Kamal Jain takes the JobShadow interview about his career in IT. You can find Kamal on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
The short answer is “whatever it takes,” but the semi-boring truth is that what I actually do tends to be primarily focused on information technology (“IT”). That covers a lot of general areas, and for me, that’s something that I have tried to do: gain broad knowledge while developing areas of deep expertise.
My role has at various times involved anything required to run a business, from the very fundamental areas of construction and facilities, telecommunications, data center migrations – right up to helping design PowerPoint slides for executives with ideas in preparation for IPOs.
For most of my professional career I have managed small-to-midsize teams tasked with implementing and maintaining technology, and/or with supporting it. I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of really smart, driven people. With all that intelligence and drive – and this is true for any vocation – often comes strong personalities. I to my best to try to let people be who they are and manage their interactions to help everyone have as much freedom and job satisfaction as possible as long as goals are met.
That said, I’m not a professional manager; I am a technical professional who manages. The distinction is that while I have always had managerial responsibilities ranging from basic supervision (signing time cards, filling shifts for people out sick), to reporting status to both internal and customer executives, I am very hands on. Think of me as a “player-coach” who knows what every team member does, and can probably do everyone’s job, but not as well as they can. And, at the same time, I am the lead in one or more areas that I try to train others on.
As a manager, my job is to help my team understand organizational priorities, and then to help them accomplish what they are tasked with doing. I strive to provide them with the tools and resources they need, and then help remove obstacles that may get in the way of them accomplishing those tasks. If I’m doing my job well, I am able to prevent potential obstacles from ever becoming actual obstacles. That involves a lot of listening both to my team and to others in the company who we are either delivering things to, relying upon for things, or both.
My career has mostly been a LOT of fun and very rewarding, though at times it has been incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. At the end of the day, honest introspection helps me dismiss the bad stuff and focus on the good stuff. In job situations where that hasn’t been possible, it becomes time to move on. It’s important to routinely assess where you are in your career and what’s going on in your life and take action to guide things as you want them to be.
How would you describe what you do?
I tell people that I fix things. That usually leads to questions to which I add that my job is to find out what people need and to try to help them. Usually that involves finding out what they really need, not what they say they need. It’s my job to help figure out the best way to get people what they need given resources available. As is true in many areas, solutions to problems are usually governed by three general attributes: Good, fast and cheap – pick any two.
My occupational choices have also meant that my work life is woven 24×7 into my non-work life. The only time that is not true is once in a great while when I truly unplug for a serious vacation or extra-long weekend. If my smartphone (pager in the old days) isn’t parked on my bed-side table right by my glasses, things just aren’t right. If someone calls, I answer and try to help.
What does your work entail?
My work entails talking with people to constantly adapt to changing priorities and deadlines, and trying to manage the commitment of resources (people, machines, etc.) to trying to meet them. I spend a lot of time helping to either translate between technical and non-technical talk, or between different domains of technical talk. Remember how I said I’ve been able to work with some really smart, driven people? Well that often means there are those who think they know how to do everyone’s job, even if they really don’t have any experience. Some software engineers don’t understand why a network or server isn’t configured in a way that makes sense to them, and some data center operations staff [on my team] wonder why the software engineers are doing things that make no sense to them.
Often someone outside your domain of expertise can ask really good questions that, if you’re open-minded, will help you learn and grow, because you question assumptions rather than just do what you’ve always done. Patience is really important in my work, as is the ability to be both a good listener and teacher and guide.
On any given day I might be opening boxes and sticking asset tags on things, or perhaps sitting at my desk intently focused on writing a script to parse data and into something useful. Sometimes I’m pulled into meeting with executives to explain things or to listen to a problem and propose a solution and a timeline. At other times, I’m getting on an airplane to make sure things are working and people are on the same page. It’s really varied – which I love.
Then there are the days I have to work on PowerPoint presentations. If I know that I know the audience will be interested and ask questions, it’s still a little fun. If I know, or later find out, that people won’t actually be paying attention because they don’t care or they don’t understand the content and aren’t interested enough to ask questions, then it’s not so fun; that happens internally and with customers sometimes.
What’s a typical work week like?
I’ve never seen a typical work week in my life. Part of that is because I choose jobs where there is often no typical work week, and part of that is because things change quickly in the world today. I’ve heard it said that the rate of change in the world is faster now than it ever has been. I think that’s driven by the flow of information, and information is at the very core of my work, so it seems like everything is constantly changing.
But there are some patterns that recur. There are short-term tasks and projects that we try to set dates on and stick to, and so sometimes I’m managing outside distractions and interruptions for my team and myself to keep us focused on the immediate task at hand. IT people are routinely approached anywhere and everyone in the office (yes, including the restrooms) with questions, requests, etc. Being generally helpful by nature, we try to remember what someone asked about and help them when we get back to our desk, but more often than not, we are derailed or distracted by someone else, so things get forgotten for a while. It’s a daily thing to ask people to please “email the helpdesk” or “put in a ticket” and they don’t get it because they see you standing in front of them and they don’t understand why you can’t just deal with their issue right now.
