The dirty details

While still trying to keep a bit of mystery about where I currently work, and where I’m going to be working, there are a few things that I find very interesting about my upcoming job-switch that I want to share and discuss. Mostly, I’m interested in how much of my experience can be extrapolated out to the IT industry in general. Some of it, I think, is important to be aware of when you work in small business IT, some of it may just be my own situation. If nothing else, I’m spending some of my lunch hour throwing it out there to see what everyone else thinks.

My current job is, as the site’s name implies, the entire IT department for a small not-for-profit association. That means I do everything from managing a file server, to building an intranet, to database reporting, to help-desk, to hardware repairs. All of it. I am the all-powerful tech guru of the office, so to speak. :)

That’s all well and fine within our small office. It doesn’t translate to a larger organization though. As I went about seeking out a new opportunity, I constantly ran into a technology wall. Larger organizations that had Sys Admin-level IT openings were looking for skills that you only get in larger organizations. Things like server clustering, Active Directory, document management systems, supervisory skills, and programs like Peoplesoft, JD Edwards, etc. A 25-person office with one file server simply doesn’t have any reason to implement these things, unless they’re already in a cutting edge environment, like software developers. Most small, non hi-tech companies aren’t going that route with their systems.

So what’s a small business IT guy to do? The way I saw it, I had a couple of choices. I could wait and look for small business openings that matched the qualifications I had gained in my 7 years at my small business, but those were few and far between, and would tend to have the same limitations that my current job has. When you’re the IT guy, where do you go from there? What’s the career path? Is there any high-level voice within the company that represents IT? How are you going to keep current within your industry when your small business isn’t using current technology? If you work in small business IT you need to consider these questions, IMHO.

The second option, was to find what I refer to as a step-down job. That means that you take a job that isn’t the network admin job you see yourself as, because those larger organizations don’t see you as a qualified network admin. Over the last year or more, what I’ve also discovered, however, is that while these jobs are plentiful the number of employers who wouldn’t consider you over-qualified is quite small. Not to mention that in many cases, the step-down in salary isn’t worth it.

So, I was pretty much stuck in option number three. Stay where I was, do the best to overcome the limitations that my situation left me with, and keep my eyes open for the “right” fit. I think I’ve found that in my new position, but I did have to accept some realities of the marketplace.

Reality number one, my not-for-profit experience did not prepare me to be a sys admin within a larger organization. The new place I’m going has almost 350 employees, a server room, WAN and LAN connections, a brand new document management system, multiple email and Blackberry messaging servers, VPN connections, servers dedicated to just doing billing and contacts management. Simply put, even though I’m the sys-admin where I work, there’s no way in hell I could be on that level in this environment, and there’s no way for me to gain the hands-on experience needed to do that job while I’m still here.

Which brings me to reality number two, the only way to get experience working with that level of technology, is to work in a larger organization, in a “smaller” role. I’m going to be working in a help desk/desktop support/user training role at my new position. (It’s at a large law firm here in Columbus, by the way.) That’s less responsibility than I currently have, although supporting 350 users is much more support work than supporting 25, so it won’t be less of a workload, that’s for sure!

In a sense, I consider myself very lucky. While my tech background didn’t help that much when it came to working in a larger environment, it was the people skills I’ve learned and demonstrated here that helped me land this job. Although having knowledge of XP, Office, basic networking, etc. is still necessary, it was my ability to relate in handling difficult tech support requests, in leading training classes, in doing one-on-one training, writing help documentation, etc. that really set me apart. Those “soft” skills that I brought to the table are what got me this position, and made me valuable enough that I didn’t wind up having to take a cut in salary just to get out of the small business environment, which I was beginning to think was going to be impossible!

So I guess, my point here is, when you work in small business IT, especially when you work with less than current technology, make sure you concentrate on those soft, people skills. Those are the skills that will help you move up and on from where you are.

What do you think? What’s your IT job market experience been?

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