Jack of All Trades: The IT Specialist

Many years ago, when she was a freshly minted college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Sheila Thorne was working as an entry-level engineer at IBM. She was responsible for designing the cash gates that eject bills from ATM machines, and things were going just fine. Then, one day, a few years into her tenure, Thorne and her team were given a somewhat questionable assignment: They were asked to design an ATM that would spit out exact change — coins and all.

“[So] someone could go there, cash a check for $16.46, and this ATM would give you $16.46,” Thorne recalled.

Thorne thought the request sounded strange, but being a relative newbie, she didn’t feel comfortable asking questions. So she kept quiet and worked with her team to complete the project.

However, when the new coin-proffering ATM was presented to the client, it became clear that the requirements of the project had been misunderstood. The clients simply wanted an ATM that would allow customers to deposit checks in exact amounts. Needless to say, no orders for the design were placed.

“That was my first experience with understanding how there are things you can put in a design, but if you don’t really understand the business problem, you end up not doing the best thing,” Thorne said.

In fact, that experience made her realize there was a major need for professionals who could ask the important questions and bridge the gap between technical possibility and business reality. And Thorne set out on a path to become one of them.

“It’s taking that vision, that strategy, those objectives and really putting it into something that’s technologically feasible and at the same time solves a business need,” said Thorne, describing her current role as worldwide IT specialist profession leader at IBM.

“When I think about people who do what I do — who actually act as business analysts and who gather requirements — I found that typically they had some kind of disaster, [too]. They were actually doing design and they knew something wasn’t right. So it seems it’s always that one experience that makes you think, ‘I can get requirements better than this’ — or really understanding how the big picture got missed.”

The Path to IT Specialist

Like most IT specialists, Thorne worked her way up through the technical ranks. Engineering or computer science degrees are common. Thorne also had some work experience under her belt by the time her undergraduate experience was over because, as part of her degree program, she had engaged in a co-op program, which meant she alternated between being in school for an academic quarter and then working for a quarter. This allowed her to get “a really good feel of what I would be doing when I graduated,” she said.

Her experience likely helped land her the job at IBM, where she worked extensively with computer-aided design (CAD) before progressing into the networking and Unix arena.

“[But] I just kept seeing the same thing, where requirements were misunderstood and, [as a result], people weren’t exactly getting the solution they needed,” she said.

So Thorne gradually moved over into application development, trying to understand what users were asking for and determining where there were gaps.

“[I started] to work with customers to understand, ‘What’s your strategy? What’s the requirement? What issues do you have today? And what do you really need in a solution?’” she said. “You just have to keep asking, ‘Why?’”

A Typical Day

Because the role of IT specialist involves working so closely with others — both external clients, as well as other departments within the company — a typical day for Thorne involves a lot of time on the phone.

“A lot of work [is] doing conference calls and validating with people that we understand the problem and we’re on the right track, and looking at some designs,” she said.

Extended hours also are the norm, since Thorne frequently collaborates with partners across the world.

“I will typically start around 5:30 a.m. because a lot of times I’m working with Europe,” she explained. “Then I’ll have a few other calls with people in the U.S., but again, because I’m on the West Coast talking to people on the East Coast, [the calls can start early]. Then my day will pick back up again between 5 and 8 at night because that’s when I can talk to [the Asia-Pacific region]. Working across multiple time zones, I just need to be available.”

Thorne said she does her “real work” during the middle of the day, between roughly 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“[That] would be doing some process models, reviewing use cases or things like that,” she explained.

The Skills for the Job

As evidenced by Thorne’s daily routine, IT specialists play a dual role of both tech guru and client liaison. This means professionals in this position must boast strong hard and soft skills.

On the technical side, those hoping to make it as IT specialists should have a firm grasp of an application development life cycle and fully understand the testing process, Thorne said. When it comes to soft skills, the ability to communicate effectively and to be comfortable asking questions is paramount — especially given the potentially global nature of the job.

“[One] thing I’ve learned is that [in] my language and the way I communicate, I tend to go off and use [metaphorical] examples like, ‘Drink the Kool-Aid,’” Thorne explained. “[But these expressions] aren’t understandable cross-culturally. I realized I wasn’t getting the message across. So I really had to think about what I’m saying and what actions I want people to take. It really is that awareness of how I have to state clearly what I’m thinking and also give people actionable things to do.

“The one [other soft skill] that has most surprised me is the ability to sell,” Thorne added. “I think of myself more as a technical person, and sales is something that a salesman does. [But] there’s always a feeling by technical people that, ‘I’ve got this great design; they don’t want to use it because they didn’t design it.’ The further I’ve gotten in my career and the older I’ve gotten, [the more] I realize I just haven’t sold it.”

Thorne said IT specialists should know and follow the standard sales cycle: Find out what the issues are, talk about how your product or actions will address those issues and then handle any objections.

When it comes to education and credentials, Thorne said it’s more important for IT specialists to have a professional certification vs. a vendor certification. That’s because a professional cert validates expertise and experience, including past projects and activities, rather than one’s knowledge of a particular product.

“It’s a huge difference,” said Thorne, who holds a Master Certified IT Specialist credential from The Open Group. “I think a professional certification — like the one I have with The Open Group — is very important because it’s independent — it’s vendor-neutral. Yet it provides some kind of quality assurance. There’s no way to guarantee someone’s work 100 percent, but I feel clients are looking for some kind of way to say, ‘OK, they’ve done similar work before.’”

Once an IT professional enters into the specialist track, he or she typically advances by getting more involved on the business side. To progress, “you’ve got to be able to understand the business problem, the industry implications and have somewhat of an eye to the future,” Thorne said.

A Bright Future

In fact, the current economic climate may result in a greater need for IT specialists, whose job it is to solve business problems through technology in the most efficient and cost-effective ways.

“One example I always use is Netflix,” said Thorne, referring to the popular movie-rental-by-mail service. “There was nothing new that [the company creator] invented, but he was looking at a business problem and thinking how to address it. It’s the same thing for technology [and for IT specialists]. It’s looking at a business problem and thinking about how to leverage something that already exists.”

Further, because all industries today employ technology in some capacity, there always will be a need for technical professionals who can create, implement and troubleshoot solutions, Thorne said.

“More or less all industries have a need for us — even in places I didn’t expect,” she said.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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