How to succeed in IT without really trying

Know what you're doing? If so, you'll pay the price of being in high demand, while the slackers party on

There are two ways to enjoy a successful career in IT -- and they are polar opposites of each other.

The first is to be great at what you do. Some people seem to be blessed with the right combination of logic and intuition right out of the gate, like those with natural talent in sports or music. Others hone their chops through hard work and experience. Either way, whether you're a network architect, a programmer, or an admin, if you can detect anomalies in a flash when troubleshooting or can clearly visualize a path to achieving a functional, stable outcome for any given project, the rest of your involvement becomes almost trivial.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Read Paul Venezia's instant classic, "Nine traits of the veteran Unix admin." | Then, if you dare, join the debate about rebooting Unix-based systems. ]

For instance, a skilled network architect can design a large network while taking a shower so that the bulk of the time spend on a networking project goes toward more mundane things, like procuring hardware or dealing with telcos and last-mile providers. OK, maybe it's a long shower, but you know you're a pro when you spend no more than 15 percent of your time actually planning the network topology and layout for a large-scale network and consistently get great outcomes.

You can figure another 25 percent will go toward acquiring and configuring gear. Unfortunately, the remaining 60 percent of your time will be spent on stuff that's a lot less fun: fighting with telcos, straightening matters with building management, begging for conduits that are clearly in the plans but were "forgotten" by the contractors, and other maddening issues.

Ironically, the better and faster you are at the hard part, the more you may leave yourself open to questions. When peers or customers see how quickly someone troubleshoots an infrastructure breakdown or architects a technical solution, they wonder just how hard it could really be. Also, why does this person get paid so much?

I have a favorite parable to illustrate the problem: A passenger train breaks down in the middle of nowhere with a delegation of railroad VIPs on board, including the president of the company. The locomotive simply won't start and everyone is stranded. However, the president knows a passenger on the train was one of the designers of the locomotive and pleads with the man to help fix the problem and get the train back under way. The design engineer says, "Sure, it'll cost you $10,000." Desperate for a solution, the president agrees.

The engineer then takes a hammer, walks up to the side of the locomotive, inspects a few specific areas, and suddenly swings the tool against the steel panel. The locomotive immediately springs to life. The president runs over; instead of being pleased that the train is running again, he screams: "$10,000? Why in the world would I pay you $10,000 just to hit the thing with a hammer?" The engineer simply replies, "I threw in the hit with the hammer for free. Knowing where to hit it cost $10,000."

This is the world that many highly skilled IT people inhabit every day.

The other way to succeed in IT is with little effort or proficiency at all. I hate to say this, but a number of people in IT positions work harder to make it seem like they're busy as beavers than doing actual work. Quite often this dysfunction starts at the top: When an IT manager doesn't know the technology very well, he or she may hire folks who have no idea what their job is other than to show up every day and answer the occasional email, passing questions along to others with more technical abilities, or to their contacts at the various hardware and software vendors. People like these populate many consulting companies. They rely almost completely on contractors to perform the actual work, serving as remote hands in a real crisis and as part of a phone tree for less pressing issues.

To be fair, these middlemen have a role in the IT organization. In many cases they can help bring a project to completion simply by knowing who to talk to and how to grease the skids, even if they're no more technical than someone from a department with no relation to IT.

As with many other professions, those who are highly capable are scarce. But in the case of IT, a large gap in understanding separates those on the business side who commission the work and those who perform it. It's very hard for those outside the technology inner circle to determine who has mad skills and who's slacking, until it becomes obvious that certain IT ninjas are the ones who step in to solve the problems again and again. The reward for that, my friends, is having more and more loaded onto your plate.

With luck, you may get compensated like the guy with the hammer. More likely, you'll get the satisfaction of doing things very few people can do, even if you're the only one who knows how heroically you performed.

This story, "How to succeed in IT without really trying," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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