flooded with employment opportunities and being able to quickly filter out those that are not serious is a necessity.  The words “Contract to Hire” are one of the best low hanging fruits of this filtering process.  You do not need to see what company it is, what region it is in, what the position is or what experience they expect.  The position is not what you are looking for, move along, nothing to see here.

The idea that employers seem to have is the belief that everyone, employed and unemployed IT workers alike, are desperate and thankful for any possible job opening.  This is completely flawed.  Most of the industry is doing very well and there is no way to fill all of the existing job openings that we have today, IT workers are in demand.  Certainly there is always a certain segment of the IT worker population that is desperate for work for one reason or another – personal situations, geographic ties, over staffed technology specialization or, most commonly, not being very competitive.

What Contract to Hire positions do is filter out the best people.  They effectively filter out every currently employed IT worker completely.  In demand skills groups (like Linux, storage, cloud and virtualization) will be sorted out too, they are too able to find work anywhere to consider poor offerings.  Highly skilled individuals, even when out of work, will self filter as they are looking for something good, not looking for just anything that comes along.

At the end of the day, the only people in any number seriously considering Contract to Hire positions, often even to the point of being the only ones even willing to respond to postings, are the truly desperate.  Only the group that either has so little experience that they do not realize how foolish the concept is or, more commonly by far, those that are long out of work and have few prospects and feel that the incredible risks and low quality of work associated with Contract to Hire is acceptable.

This hiring problem begins a vicious loop of low quality, if one did not already exist. But most likely issues with quality already will exist before a company considers a Contract to Hire tactic.  Once good people begin to avoid a company, and this will happen even if only some positions are Contract to Hire, – because the quality of the hiring process is exposed, the quality of those able to be hired will begin to decline.  The worse it gets, the harder to turn the ship around.  Good people attract good people.  Good IT workers want to work with great IT workers to mentor them, to train them and to provide places where they can advance by doing a good job.  Good people do not seek to work in a shop staffed by the desperate.  Both because working only with desperate people is depressing and the quality of work is very poor, but also because once a shop gains a poor reputation it is very hard to shake and good people will be very wary of having their own reputation tarnished by having worked in such a place.

Contact to Hire tactics signal desperation and a willingness to admit defeat on the part of an employer.  Once a company sinks to this level with their hiring they are no longer focusing on building great teams, acquiring amazing talent or providing a wonderful work environment.  Contract to Hire is not always something that every IT professional can avoid all of the time.  All of us have times when we have to accept something less than ideal.  But it is important for all parties involved to understand their options and just what it means when a company moves into this mode.  Contract to Hire is not a tactic for vetting potential hires, it simply does not work that way.  Contract to Hire causes companies to be vetted and filtered out of consideration by the bulk of potential candidates without those metrics ever being made available to hiring firms.  Potential candidates simply ignore them and write them off, sometimes noting who is hiring this way and avoiding them even when other options come along in the future.

As a company, if you desire to have a great IT department and hire good people, do not allow Contract to Hire to ever be associated with your firm.  Hire full time employees and hire intentional contractors, but do not play games with dangling false carrots hoping that contractors will change their personalities or that full time employees will take huge personal risks for no reason, that is simply not how the real world works.

The Home Line

In many years of working with the small and medium business markets I have noticed that the majority of SMB IT shops tend to one of two extremes: massive overspend with an attempt to operate like huge companies by adopting costly and pointless technologies unnecessary at the SMB scale or they go to the opposite extreme spending nothing and running technology that is completely inadequate for their needs.  Of course the best answer is somewhere in between – finding the right technologies, the right investments for the business at hand; and some companies manage to work in that space but far too many go to one of the two extremes.

A tool that I have learned to use over the years is classifying the behavior of a business against decision making that I would use in a residential setting – specifically my own home.  To be sure, I run my home more like a business than does the average IT professional, but I think that it still makes a very important point.  As an IT professional, I understand the value of the technologies that I deploy, I understand where investing time and effort will pay off, and I understand the long term costs of different options.  So where I make judgement calls at home is very telling.  My home does not have the financial value of a functional business nor does it have the security concerns, nor the need to scale (my family will never grow in user base size, no matter how financial successful it is) so when comparing my home to a business, my home should, in theory, set the absolute lowest possible bar in regards to financial benefit of technology investment.  That is to say, that the weighing of options for an actual, functional business should always lean towards equal or more investment in performance, safety, reliability and ease of management than my home.  My home should be no more “enterprise” or “business class” than any real business.

