Ira Glass (Host of “This American Life“) has an oft-quoted piece about creative work titled “The Gap”. You can read it here, but it’s been made into vines and videos and lots of other forms that are more fun to watch – you can Google the first sentence and find enough to waste an hour or two.
What Ira describes has a parallel in the world of I.T., and just like Ira’s experience, nobody told me when I started. So with all necessary apologies and legal disclaimers, here is my adaptation of Ira’s famous advice:
Nobody tells this to I.T. noobies. I wish someone told me. All of us who do technical work, we get into it because we have a desire to make things work better. Folks drawn to IT are quick figure out how things work, but then we have this vision of how it could work – how cool it could be. And we know that if we could just get in there and tinker with it, we’d get it all sorted out and it would be incredible.
But there’s this gap.
For the first couple of years you are just plowing along. There’s so much to learn, and so much to do, and you have to earn respect before you get to do some of the cool stuff. So you do it. You just do the hard work of doing the work and learning and growing.
But at the same time you can see so much more that you want to fix, to improve, to be part of.
So you keep plugging away, soaking it all in and just trying to be part of whatever you can get into.
After a few years, you realize you’ve fallen into this trap – you have done all these different things (and done them well!) but now everyone expects you to be a jack of all trades all the time. To be the “he can figure it out” guy.
So this is the part nobody told me. The part that I had to figure out for myself. The part I’m telling you now:
After a few years, when you’ve seen the whole landscape of I.T. and you know what it’s all about, you need to pick. You need to decide where your personal desires and skills overlap. It might be storage, or voice, or server, or appdev, or whatever. It might have NOTHING to do with what you are doing here and now (actually, that’s a pretty safe bet). The point isn’t that you start doing “it” (at least not at first). The point is that you have chosen, and you commit to that goal.
To get there, you might need to work with a whole other team “on the side”, or after hours, or volunteer, or just hang out with “those guys” when they eat lunch. You might have to start reading a whole other set of blogs, or sneak to user groups or conventions on your lunch hour and days off.
And the job you are doing now, at the company you work for? You should get used to the idea that they’re not going to help you get there. Right now you are this amazing do-it-all resource. If you start only doing one thing they’re going to have to hire 2 or 3 more people to cover what you used to be doing. So don’t expect a lot of love in that direction.
But please, PLEASE keep doing it. Tap into the passion that got you into this in the first place – the desire to figure it out and the vision of how it can be better – and you push ahead. You’ll start commenting in forums, or writing blog posts, or jumping on tweet-ups.
You transform interest and enthusiasm into experience.
And all of a sudden, people are referring to you as an expert in the field. And all of a sudden, you are doing what you love, not just what you can.
Like Ira says: “It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”