So, you work in IT then do you?
When you hear someone say that at a party — what goes through your mind?
Are you like me — and start running through the list of potential perpetrators who fessed up about my work?. Did my Mum tell them something? Or was it one of my friends? Did they read something online? Was it my partner, Julia? What did they say to them? Why do they call it ‘IT’ ?
In the first few milliseconds after hearing this reponse, I try and figure out how to end this conversation quickly. I love talking about my work but this kind of discussion about ‘work’ never seems to end well. It’s usually about a convoluted bug, issue, relationship, business failure or legal problem that will take every minute that’s left of the party (and the wait for the heat death of the universe from entropy) to explain this problem to me and me alone. If anyone else joins the conversation, they will leave after 16 seconds on average.
You. are. on. your. own. bucko.
That got me reflecting that I’ve probably been trying to ‘escape’ or ‘break free’ from IT for years, which is why I don’t like being seen as ‘An IT Guy’. Right from my first job, I’ve been trying to get away from the bloody rules, strictures, assumptions, rubbish design and bad thinking that’s polluted almost every position I’ve had.
I spent my formative career working for IT teams building code, networking tech, ecommerce and infrastructure. And now in 2018, I’m back there working with IT teams — helping companies to amplify their AB testing, Analytics and UX efforts in successful ways. The IT department is where I started, grew up, broke free from and yet find myself back with, immersed in, almost every day.
That’s 33 years working in IT — from writing my own macro assembler on a home computer, so I could write code for fun — to working with some of the biggest brands on the planet. I’ve bound to have learned something from all that time in IT departments, so what was it?
Strangely enough, that’s the question posed to me by a client.
They asked for a presentation to their IT team that would be inspiring and useful — so I thought hard and deeply about this question for a week and cast my mind back over those 3 decades, to distil what all this work has taught me.
I didn’t always set out to learn these lessons — some of them were just ‘there’ and needed encouragement from other people to surface. Some lessons I never planned or understood and only realised later, well after the event. And some of these insights took nearly all those 3 decades put together to figure out.
I finished the presentation this weekend but I wanted to share where all this thinking took me and the lessons I shared with the client.
There are two chunks to this article and this is the first part. We’ll start with the major shizzle I’ve learned and what that should mean for your approach to work and life. I’ll then finish by sharing a list of practical tips everyone can take to their offices to make these things actually happen!
I didn’t want this to be some sort of self-help-guru-bollocks-lifestyle guide. Goodness knows there are plenty of vacuous examples out there to keep you amused.
I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time but I’ve also worked hard, learned continually and never ever gave up, even when things were tough. I still don’t consider myself an expert in my field, for reasons this article will explain — but I have realised too that knowledge I sometimes take for granted myself, is something worth sharing with others. Hope you like it.
10 Lessons from a Life in IT
Curiosity about data, people, businesses, systems, flows and most particularly, finding the truth — is something that you possess or it’s missing. I’ve also encountered many people who were actually curious but decided not to give in to that curiosity. I’m here to tell you that you should *feed* this hunger as much as possible — because only good work will flow from this. If I could start with three traits in an employee to add any skills to — it would be Curiosity, Determination and Empathy. From these three things empires can be built.
Curiosity is at the heart of my being — not just at work but in my approach to the world, my hobbies, the places I visit and the amazing people who live in this world. It’s an endlessly fascinating acquisition of new facts for me because I designed my life that way — from being curious. Without encouraging this curiosity (sometimes on my own clock too) I’d simply still be missing out on my potential.
It’s NOT ENOUGH to accept things as they are. You must be brave to be curious — to get at the truth, despite how uncomfortable or hard this might be. To keep scratching away at something until you get through all the bullshit or technical problems to find what you MUST know.
In the end, you either care about knowing or you don’t. Curiosity will make you dig further, deeper, more widely — and this thirst to expand what you know, removing assumptions, ego and biases from dominating your decisions, is what powers your expanding knowledge. It will also help you accurateloy define the boundaries and shape of your own knowledge, so you really do know where your stuff is solid, sketchy or completely non existent.
I met a guy once at a conference who said ‘yes’ to anything people asked him to do, for a whole year. What a freaking tale that was! Dangerous, wild and unpredictable. This isn’t what I’m advising.
What it’s about is offering to solve the problems that span across departments, technology stacks, reporting lines or teams. These problems allow you to then become the ‘glue’ between these teams, have some control over communication flows and can influence things more than a simple reporting line could accomplish. Nobody likes these projects because they’re usually technically hard and you have to try and stop various teams from killing each other.
Volunteer for stuff like this — and you can break free from the rules that sometimes impact your departmental projects. You’ll learn a lot about creatively solving problems, diplomacy, communication, negotiation and manipulation. Do a good job with a pig of a project and you’ll get noticed across teams — this means more work might come your way, in a similar vein.
I once got hired, because although I’d bullshitted my interviewer over a technical question, he asked me to find a bit of kit under a floor. I quickly stripped to my shirt, got the floor tiles up, crawled under and found it. I never told bullshit at a job interview after that day and I got hired, for a job where I learn a lot about critical thinking and problem solving. I’ve always had that approach — to get mucked in, help out, keep things moving, support people and volunteer for glue projects.
Another example is for a company where we would have normally tracked everything with analytics. Marketing was a mess though. Different links, magazines, radio, TV, promo codes, inserts, promotions — were launching all the time and without any tracking to understand what was happening.
Nobody wanted the job of sorting this out because everyone saw this as a ‘poisoned chalice’ so I stupidly volunteered. When we stopped arguing and worked out what everybody really needed (note — not the same thing as what people said to me) through observation and understanding how work got done — things got sorted.
We built a system to allow any landing page, article or promotion to have a sticky and unique promotional code. You could print the code in a newspaper and use it with our site. You could arrive at the landing page from a link. You could fill in the promo code manually if you wanted. All of them did the same thing. The best bit was that any promotional code was sticky — if you landed on a page, used the promo code or clicked on a link — we could tell exactly which piece of marketing it came from.
We then put those nice reliable sticky promo codes into a database. A year later and we could already see the ROI from every piece of activity — in terms of the revenue, cost of servicing each customer and the costs of any campaign. — balanced nicely against how much money we made. That knowledge drove efficiency and continual optimisation in marketing — as well as providing a completely automated system for everyone to use.
The point here is that without someone volunteering for this, nobody would have gotten ‘between’ marketing and tech to act as the ‘Abstraction and Communication Layer’ between two traditionally hostile teams. By figuring out that tech wanted something they could build and maintain easily whilst leveraging the existing SQL database, marketing wanted something simple and quick to set up and the business needed LTV tracking — I got between the working parts of the problem and glued it together differently.
That’s probably enough for now — I’ll be discussing empathy, fear, determination and other key lessons in the following articles. I hope this stuff is useful because it took a lot of mental shedding to peel away to the core lessons — not the fripperies or ego driven statements one would sometimes make but deep down, what happened to me or what I did, that really made a difference. Enjoy the rest of the series!
Please see Part two next, “#3 — The Freedom to Learn” (https://medium.com/@optimiseordie/so-you-work-in-it-then-do-you-fb59ee93d098)