I grew up with two very different Grandfathers. My paternal Grandpa was a ‘poor dirt’ farmer. He tilled the land, raised livestock and worked harder than anyone I know. My maternal Grandpa was a small business man. He was always looking at new ways to do things. He typically refused to accept that there wasn’t an easier way to do something.
In many ways, my two Grandfathers are symbolic of the two types of IT guys that I believe typify the industry. To set this up I must tell a story about potatoes. Potatoes are a staple food around the world. Both of my grandpas survived the great depression. After that sort of thing, having something to eat that can quickly reproduce itself becomes pretty important.
Grandpa Wood planted one acre of potatoes per year. Although they are an abundant source of food, it is pretty labor intensive to get them out of the ground. Grandpa would pull an old plow behind the mule and then his kids, and grandkids would go digging in the dirt pulling potatoes out and putting them in buckets.
Grandpa Spades hated digging potatoes. He determined that as soon as he thought of a better way he would adopt it. I’m not sure if he invented it or not, but he’s the first person I know of to do a tire potato tower. He started with one tire, full of mulch, dirt and potato spuds. Once they grew 2-4 inches tall he would add a tire, mulch and more dirt. He would add several more tires until he was satisfied with the yield, then he would hook a chain around the bottom tire and yank it out with the tractor. Potatoes rained down, no digging required.
In my experience I’ve observed that there are a couple different type IT guys, Tech Hackers and Technicians. I’m not talking job titles here, there are too many of them to count. I’m just trying to simplify IT into two ‘types’ for lack of a better word. (There is a third type, but it’s not worth mentioning here, maybe I’ll mention them in another blog post later) These two types do much of the same things. Most people would not be able to tell them apart. I only mention it because someone looking to become an IT guy may find it helpful. Either niche might make a website, build a network or install a server. The difference is what happens after the job is done. Technicians tend towards keeping the system running smoothly, while the Hacker looks to use the system in new ways. Either one can work the help desk, but only the Technician will do it with much zeal.
Tech Hacker – I work for a small to mid size business and I believe that is the niche for me. When working for a small business, or as a consultant, you need to have knowledge about a lot of different tech related areas. I may be installing a phone system one day, troubleshooting network issues another and doing graphic design for a web ad the next. My greatest fear is having to do the exact same thing day after day. This is why I believe I am well suited to both small businesses and consulting. I love figuring out how to use technology to solve problems, or streamline current processes. As an IT guy in this niche you’d better be comfortable as a one man show. Calling a consultant often isn’t in the budget, and there may not be enough work to keep two people busy. A Hacker prefers abstract problems and questions, and loves the process of designing a solution. They would be perfectly content to invent their own work rather than be told what to do every second of the day, making them resistant to micro-managing.
Technician – As much as I love innovating, I also love fixing stuff. I love getting my hands dirty and doing ‘actual work.’ I am happy running cable, digging a ditch, or putting a rack together. Technicians love the nuts and bolts of stuff, installing and maintaining systems. I’m more of an Hacker than a Technician, so I will have to speak in third person when referring to that niche. Technicians love daily checklists, resolving data inconsistencies and fixing broken computers. They will do well on a help desk, or in a specialty job in a large corporation where work is constantly being fed to them by external forces.
Regardless of what niche you find yourself in, you will need to have many of the same skills. You will not start at the top, but will most likely have to accept an entry level position in order to gain experience. In my experience I changed jobs several times in the first few years, learning something useful at each job and using that knowledge on the next to improve my value. You need to figure out what motivates you, by figuring out what type of work fits your personality. Here are a few questions to ponder:
Question 1. – What would you be willing to grind away at, day after day, year after year for? Whatever you do must add value to the business, whether it be maximizing uptime or working to understand and improve upon current procedures and systems.
Question 2. – Do you like having work delivered to you, being told exactly what to do or would you rather invent your own work?