Saturday, July 04, 2015

Book Review: A Technologist's Guide to Career Advancement by John Schneider

I saw someone mention this book in an article comment and bought it as it looked interesting. I also posted a review at Amazon but wanted to write a more detailed review here.

Advice from an IT Success

John Schneider has had an eventful and successful career in technology, working his way up to executive levels. This book couches itself as a career guide specifically for technology workers. I didn't find a whole lot that was specific to technology; there is a lot of great advice in this book for pretty much anyone. Schneider writes with an easy style and uses a lot of humor and the book is a fairly quick read. I think it's probably a good book for most people who want to know how to stand out in any industry, although it's likely a bit better value for younger people who have time to put into play the things Schneider recommends.

IT People Have an Edge?

The one conceit Schneider carries that's specific to tech workers is that you can do most of the other jobs in the company but the other people couldn't do yours.

This is often true but I would prefer that it not be presented as an absolute, because I've met my share of IT people that probably couldn't do other people's jobs, much less their own. And I've met smart folks outside IT that could be great in it.

But I do like the gist of what he's getting at because it matches an observation I've made about experienced IT teams: they represent an interesting foci of business and data. That is, they are people that understand the technology, but have also probably picked up knowledge of the company's business and its clients. They also are positioned to recognize the gaps between departments that need to use the same data. That puts them in a unique position to solve problems and improve the company.

As companies grow, they naturally tend to fragment and become a collection of silos, each narrowly focused on its specific function. This is a dangerous structure that compromises efficiency, ironically the very thing that specialization is supposed to provide. It becomes inefficient because people begin working in a vacuum and lose insight into why a task is done and how it affects others downstream in the process ecosystem. Communication tends to suffer too as people get busy doing their own things and this gradually reinforces both the distance between groups and the calcification of process quirks that might have been workarounds for something that was a problem once but might have since changed. And without an oversight to recognize this condition and an agent to promote improvement, companies (even if still solvent) eventually suffer atrophy. Teams become political and defensive, trying to justify their existence and role, even if they'd be better somewhere else.

The agents of change would ideally be managers and business analysts. But we know this isn't the case; higher management typically does not listen to the things their subordinates are telling them. They've evolved into selfish entities that cater to self preservation and shield themselves behind barriers of elitist cliques and faulty assumptions that they, and not the customer, are the profit center.

Killing Sacred Cows

Schneider isn't shy about challenging conventional career wisdom.

He disagrees with some things that are considered industry best practices, notably the advice on accepting a counter offer when resigning. The general rule is that you don't accept them. If there were fundamental problems at the job that caused you to want to resign, are they really going to change if you accept the counter offer? Schneider does acknowledge that if a workplace is really dreadful you should just leave, but then goes on to say the things you've heard about taking a counter offer are "BS" and taking one is just fine. I too will concede that if the parties involved are mature consenting adults and not children that can hold grudges, it might be ok.

But people are human beings and both the company, the managers, and your peers will remember what's transpired (you might try to keep it a secret, but things have a way of getting out). Ultimately, if you had to threaten to leave in order to get what you want, is that really the kind of place you want to stay? These are legitimate caveats to accepting a counter offer and Schneider is perhaps a bit to flippant about them; in addition when he calls them "BS" he doesn't really provide an argument about the specifics of why they are.

He also seems to value the effort one could put into acquiring certifications. I think a lot of experienced IT staffers will tell you different things here. In my career I've managed to do well without certifications. Schneider feels they will be useful in helping you advance in the organization and discounts the value of seniority; that may be true in some companies. But my personal experience is that certs are best as differentiators in getting hired, not promoted. Once you're in an organization, promotions are likely to be based on a combination of things such as performance, politics, and yes, seniority. Often, very much about politics and seniority.

Higher Education

He recommends getting an MBA; not bad advice, but there's more to this than meets the eye. He casually shoots down several excuses people might use to not get one when some of them are actually really good reasons. Cost, for example. If you want to go to a prestigious program, it might cost you the amount of a nice house; I would not so flippantly disregard this barrier. And, in my experience, the value of an MBA is like that of a cert. It's probably a great way to get your foot in the door, but advancing beyond that point will depend on performance, politics, and well, seniority, though I do see a distressing trend today to put young and inexperienced people into positions of power where they can destroy companies largely because they have an MBA and are experts at cost cutting, Mark Hurd-style. So maybe Schneider is right about that after all.

Are Things Different Now?

I don't doubt that Schneider is a successful and brilliant guy and probably a good boss too, if he practices what he preaches. However, I couldn't shake the feeling at times that he's led a bit of a charmed life. His thoughts about certs, seniority, and MBAs make me feel that he's been fortunate to traverse most of his career through meritocracies. But I'm certain I'm not alone as an IT staffer that's recognized technology workers have become the contemporary blue collar workers of the world. IT shops are seen as costs, not strategic components, by most companies. As a result IT people are constrained by a very thick ceiling barring them from the highest leadership positions (roles open to operations, sales, engineering, marketing, and even accounting) where they could bring their blend and breadth of business and systems knowledge together to truly help a company forge strategic initiatives in intelligent cost cutting rather than mere layoffs and the practice of being cheap at the expense of efficiency.

