Growing Along With Your Company

Your organization’s maturing and expanding. Here’s how to prepare for the inevitable transition in processes – and culture.

By Mathew Schwartz | August 2008


Change is tough. That’s especially true for IT employees in a growing business.

For
starters, smaller companies prioritize tactical requirements, like
keeping systems running and meeting service-level agreements. Larger
companies emphasize long-term strategies, such as dismantling business
and technology silos or creating more formal processes and procedures.

Moving
from one model to the other isn’t easy. "The challenge IT shops have as
they grow is to use their additional capabilities to remain agile and
close to customers while implementing more rigor," say Forrester
Research Analyst Marc Cecere.

Furthermore,
cultures often clash in growing companies. The atmosphere tends to
become more formal, hierarchies more apparent, technology workers used
to juggling multiple tasks are assigned more fixed roles, and the whole
raison d¿être driving IT evolves from "providing services" to "reducing operating costs and generating business value."

All
of this change can challenge your sanity. But there are upsides. In
general, the larger the organization, the more room it offers for
advancement within your existing field, in a new specialty or as an IT
manager. Also, larger organizations tend to allocate more funds to
ongoing education, which helps you keep your skills current. Finally,
employees who really "get it" when it comes to helping a business grow
will learn invaluable skills while improving their job security by
making themselves known – and considered essential – to upper managers
and other business types.

How exactly can you help your company while gaining new skills and furthering your IT career? Read on.

Changeability Beats Scalability

Jon
Collins, a service director at UK-based research firm Freeform
Dynamics, recommends branching out. "’Cross-skilling’ and just having
the ability to see things outside your own technical domain is a very
useful capability," he says. "For example if you’re a security
engineer, learn networking. If you’re a networking engineer, learn
security. If you’re a database guy, understand more about the
applications that support it."

Leon
Kappelman, a professor of information systems at the University of
North Texas, says a crucial skill will be your ability to manage
change. "Sure, big guys have more resources to hire folks. So many of
them may see dealing with growth as a scale issue. But size may not
always matter, especially when it’s about different skill needs."

Instead,
the important thing is to understand how to reconcile business goals
and logic with technical changes, Kappelman says. "It’s like the
difference between just knowing how to fix a pipe versus knowing how to
plumb an entire house," he explains. "A good plumber can learn how to
work with a new pipe material. But designing the plumbing for the new
addition and engineering its integration with the existing plumbing
systems? That is the critical skill in a time of change, whether
strategic or tactical, human or technical."

Befriend a Business Person

Hiring
managers think so, too. "They’ll talk about being able to connect the
logical and the physical," says Kappelman. "What does that mean? It
means I can talk to the business people and the geeks, that I can translate the technical into business words."

What’s
the best way for a tech staffer to learn to "talk business?" Simple,
says Collins. "A lot of that just comes from peer-to-peer
relationships. It doesn’t have to be trying to get a seat in the
boardroom."

Why Data Center Experts Are Sexy

Adding
cross-skilling and awareness of business needs to your repertoire can
be rewarding. For example, the New York Times reports data center
experts – typically mechanical or electrical engineers by training –
have seen their salaries rise an average 20 percent over the last two
years. Those with experience can command six-figure salaries, and even
new employees with only a two-year college degree may start at $100,000
per year. Historically, the position was never glamorous or so
well-paid.

What changed? The
nature of the data center itself. As companies grow and data centers
expand, electricity costs are skyrocketing, footprints are reaching
physical limits, heat is wreaking havoc with equipment, pushing
companies in the direction opposite of "green." Successfully balancing
all of these challenges requires someone who can do more than swap out
rack-mounted equipment.

Don¿t Master Everything

At
the same time, succeeding in IT doesn’t require a Ph.D. in systems
theory. In fact, "it’s dangerous to suggest that everyone should be
business people now, or that everyone should have an understanding of a
broad range of things," cautions Collins. "The real, practical advice
would be to really just stretch in a direction that’s comfortable, but
outside your traditional skill set."

With
that in mind (and with apologies to JFK) now may be the time to ask not
what your company can do for you, but what you can do for your company.
Because as it grows, so do your career opportunities.

Mathew Schwartz writes about business and technology from Pennsylvania.

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