Larger projects and initiatives often require planning things into chunks or phases, and then trying to balance the short-term tasks and immediate interruptions with periods of working on the larger stuff. There are rarely enough resources to get everything done when everyone wants them done. The challenges typically are money and/or staff time, but sometimes it’s because of unclear or changing requirements that cause a lot of rework, which can be very frustrating.
I’ve mostly worked for start-ups and smaller companies since early in my career, and compared to large enterprises where there seems to be less change and more predictability, these more dynamic work places don’t have time for “typical.”
With the rare exception of when I’m truly away on vacation and unplugged, I’m reading and responding to email 7 days a week, starting around 7:00 AM when I get to my PC at home with a cup of coffee, right through when I go to bed and check my smartphone for one last time to see if anything needs dealing with.
How did you get started?
My father worked in high-tech when I was growing up. He often brought home things for work, and I got to play with them. At a very early age I got hooked on computers – mostly for play, but also to discover the coolness of writing little programs. Both my brothers also went to work in high-tech, so it was an ecosystem I grew increasingly familiar with.
When I had graduated from high school and begun taking college classes, I had also trained to be an Emergency Medical Technician and was doing that for a living. I loved that work, but it didn’t pay much in those days and I missed computers, so I decided to pursue a job in computer operations. My first couple of jobs involved being a temporary contract employee for low wages and with no benefits, but I was able to get experience on my resume and begin building my professional network.
As with most jobs, if you’re likable and reasonably good at what you do, it’s not that hard to work your way up if you’re motivated and focused on doing so. It’s important to not burn bridges – that’s a lesson it took me some years to learn. If I had to give one piece of advice to people starting out in their careers, it would be: “If you’re upset about something take a deep breath, save that flaming email as a draft and walk away for a little while before you send it. In addition to letting yourself cool off, you also have to remember that email is probably the worst vehicle on earth for conveying emotion, intentional or not.”
What do you like about what you do?
I love being able to learn things, and not just technical things. One thing I enjoy a lot is introducing myself to people in other departments and trying to understand what they do, and why. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback and just judge others or not think about those who are not in your own group.
If I am not challenged, learning and growing in some ways, I get frustrated and bored. So while not everyday is fun and exciting, I keep working at places where I have constant opportunities to stretch, and also to bring to bear my years of experience to help solve problems. I often get to collaborate with people who bring different things to the table, and that is truly rewarding.
It’s nice to be seen as a technical expert and consulted on matters, too.
What do you dislike?
There’s nothing about my specific career or job that I dislike. What I dislike is what anyone in most any profession at any company could dislike if and when these things happen: Office politics, short-term thinking that causes long-term harm, lack of recognition and respect for people regardless of their title or role, and things like that.
Those are things one may put up with for short periods of time (or longer, depending on one’s tolerance and/or needs), but often you do so because you are still gaining other things that, at least for the time-being, offset the bad things. That may be because you need the experience, or you need the money. Unfortunately, sometimes with economic downturns, you have to work somewhere you’re not happy about – it happens. Remember when I said “whatever it takes?”
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
My compensation package has varied throughout my career. Mostly as a senior manager, I have a base salary and there is a potential for a bonus if the company meets certain targets. Not being in sales, my total compensation has been less leveraged, so more often than not I have not seen bonus payouts.
Stock options have also often been granted to me, and more often than not, they have ended up not been worth anything. But to be fair, there have been some positive outcomes for me from stock options, and you always seem to know someone who did well with their options, so you hope…and dream.
How much do you make as an IT Manager?
How much money did/do you make starting out?
My first computer operations job paid around $9/hour, but thankfully I could work plenty of overtime as an hourly employee.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
That’s a contentious topic. I never completed my bachelor’s degree, and that’s true for many people I’ve work with. Then again, I’ve also worked with some amazing people who did have undergraduate and graduate degrees. In hiring, I’ve found that the adage “hire for for attitude, train for skill” applies as much to technical professionals as it does to, say, hiring waitstaff at a restaurant or retail workers. Technical skills can be learned on the job as well as they can in the classroom, and neither is necessarily better than the other. We need people with both backgrounds and experiences. They key is to always try to think and understand what’s happening, and find a way to have a sandbox where you can learn and practice different things.
So the short answer here is “whatever it takes.” (sorry!)
What is most challenging about what you do?
The most challenging thing for me is managing time and resources, since we are typically over-committed on things people want us to deliver in a given period of time. That is usually because our internal customers think they need certain things when they don’t, or they have unrealistic timelines such that they may press us to deliver by a certain date, and then they’re not ready to use what we have delivered. Or worse, we do things that aren’t necessary.
