I’ve been lucky enough to work in many different aspects of IT – from building gray box pcs and repairing printers to strategic, global decision-making. As a reseller, from supporting 3-person Architecture firms to companies as large as Boeing and Isuzu. There’s many, many factors that can make someone’s IT professional life difficult – but the number one challenge in our field is being the Lone IT Guy.
If your firm is in the 40 to 150 staff size range, there’s a good chance that you’re the only IT guy there. Your firm may outsource to fill in gaps or do special projects, but at the end of the day, it’s just you. One person acting as the focus for all the needs and demands from each employee – one person shouldering the responsibility for keeping the place up and running.
I know the perception is that we’re not the most socially adept guys to begin with – but anyone who has worked in IT knows that it is an incredibly collaborative environment. There’s a concept in programming called Rubber Ducking – the simple ability to bounce ideas off of someone else, or to explain a concept to someone externally in order to better grasp it yourself. That need for validation, for reassurance that someone else feels like you’re not going to blow the entire place up when you install Service Pack 8 is a huge step in creating a sense of confidence in your work.
There’s also the fact that IT – as a discipline – makes it *impossible* to become an expert in everything. You’re great at Windows Server, Exchange, AD, Cisco VPN, TCP/IP? Great. How’s your skill level with linux, apache, mysql, php? Sharepoint? OCS with PKI? And those are some of the most widely used technologies in our business – never mind the more obscure ones. Every IT person brings something a little different to the table, something they’ve experienced in the past that helps them in the present. How many times have you had a situation where the manual – or common wisdom – says to do it one way, but if you don’t also do step X, the whole thing falls apart? When you’re on your own, there’s no immediate secondary source of knowledge to pull from.
The last issue is political. When you’re on the carpet in front of Leadership for whatever reason – to request a day for maintenance – to pitch a new tech you think will help the firm – or god forbid, to buy something not in the budget – it’s just you. You’re the sole champion for your request. No one at your side to validate your pitch. It can be tough to build a sense of confidence in those situations.
So… whaddya do? In a nutshell, your options are limited. But you can work to maximize the ones you do have.
First: you’re an expert in Networks, right? Network. Although you’re an army of one, there’s thousands, if not millions, of virtual helpers out there. Get *good* at Google searching. Understand Boolean logic, eliminating common words, and the concept of near-ness. Get an Experts Exchange account. Join forums like (plug) http://www.aecit.com. Do you have friends in IT? Use ’em. Are their local IT roundtable groups, either generic or specific to your industry/field? Go to one of the meetings. IT guys *love* to bounce ideas and experiences off each other. And to brag about their newest gizmos. 🙂 Bottom line – force yourself to engage other professionals beyond just reading forum posts.
Second: that part about you being the only guy in the company that understands IT? It is a double-edged sword. Leadership has to trust your analysis and recommendations. They may not agree with the outcome or may not authorize spending, but no one at the firm, besides you, is qualified to make technical decisions about your IT environment. You need to leverage that. I would *never* condone lying or using tech-speak to BS Leadership into seeing things your way – but if you have a valid argument, you need to present it in the best light possible, with all the gravitas you can muster that is associated with your role. It is a tricky line – saying that the “Flux capacitor will unleash a cloud-based virus storm” if we don’t buy a new 11 x 17 laserjet – it might get you the printer, but undermine your long-term need to establish trust.
You probably have more pull than you think. They have to trust you more than you have to trust them. If you’ve done a good job there, you have a history of performance you can draw from. And no one likes the idea of going out and finding a new IT guy when they like the one they’ve got. This is very hard – but you need to work to make Leadership see you more as a peer when it comes to area-of-responsibility decision-making, and not the guy who hands out mice and keyboards. Explain it like this – although the mundane stuff is part of your job – it is a small part – and primarily, your focus is making sure the company, as a whole, is able to execute without issue day after day. That’s a strategic view, not a technical one.
Working alone in IT is not for everyone. For personalities that love it – more power to you. For those that find themselves liking IT, but hating the loneliness that can come from being the sole IT guy – consider joining a larger firm with a bigger IT staff. You may not have the autonomy you had before – but you will have someone besides yourself to complain about it to.