Professionally Speaking

Narrowing the Chasm

Tying together technical knowledge and business know-how can reap rich rewards.

I feel that tying my business degree and my technical skills together would be a great way to make a career. I’ve worked as a systems engineer for almost two years and have been in the networking industry for about five years. I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction. It seems like people always want pure technical people. What kinds of job titles should I be looking for—or should I be in a different industry?
—Preston Panza, MCSE, MCP+I, A+, Network+, i-Net+
Lake Forest, Calif.
ppanza@novastar1.com

Preston, when I first read your question, I must confess it caused me to laugh a little. Then, after thinking about it, I realized how depressing it was that you needed to ask that question at all! As Steve says, there’s a great deal of overlap between technology and business in IT; unfortunately, too many in IT end up being stereotypical “propeller-heads” who can only speak in techno-babble and can’t be put in front of a client. For reasons I’ve never understood, there’s a strange aura about the “black magic” in IT that permits us to tolerate this kind of behavior when this isn’t something we’d tolerate in other professions.

Unless you’re working in a basic R&D role (which the majority of us aren’t), we all need to be concerned with the business implications of our work in IT. So to answer your question, I think nearly every role in IT should be able to make some use of your business skills. For example, one lesson technical people need to learn as part of their maturation process is that, often, a sub-optimal technical solution may be the best business option. I remember hearing a client’s manager complain that he was always presented with “Rolls Royce”-type solutions, when a bicycle would have done the job. That is, we kept designing overblown, complicated solutions using the best of everything when a much simpler solution would do. Managers don’t invest in technology because they think the latest version of product X has some really cool features—they do it because they’ve determined that the investment will help the business increase revenue and/or decrease costs. It’s all too often that we in IT lose sight of this and get bogged down in the technology for its own sake.

Steve has some good ideas in suggesting roles in management and/or sales. Along those same lines, a career in consulting might be a good option that can combine both of these. As you progress in your consulting career, you would spend more time working with clients on their business problems and discussing ways IT can help. This draws on both your technical and business skills. You’ll also be involved in producing the client proposal and then leading the implementation of the solution. Here, you need your business skills to be able to design a solution for the business as well as manage your own internal business—the utilization of staff, profit and revenue targets and the satisfaction of your employees. People who can handle all of these aspects well aren’t easy to find; if you could master these, you may have a long, successful and satisfying career ahead of you in consulting. Also, you have the possibility of moving to a strategic IT-consulting role later in your career. This is much more business-focused, but your technical skills will be useful in converting the strategic plans into project deliverables and understanding what technology can and can’t do.

You weren’t specific about what aspects of your business degree you wanted to use. If these are in specific areas such as marketing or finance, there are probably specialist roles out there that can combine your business and technical skills. For example, hardware and software vendors need marketing staff that understands what their customers want and then sends them the appropriate information about how their products solve customer needs. This is very distinct from a sales role.

I hope this helps you envisage career options that combine your technical skills with business studies. As I see it, you have myriad choices; it really depends on which ones seem most attractive.

About the Author

Greg Neilson is a manager at a large IT services firm in Australia and has been a frequent contributor to MCPmag.com and CertCities.com.

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Reader Comments:

Mon, Dec 29, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

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Mon, Dec 29, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

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Fri, Oct 19, 2001 Craig Atlanta

Very good points. I have about 15 years of IT experience and worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) for a few years as a Sales Engineer. This is the B-E-S-T role if you want to combine the two skills... it isn't 'Front-line' sales, but you support the sales force. You are not held to a quota to make your salary, but you are given a bonus based on your territory. You act as a 'Subject Matter Expert' and help scope opportunities, and identify how your company's services can help the customer meet their business goals. It is lots of fun, when you can find the work. I'm looking for that type of job right NOW. So if anyone knows who might be hiring Sales Engineers... email me! My current certs are: MCP, MCP+I, MCSE, MCSE+I,MCT and working on CISSP (security cert)

Thu, Oct 18, 2001 Anonymous Anonymous

sound advise

Mon, Oct 15, 2001 Anonymous Anonymous

I'm in the same position, very business minded and nearly finished my business degree, but I've also been a Sys. Eng. (MCSE) for nearly 6 years now.

Mon, Oct 15, 2001 Anonymous Anonymous

right on the money

Mon, Oct 8, 2001 Anonymous Anonymous

Good

Sun, Sep 30, 2001 Joe DiGiovanni Mountlake Terrace, WA

Thanks, Steve, for addressing this key issue. My situation is somewhat different in that I don't have business degrees or formal training in that area, but as I've progressed in my IT career (11 years now), I've been more & more aware of the need to narrow the gap between technical & business skills. With every position I've held in the past 7 years, I've made it a point to learn the business environment in parallel with the technical environment. The organizations that have strong, principled business leaders are the ones I've thrived in the most. I'm working on establishing my own business plan for part time & eventually full time consulting. Meanwhile, I hope to soon enroll in an IT focused masters program to get the formal training to reinforce my real world business experience.

Sat, Sep 29, 2001 Ron O. Network+, A+ Louisville, KY

Having a business degree is great but earning IT certifications with a technical backround is the icing on the cake! It gives prospective employers the idea that you are a well-rounded individual that can understand the needs of your company and help it to succeed in this computer & internet age.

Sat, Sep 29, 2001 Ron O. Louisville

I was at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and happened to pick up the latest MCPmag.com magazine. I flipped to the table of contents and this article caught my eye. I'm exactly in the same boat. I have a business degree with a marketing minor and I have Network+ & A+ certification. I'm trying to make a career change so I decided to obtain those two certifications and will be on my way to obtaining my CCNA soon. The article was very hepful because I would like to incorporate my business degree & my technical know-how and start a career but I don't know what approach to take. The article gave me a few insights as to what career options I may have. I do agree wth the writers. It seems almost impossible at first but when you think about it, someone with a degree in business can really take advantage of that mix. Some careers to consider would be in technical sales & consulting such as selling Cisco Routers, Technical Support Managers, IT project managers and e-commerce program manager to name a few. Also, understanding that the internet is one big business opportunity and that primarily understanding your company's needs can be very advantageous to an individual who holds a business background and a technical backround.

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