The dynamics of modern IT

Ruminations ,Tech
September 11, 2009

I was linked this article by a longtime friend who works at Microsoft. I read through a few times and found myself agreeing with much of it. I think it’s decent set of guidelines on how to lead technical people, but I think it completely missed the contrast between working for a company that has engineering or IT at its core vs one that has sales or marketing at its core. Maybe it was supposed to? I will say it’s highly unlikely to find non-technical (ie, sales/marketing) oriented companies to following the advice in the article. There’s a very subtle line that shifts a company one way or another; most non-technical companies probably think they’re technical at their core. My previous employer TeleVox (and by extension, West) comes to mind immediately. Hold their policies up to a company like say, Amazon or Google and you realize just how far from a technical core they are. I don’t think either method is intrinsically wrong or right, but IT people need to realize what sort of company they work for and how it will affect their career path.

Startups are a shining example of this, and I’ve worked at my fair share of startups over the years. Ordinarily startups will start and remain technically focused until they hit it big. At this point it can go either way; Myspace and Facebook are examples of ones who (in my opinion) have a stronger marketing slant, while my favorite webhosts Dreamhost and Google are classic cases of successful startups that stayed tech focused. I wish I had been around for the founding of my previous employer TeleVox. From the stories I heard it sounded like a tech startup, but by the time I came along there was most definitely a strong sales and marketing slant. This trend only continued throughout my tenure there throughout our acquisition by West.

So what does this mean to your average IT guy or gal? Maybe not a whole lot, but here’s some tidbits that I’ve amassed through direct experience and from second hand information from colleagues.

How to tell if your company is sales/marketing focused

  • You will be praised often and loudly within your department. Just not company-wide.
  • By contrast, sales people will be. They will probably also make more than you. Frequently there are reward programs for exceeding job expectations (President’s Club trips, bonuses, etc). You do not get any of these for staying late to fix that database issue.
  • It is very unlikely that your position or your compensation will grow and scale with your skillset. Your skillset is not directly improving the company’s bottom line and that’s the only thing that gets rewarded.
  • Non-IT type positions don’t grow (learning a new version of Word does not count!) except by years and years of experience in that role, so typically these types of companies are unable to understand how to maintain healthy, growing IT positions which grow at a much faster pace.. Constant change and growth is a requirement!
  • When these companies find a technology level that works for them, it will take an act of God or Congress or both to get them to change or improve upon it.
  • The IT / engineering / developer staff will only be called upon for input when a direction for the company/product/platform has been decided on. It’s not uncommon for your only say is to how long it will take you to implement whatever has been dreamed up.
  • Since it’s so hard to directly measure your job and performance, expect to be micromanaged. If you’re not micromanaged consider yourself lucky, but you’ll probably instead have to attend at least two meetings a day. There is no lesser of two evils here.
  • I don’t care what anyone says: most Agile development processes are a form of micromanaging. With shiny stickers. Wake up developers, you are not in second grade anymore.

Due to these factors, it is vital that you change jobs/employers every 2-3 years to ensure your compensation and knowledge stay current. Technical focused companies are much easier to remain with for 5-10 years. If you’re not careful the market will outpace you and it’s not uncommon after 3 years for new hires to be making the same if not more than you.