So I think if I had to boil it down even more, my biggest challenge is in ferreting-out requirements and getting people to be clear on what they actually need and when. It’s too easy for them to ask for something right away and me wanting to deliver, rather than pushing back or even saying “no.”
What is most rewarding?
The most rewarding thing for me are the sincere thank-you’s and being appreciated. This is at all levels. Pushing my team and myself really hard for a time to deliver on something critical and visible, and then being publicly recognized is generally more valuable than getting a raise. That may be because of the level I’m at, where more money is nice, but a sense of worth is more valuable.
Strange as it may sound though, if I can help someone with something seemingly simple, or small in the big picture, when you can see that they are happy and feel important enough to get help – that’s probably even more rewarding for me than public recognition. Sometimes in comes as a a genuine “thank you!” and sometimes it’s just a look on their face of being relieved of pain and worry. Often, the little things matter a lot, and to someone – they may not be so little.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
If you’re considering an IT career, first figure out if you want to work more on the customer side of things, or in the back office or data center. While most organizations run lean enough these days that it’s hard to avoid dealing directly with people who are your customers (internal or external), there is still a general distinction between those who people recognize as “not being a people person” and those who are. If you’re not really a people person, and especially if you aren’t patient, you probably want to focus on learning the behind-the-scenes technical stuff and try to avoid more public roles. This will end up being better for everyone, because if you don’t like dealing with people, both you and your customers will feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps more than most parts of a company, IT tends to see big change in the way things are done. That’s not unreasonable since technology changes rapidly. As such, it’s important to learn what’s being done today, and the directions things are headed. There is some value in knowing the history of things, but it’s too easy to get stuck in “this is how we’ve always done things” and you risk becoming stale or obsolete. IT is also subject to outsourcing at different levels. Smaller organizations may bring on service providers for hosted systems that don’t require much internal support; larger organizations may choose to replace a large chunk of internal IT with a provider, and only some people will remain. But, if you’re open-minded, forward-looking and perceived as either really helpful or mission-critical, you’re likely not only safe, but you’ll be well taken care of.
If you’re complacent, IT is not the career for you.
How much time off do you get/take?
I’ve generally been given 3-4 weeks of paid time off per year, usually in the form of vacation. Some companies make a distinction between personal time off (PTO) and vacation. There are no companies I’ve worked at in my career where there was a “results only” work environment where there were no fixed amounts of paid time off.
Because there are times of really long days, working nights and weekends, etc. I often have had a good boss who recognizes that and will make accommodations for “comp time” – which is off the books and doesn’t officially exist. Sometimes my boss and I track it if I’ve racked up a bunch (and I do the same for my team), other times if there’s a lull between crunch times, people are told “hey, you’ve been working hard – why don’t you take a day off this week or next week before things get crazy again.”
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
The most common misconception I’ve run across is people who think that IT people actually like to fix computers that got broken because of physical abuse of the machine, or unsafe computing practices. This is especially true for people who think they can bring in their home computer, or their kid’s computer.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I often joke with my team members and with colleagues that our job is to try to make ourselves unnecessary by automating everything and making it so that computers, systems and network either can’t be broken or can fix themselves. With 30 years of advancements in personal computing, you’d think things would be so easy and reliable that might happen. I still dream of a time when people’s computers and all the things they need “just work,” and I’ll keep working to make that happen so I can work on more interesting challenges.
Given my lengthy career, and other non-work interests, I am now trying to develop a plan to apply my technical and managerial skills to other endeavors. Specifically, I have begun small-scale farming, and am looking to marry the best of traditional methods with cutting-edge technology to make local, small-scale farming viable, at least here in the northeastern US. I also want to do similar work in energy, education and other things at a local level.
One thing I tell people that I am, aside from being an IT geek, is that I am an efficiency expert. That’s true – I’ve always done more with less while making things work better. An area where I am trying to lend my expertise to is government, where they generally don’t operate with the challenges of efficiency and the bottom line. Sure, there may be budget challenges, but for the most part it’s well-known how inefficient government it, and there’s no reason for it to be in this day and age where we have access to data and knowledge that can make things work better.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Most people think of IT jobs as being desk-bound, and where one spends a lot of time sitting indoors under fluorescent light, or in the data center, standing….under fluorescent light. It seems a bit boring and lethargic, and it certainly can be. But, if you want, a career in IT can actually be physically demanding, mentally stimulating, and even dangerous. Yes, some people are drawn to danger. And there can be glamour, too.
In my career I’ve had the chance to literally hang upside down by my knees while trying to run Ethernet cabling inside trade show booths and office buildings. I’ve been interviewed in magazines and spoken at conferences, and I’ve ended up in the emergency room twice while on the job. If these kinds of things scare you, don’t worry – you can easily avoid all that. But, if you want some excitement, [15 minutes of] fame and risk – you can have that, too.