Be indispensible to your organization

For a young IT employee, challenging company practices can take a lot of nerve. That’s especially true if the company is a corporate giant like General Motors. But Phil Edholm did that early in his career and rode it to become an international networking leader with a bandwidth law named after him.

Now Nortel Networks’ chief technology officer and vice-president of enterprise strategy, Edholm cites the story as an example of how networking staff have to stretch themselves to become key IT people – and eventually key managers – in their organizations.

His bold move came in the early 1980s at time when computer networking was uncommon. So GM’s practice was to directly connect every factory floor computer system to a separate terminal in every department. At the time Edholm was a systems engineer in one of the automaker’s California plants.

“You’d walk into the tooling department, for example, and they’d have 10 or 12 different terminals in a row to run their applications,” he recalled. The problem was in some departments they were running out of room.

But Edholm had learned of a startup with technology that allowed multiple applications to run on one terminal. Stressing the cost savings, he persuaded the plant manager to run the apps over a network. Bucking the way things had usually been done earned him “quite negative” reactions from the departments as they were rewired. But soon “people began to see it as a huge benefit.” Huge enough that the idea of networking computers spread throughout the manufacturing industry and earning Edholm a lot of recognition from GM.

“Stepping back and taking advantage of being in a position to see what multiple people were doing and being able to combine those things together and think differently, you can actually create significant value” to your employer, he says, “and be recognized for it.” On the other hand, don’t be too cocky: Edholm’s worst mistake was trying early technology from a startup that just wasn’t ready to be deployed.

Being a network technician is not a glamorous job. Yet today, networks are more important to organizations than ever. A recent report from Info-Tech Research of London, Ont. said networks “represent the lifeblood of most companies.”

So young staffers have to learn to move beyond fixing cables and routers, while mangers have to learn how to spot and retain rising stars. “Over a period of time network people develop an intimate understanding of how a company’s network is put together,” says Andy Woyzbun, a lead analyst at Info-Tech and former CIO of ATT Canada, including its weaknesses, how to lean on vendors to get repairs or equipment quickly and how to take advantage of changes in technology. “These are not skills that are easily replaced.”

To develop key networking staff, Woyzbun says, organizations have to provide opportunities for them to keep up to date on technology and suggest the organization look at new approaches at the right time, as well as learn how to deal with technology suppliers.

But Woyzbun and other say the onus is on network staff themselves to understand an essential truth: Their job isn’t about configuring switches, but understanding how the network helps deliver vital applications to the organization and making themselves indispensable.

So first, “you’ve got to deliver the timeliness and quality of service within your area of responsibility,” says Woyzbun. “If you can’t do that well your career is limited.”

Second, hone your relationships with the organization’s vendors. You’ll be rewarded with timely delivery of equipment or repairs, always good for your reputation. At the same time, work closely with your organization’s end users to understand what they need.

Third, learn about new technology – either leading edge or just new features in an upcoming product release – and figure out when is the right time to suggest your organization look into it.

Organizations are looking for adaptable workers who “thrive on learning new technologies,” says Jeff Seifert, chief technology officer at Cisco Canada, who began his career doing customer service at Bell Canada before becoming manager of Andersen Consulting’s Canadian network practice.

But because networks are reaching out in organizations farther than before to encompass everything from virtualization to unified communications, he notes, meaning staff have understand the impact of what they’re working on. “Networks are so part of business transformation now that to have a network professional not aware of the business impacts and not treat internal users as customers often leads to misexpectations.”

Seize opportunities to work with others in the organization, he advises, and find ways to build solutions that have business relevance. “Being a trusted advisor” will pay dividends, he says, so when a group prepares to build an application they will want to have a network professional – you – on the team. Meeting new challenges is vital. In fact, Seifert says the biggest mistake he made in his career was getting comfortable doing the same things and losing his willingness to stretch his boundaries.

“Change is tough,” he admits, but “by embracing change you do much better.”

Edholm suggests asking yourself, ‘What are the benefits to the organization of me being here?’ and tailoring your actions accordingly. Networking today is a technology becoming a commodity, he points out. So the skills you have now will decrease in value over the next five years.

Your goal should be to think about what technical skills you should upgrade that will help the organization’s network run vital applications better. Remember, he says, there are only three reasons organizations buy IT, or have IT employees: To decrease the cost of IT infrastructure, to drive change in revenue (including through better productivity) or to meet a regulatory requirement.

“If you begin to think that way, even as a lowly employee, you begin to realize it can drive your career options and your thought processes.”

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