One could argue, of course, that I make poor financial decisions in my home and over-invest there for myriad reasons and, of course, there is merit to that concern.  But realistically there are broad standards that IT professionals mostly agree upon as good guidelines and while many do not follow these at home, either through a need to cut costs, a lack of IT needs at home or, as is often the case, a lack of buy in from critical stakeholders (e.g. a spouse), most agree as to which ones make sense, when they make sense and why.  The general guideline as to what technology at which price points set the absolute minimum bar are by and large accepted and constitute what I refer to as the “home line.”  The line, below which, a business cannot argue that it is acting like a business but is, at best, acting like a consumer, hobbyist or worse.  A true business should never fall below the home line, doing so would mean that they consider the value of their information technology investment in their business to be lower than what I consider my investment at home to be.

This adds a further complication.  At home there is little cost to the implementation of technologies.  But in a business all of the time spent working on technology, and supporting less than ideal decisions, is costly.  Either costly in direct dollars spent, often because IT support is being provided by a third party doing so on a contractual basis, or costly because time and effort are being expended on basic technology support that could be being used elsewhere – the cost of lost opportunity.  Neither of these take into account things like the cost of downtime, data loss or data breach which are generally the more significant costs that we have to consider.

The cost of the IT support involved is a significant factor.  For a business, there should be a powerful leaning towards technologies that are robust and reliable with a lower total cost of ownership or a clear return on investment.  In a home there is more reason to spend more time tweaking products to get them to work, working with products that fail often or require lots of manual support, using products that lack powerful remote management options or products that lack centralized controls for user and system management.

It is also important to look at the IT expenditures of any business and ask if the IT support is thus warranted in the light of those investments.  If a business is unwilling to invest into the IT infrastructure an equivalent amount that I would invest into the same infrastructure for home use, why would a business be willing to maintain an IT staff, at great expense, to maintain that infrastructure?  This is a strange expenditure mismatch but one that commonly arises.  A business which has little need of full time IT support will often readily hire a full time IT employee but be unwilling to invest in the technology infrastructure that said employee is intended to support.  There seems to be a correlation between businesses that underspend on infrastructure with those that overspend on support – however a simple reason for that could be that staff in that situation is the most vocal.  Businesses with adequate staff and investment have little reason for staff to complain and those with no staff have no one to do the complaining.

For businesses making these kinds of tradeoffs, with only the rarest of exceptions, it would make far better financial and business sense to not have full time IT support in house and instead move to occasional outside assistance or a managed services agreement at a fraction of the cost of a full time person and invest a portion of the difference into the actual infrastructure.  This should provide far more IT functionality for less money and at lower risk.

I find that the home line is an all around handy tool.  Just a rough gauge for explaining to business people where their decisions fall in relation to other businesses or, in this case, non-businesses.  It is easy to say that someone is “not running their business like a business” but this adds weight and clarity to that sentiment.  That a business is not investing like another business up the street may not matter at all.  But if they are not putting as much into their business as the person that they are asking for advice puts into their home, that has a tendency to get their attention.  Even if, at this point, the decisions to improve the business infrastructure become primarily driven by emotion, the outcome can be very positive.

Comparing one business to another can result in simple excuses like “they are not as thrifty” or “that is a larger business” or “that is a kind of business that needs more computers.”  It is rarely useful for business people or IT people to do that kind of comparison.  But comparing to a single user or single family at home there is a much more corporeal comparison.  Owners and managers tend to take a certain pride in their businesses and having it be widely seen that they see their own company’s value as lower than that of a single household is non-trivial.  Most owners or CEOs would be ashamed if their own technology needs did not exceed those of an individual IT professional let alone theirs plus all of the needs of the entire business that they oversee.  Few people want to think of their entire company as being less than the business value of an individual.

This all, of course, brings up the obvious questions of what are some of the things that I use at home on my network?  I will provide some quick examples.

I do not use ISP supplied networking equipment, for many reasons.  I use a business class router and firewall unit that does not have integrated wireless nor a switch.  I have a separate switch to handle the physical cabling plant of the house.  I use a dedicated, managed, wireless access point.  I have CAT5e or CAT6 professionally wired into the walls of the house so that wireless is only used when needed, not as a default for more robust and reliable networking (most rooms have many network drops for flexibility and to support multimedia systems.)  I use a centrally managed anti-virus solution, I monitor my patch management and I never run under an administrator level account.  I have a business class NAS device with large capacity drives and RAID for storing media and backups in the house.  I have a backup service.  I use enterprise class cloud storage and applications.  My operating systems are all completely up to date.  I use large, moderate quality monitors and have a minimum of two per desktop.  I use desktops for stationary work and laptops for mobile work.  I have remote access solutions for every machine so that I can access anything from anywhere at any time.  I have all of my equipment on UPS.  I have even been known to rackmount the equipment in the house to keep things neater and easier to manage.  All of the cables in the attic are carefully strung on J-hooks to keep them neat.  I have VoIP telephony with extensions for different family members.  All of my computers are commercial grade, not consumer.

