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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