All this to say that while Schneider's advice is still overall very good, it may have had more effectiveness before IT departments evolved into the bastard stepchildren of a companies today, a time before PMP's started telling us to forego innovation for smaller and more easily measured changes. A time when workers were allowed to think.

A Word about Surveillance

Happy Fourth of July. I've got something to say about a controversial subject on a day the United States likes to reserve for a celebration of freedom.

It's common for ivory tower dwellers to scream about surveillance being a violation of privacy. And taken to pedantic extremes, they are correct. It certainly seems wrong to have your communications monitored and your actions tracked without your knowledge and consent.

People who have spent much of their lives in the ivory tower though are often challenged when it comes to separating fantasy from reality. The unfortunate reality is that humans are flawed; we will be dishonest for a number of reasons, we will succumb to base emotions, we allow hate and disrespect into our lives. We murder, steal, and cheat.

Perhaps that would be acceptable if our transgressions would hurt only ourselves but they don't. They infringe on the rights of others, and the idyllic image of a world totally "free" and totally "equal" is one that any reasonable and sane human understands is near impossible.

While it's easy to take the side of freedom in an argument, most people arguing for unbridled freedom are making assumptions that humans will always do the right thing. That assumption's been proven false since day one. It is more challenging to empathize with the other side. What would someone supporting surveillance say?

We can start with some true stories. I have a friend whose daughter lost her iPhone. But they'd installed a tracking app on it, and were able to find its location. My friend drove to the location, a residential address, and rang the doorbell. A young boy answered, and my friend said, "Call your parents over because I'd like to talk to them about the iPhone you stole." The boy was understandably shocked. When his mother called out, "Who's at the door," he responded with, "I've got it," and then surrendered the iPhone to my friend. Later, my friend proudly proclaimed, "I'm Batman!"

Here's another one. I recently was involved in an auto accident. A lady at a train crossing saw the crossing lights start to flash, and she braked abruptly, perhaps two to three car lengths ahead of the stopping line where you would expect stopping cars to line up. I jammed on my brakes in response, and was able to stop without hitting her. The young man following us was not able to stop and rear-ended my vehicle. The damage was mild and no one was hurt. We exchanged insurance information and I took several pictures of the scene, including a photo of the rear of the other vehicle. I did that to get the license plate, but it turns out it was a good idea because it shows no damage to the other vehicle's rear.

We then cleared the traffic pattern. The other driver seemed very nice and I didn't expect any problems. After filing a report with the other driver's insurance company, I found he lied about the incident, saying there was a third car involved that hit him from behind and pushed him into me. The insurance company stood by him because there was no other witness, even with my picture showing there was no impact damage to his vehicle. So to repair my vehicle I must now pay my deductible and my insurance company will pay the remainder. If the other guy had told the truth, everything would be covered by his insurance. What a pain in the ass.

The evidence I have should help my insurance company go after the other guy's insurance company and recover the costs, but why should they have to? Gee, you know what would have been really awesome here? A bit of footage from a traffic camera showing what happened. Oh, but that would have been more of the evil surveillance wouldn't it?

These are just simple personal anecdotes. You can find many stories of how traffic cameras and store cameras have helped uncover the truth about an incident where someone is lying. And when a criminal is caught, the people screaming for freedom from surveillance don't then go scream about the criminal being wronged, do they?

I sure hope they don't, because it means they do understand the challenge of navigating the line between freedom and security. They're quick to quote Benjamin Franklin, when Franklin said that a society willing to give up freedom for temporary security deserves neither freedom or security. But Mr. Franklin said that a LONG time ago and times have changed, people haven't. And old wily Ben Franklin was pretty smart...look carefully at the quote. He notes it is "temporary security" that a compromise of freedom gives, a fact that many drop from the quote when referring to it. So what would the price of more lasting security be?

Ask yourself this: at what point does a lack of security begin to infringe on freedom? If you cannot navigate in a society without your every step being compromised by the dishonest, how free are you? Where do you find fertile ground for enterprise? For family? The point I'm getting at here is that the people demanding total freedom incorrectly assume that freedom and security are mutually exclusive. Freedom and security are indeed strange partners, sometimes at odds but also sometimes allies. And when there's an altercation between them, how do we resolve it? Usually, we depend on that most neutral of third parties: the truth.

I'm not talking in absolutes; wisdom has taught me that a position of an absolute is usually wrong. And I remember my literature too, and would prefer not to be Winston Smith, screwing my girlfriend in a field while filmed by cameras in wheat stalks. But the world is an imperfect place, and in the battle to make it a better and more just one, the truth has a place.