My home is more than just my residential network, it is an example of how easy and practical it is to do infrastructure well, even on a small scale.  It pays for itself in reliability and often the cost of the components that I use are far less than that of the consumer equipment often used by small businesses because I research more carefully what I purchase rather than buying whatever strikes my fancy in the moment at a consumer electronics store.  It is not uncommon for me to spend half as much for quality equipment as many small businesses spend for consumer grade equipment.

Look at the businesses that you support or even, in fact, your own business.  Are you keeping ahead of the “home line?”  Are you setting the bar for the quality of your business infrastructure high enough?

Originally published on the StorageCraft Blog.

IT Generalists and Specialists

IT Professionals generally fall into two broad categories based on their career focus: generalists and specialists. These two categories actually carry far more differences than they may at first appear to do and moving between them can be extremely difficult once a career path has been embarked upon; often the choice to pursue one path or the other is made very early on in a career.

There are many aspects that separate these two types of IT professionals, one of the most poignant and misunderstood is the general marketplace for these two skillsets. It is often assumed, I believe, that both types exist commonly throughout the IT market but this is not true. Each commands its own areas.

In the small and medium business market, the generalist rules. There is little need for specialties as there are not enough technical needs in any one specific area to warrant a full time staff member dedicating themselves to them. Rather, a few generalists are almost always called upon to handle a vast array of technical concerns. This mentality also gives way to “tech support sprawl” where IT generalists are often called upon to venture outside of IT to manage legacy telephones, electrical concerns, HVAC systems and even sprinklers! The jack of all trades view of the IT generalist has a danger of being taken way too far.

It should be mentioned, though, that in the SMB space the concept of a generalist is often one that remains semi-specialized. SMB IT is nearly a specialization on its own. Rather than an SMB generalist touching nearly every technology area it is more common for them to focus across a more limited subset. Typically an SMB generalist will be focused primarily on Windows desktop and server administration along with application support, hardware management and some light security. SMB generalists may touch nearly any technology but the likelihood of doing so is generally rather low.

In the enterprise space, the opposite is true. Enterprise IT is almost always broken down by departments, each department handling very focused IT tasks. Typically these include networking, systems, storage, desktop, helpdesk, application specific support, security, datacenter support, database administration, etc. Each department focuses on a very specific area, possibly with even more specialization within a department. Storage might be broken up by block and file. Systems by Windows, mainframe and UNIX. Networking by switching and firewalls. In the enterprise there is a need for nearly all IT staff to be extremely deep in their knowledge and exposure to the products that

they support while needing little understanding of products that they do not support as they have access to abundant resources in other departments to guide them where there are cross interactions. This availability of other resources and a departmental separation of duties, highlights the differences in generalists and specialists.

Generalists live in a world of seeing “IT” as their domain to understand and oversee, potentially segmented by “levels” of difficulty rather than technological focus and typically a lack of specialized resources to turn to internally for help. While specialists live in a world of departmental division by technology where there are typically many peers working at different experience levels within a single technology stack.

It is a rare SMB that would have anything but a generalist working there. It is not uncommon to have many generalists, even generalists who lean towards specific roles internally but who remain very general and lacking a deep, singular focus. This fact can make SMB roles appear more specialized that they truly are to IT professionals who have only experienced the SMB space. It is not uncommon for SMB IT professionals to not even be aware of what specialized IT roles are like.

A good example of this is that job titles common and generally well defined in the enterprise space for specialists are often used accidentally or incorrectly with generalists not realizing that the job roles are specific. Specialists titles are often used for generalists positions that are not truly differentiated.

Two exceptionally common examples are the network engineering and IT manager titles.  For a specialist, network engineer means a person whose full time, or nearly full time, job focus is in the design and planning and possibly implementation of networks including the switching, routing, security, firewalling, monitoring, load balancing and the like, of the network itself.  They have no role in the design or management of the systems that use the network, only the network itself.  Nor do they operate or maintain the network, that is for the network administrator to do who, again, only touches switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers and so forth not computers, printers, servers and other systems.  It is a very focused title.  In the SMB it is common to give this title to anyone who operates any device on a network often with effectively zero design or network responsibilities at all.  No role overlaps.

Likewise in the enterprise an IT manager is a management role in an IT department.  What an IT manager manages, like any manager, is people.  In the SMB this title may be used correctly but it is far more common to find the term applies to the same job role to which network engineer is used – someone who has no human reports and manages devices on a network like computers and printers.  Not a manager at all, but a generalist administrator.  Very different than what the title implies or how it is expected to be used in the large business and enterprise space.

Where specialists sometimes enter the SMB realm is through consultants and service providers who provide temporary, focused technical assistance to smaller firms that cannot justify having those skills maintained internally. Typically areas where this is common is storage and virtualization where consultants will often design and implement core infrastructure components and leave the day to day administration of them to the in-house generalists.

In the enterprise the situation is very different. Generalists do exist but, in most cases, the generalization is beaten out of them as their careers take them down the path of one specialization or another. Entry level enterprise workers will often come in without a clear expectation of a specialization but over time find themselves going into one quite naturally. Most, if not all, IT growth paths through enterprise IT require a deep specialization (which may mean focusing on management rather than technical.) Some large shops may provide for cross training or exposure to different disciplines but rarely is this extensively broad and generally does not last once a core specialization is chosen.

This is not to say that enterprises and other very large shops do not have generalists, they do. It is expected that at highest echelons of enterprise IT that the generalists roles will begin to reemerge as new disciplines that are not seen lower in the ranks. These titles are often labeled differently such as architect, coordinator or, of course, CIO.

The reemergence of generalists at the higher levels of enterprise IT poses a significant challenge for an industry that does little to groom generalists. This forces the enterprise generalist to often “self-groom” – preparing themselves for a potential role through their own devices. In some cases, organic growth through the SMB channels can lead to an enterprise generalist but this is extremely challenging due to the lack of specialization depth available in the majority of the SMB sector and a lack of demonstrable experience in the larger business environment.

These odd differences that almost exclusively fall down SMB vs. enterprise lines creates a natural barrier, beyond business category exposure, to IT professionals migrating back and forth between larger and smaller businesses. The type of business and work experience is vastly different and the technology differences are dramatically different. Both enterprise IT pros are often lost moving to an SMB and SMB pros find that what they felt was deep, focused experience in the SMB is very shallow in the enterprise. The two worlds operate differently at every level, but outside of IT the ability to move between them is far easier.

Enterprise IT carries the common titles that most people associate with IT career specialization: system administration, network engineer, database administrator, application support, helpdesk, desktop support, datacenter technician, automation engineer, network operations center associate, project manager, etc. SMB titles are often confusing both inside of and outside of the industry. It is very common for SMB roles to coopt specialization titles and apply them to roles that barely resemble their enterprise counterparts in any way and do not match the expectation of a title at all, as I demonstrated earlier. This further complicates the fluid movement between realms as both sides become increasingly confused trying to understand how people and roles related to each other coming from the other realm. There are titles associated with generalists, such as the rather dated LAN Administration, IT Generalist and architect titles but their use, in the real world, is very rare.  The SMB struggles to define meaningful titles and has no means by which to apply or enforce these across the sector.  This lack of clear definition will continue to plague both the SMB and generalists who have little ability to easily convey the nature of their job role or career path.

Both career paths offer rewarding and broad options but the choice between them does play a rather significant role in deciding the flavor of a career.  Generalists, beyond gravitating towards smaller businesses, will also likely picking up a specialization in an industry over time as they move into higher salary ranges (manufacturing, medical, professional services support, legal, etc.)  Specialists will find their focus is in their technology and their focus on market will be less.  Generalist will find it easier to find work in any given local market, specialists will find that they often need to move to major markets and potentially only the core markets will provide great growth opportunities but within those markets mobility and career flexibility will be very good.  Generalists have to work hard to keep up with a broad array of technologies and changes in the market.  Specialists will often have deep vendor resources available to them and will find the bulk of their educational options come directly from the vendors in their focus area.

It is often personality that pushes young IT professionals into one area or the other.  Specialists are often those that love a particular aspect of IT and not others or want to avoid certain types of IT work as well as those that look at IT more as a predetermined career plan.  Generalists often come from the ranks of those that love IT as a whole and fear being stuck in just one area where there are so many aspects to explore.  Generalists are also far more likely to have “fallen into” IT rather than having entered the field having a strategic plan.

Understanding how each approaches the market and how the markets approach IT professionals help the IT professional have an opportunity to assess what it is that they like about their field and make good career choices to keep themselves happy and motivated and allows them to plan in order to maximize the impact of their career planning decisions.  Too often, for example, small business generalists will attempt to do a specialization focus, very often in enterprise Cisco networking just as a common example, which have almost no potential value to the marketplace where their skills and experience are focused.  Professionals doing this will often find their educational efforts wasted and be frustrated that the skills that they have learned go unused and atrophy while also being frustrated that gaining highly sought skills do not appear to contribute to new job opportunities or salary increases.

There is, of course, opportunity to move between general and special IT roles.  But the more experience a professional gains in one area or the other, the more difficult it becomes to make a transition, at least without suffering from a dramatic salary loss in order to do so.  Early in an IT career, there is relatively high flexibility to move between these areas at the point where the broadening of generalization is minimal or the deep technical skills of specialization are not yet obtained.  Entry level positions in both areas are effectively identical and there is little differentiation in career starting points.

Greater perspective on IT careers gives everyone in the field more ability and opportunity to pursue and achieve the IT career that will best satisfy their technical and personal work needs.