10 hard truths about succeeding in IT operations

IT operations can best be described as the process of keeping technology and the users who rely on it healthy and happy. This can include server administration, desktop support, network engineering, or some other element that involves what’s termed “keeping the lights on.”

This type of work often requires little formal education and can be a perfect career for people who enjoy self-training, getting hands-on experience with real-world problems, solving issues, helping others and engaging in perfectionism (there’s no such thing as a perfect systems environment out there, but we can try get as close as possible).


However, there are some stipulations to make the best of the career and keep your priorities – and sanity – intact. They may not all be pleasant, nor easy to stick to, but these are concrete truths anyone working in the field will have to accept and come to terms with in order to survive the experience.

1. You can’t please everyone all the time

This one may be obvious, but it’s also the most important fact to keep in mind.

I have never seen an organization that had IT operations folks sitting around playing solitaire (well, OK, they may play solitaire but usually for stress relief or to unwind during lunch). Simply put, any given IT workload is usually going to run about 125-150% over capacity, on an average basis. There are system or user problems to fix, devices to patch, software and servers to upgrade, documentation to write, accounts to administer, parts/supplies to obtain. The list is endless.

So too can the requests. At any given moment there may be five, seven, or even more things you “should” be doing (depending on who’s asking) but the uncomfortable reality is that you’re not going to keep everyone – or everything – consistently happy. You’re not going to be everyone’s friend. My advice: focus on pleasing your boss first, then arrange the other requests accordingly.

2. You have to be able to prioritize

Prioritization means working on the higher value items as consistently and frequently as possible, at least where your schedule permits.

Without proper prioritization you may well spend your days trotting about plucking low hanging fruit based on whoever requested your assistance most recently. It’s hard to build a successful career merely resetting passwords, unlocking accounts, rebooting computers, searching for missing email or any of the other relatively low-value tasks in IT operations. Granted, these things have to be done, but they can be delegated, or postponed in some instances.

You must also include some big picture items in your daily workload, whether it’s researching that software upgrade project, getting quotes on server hardware, reaching out to project stakeholders to discuss an upcoming initiative or any of the other sub-tasks associated with large scale project or improvement strategies which last longer than an hour (or part thereof).

3. You have to be able to plan

Having the ability to meaningfully formulate a plan (or even just focus on, provide feedback upon and accommodate a plan handed to you such as from the higher-ups) for the next week, month, year and beyond is a very significant skill. You have to be able to look at the needs of the company then determine how to fulfill said needs.

Avoid constantly putting out fires so that you can keep track of your career course, establish goals and milestones, and adjust as needed, otherwise you’ll forever remain stuck in reactive mode, rather than developing a proactive mindset.

4. You have to be able to concentrate

This one is a challenge and has been a problem with every IT group I’ve seen or worked with. It’s become especially difficult with companies moving to the “open space” concept where colleagues work at shared tables or open rows of workstations with neither peace nor privacy.

Distractions can be toxic to one’s work efforts, especially if they have nothing to do with the tasks at hand or the responsibilities you hold. That conversation about last night’s football game in the next row can impede your concentration. A colleague’s ringing phone can disrupt your attention span. Even emails about which lunch truck is coming to the building can deteriorate your focus. Work from home, relocate elsewhere, or use noise-blocking headphones as needed in order to preserve your concentration.

When it comes to performing actual work, I suggest doing so one task at a time to retain the strongest possible focus. Multi-tasking is, in a nutshell, one of the singular most unproductive things in the workforce. Juggling several balls is much more challenging and stressful than tossing the same ball up and down again then doing the same with the next one.

5. You have to learn how to say no

Many won’t like this one, nor understand exactly how to implement it given that IT operations is a customer-oriented culture, but building the ability to say no to superfluous, irrelevant, or just plain impossible requests is a life saver.

This may seem to run counter to the entire goal of IT operations, which is to help users, right? Well, that’s true, but it needs elaboration: “to help users with a varying array of needs in order to assist them in doing their jobs and making the company successful.”

This goes back to prioritization; if you accept every request or proposed task that comes your way, you may end up buried in an avalanche of banal activities that are less meaningful than more advantageous uses of your time.

I once worked with a development team that had a traffic light which they rigged up to a Linux server. The goal of the traffic light was to show the status of their latest project; green for “good,” red for “dead stop” and yellow for “some difficulties.”

I became snared in a permissions issue with this server which simply became too time-consuming, so I informed the team I had too many other legitimate endeavors to engage in and support – endeavors actively suffering due to my non-involvement with them – and I could spare no further time on what essentially amounted to a non-revenue-generating novelty.

6. You have to learn to be firm

When I say “be firm” I don’t mean just by saying no (although in the traffic light episode I did indeed have to state that I wouldn’t be returning to look at the issue during a “free moment” since those don’t exist), but also by sticking to your goals and objectives.

A plan that looks great on paper (or on screen) is only as valuable as your willingness to stick to it, update it as needed and follow through, so being firm in executing your endeavors also means being committed to your career.

7. You have to be able to rely on your boss

Remember how I said pleasing your boss first was a good strategy? Well, this is where it pays off. If your boss has your back, you can remain focused on the endeavors you need to achieve. When the prior two steps fail and saying no and being firm don’t work, referring the matter to your boss is a key priority.

Even if he or she comes back to you and asks you to focus on another initiative you didn’t plan to engage upon, you’re still doing the right thing because your management priorities should be similar to yours. You do want to make sure that people don’t rely on just going above you to your boss to get what they want out of you, however; if it starts happening, you need to start a meaningful discussion to resolve it.

8. You have to deliver the goods

The prior tips are based on reaching and fulfilling this one.

If you’re not meeting your objectives, your future in IT operations – or at least in your current role – is limited. You can’t just answer emails and attend meetings all day; you have to exhibit the capability to provide measurable deliverables and achieve specific goals in order for your career to thrive. These should be demonstrable to your management chain (just saying “I kept a bunch of servers from crashing,” or “No viruses broke out on the network,” won’t cut it) and preferably part of or linked to building and developing your skill set.

9. You have to keep your skills updated

IT operations involves technology and processes which change almost on a daily basis. The Novell CNE courses I took back in the 1990s have long since lost their face value (although they did help build some good troubleshooting skills). With automation taking over, I believe system administrators will have to branch out into coding as well to remain relevant. There’s definitely no room for complacency.

While in some cases you can count on updating your skills on the job as new software and platforms are implemented, it’s also important to seek outside education or self-study to stay on top of current and future trends.

10. There’s always tomorrow

Too many IT folks get wrapped up in the mindset that so many things all have to be done today or ASAP. Prioritization helps with this one. Make sure to have a policy of knowing when you’re done for the day and what can be pushed off until tomorrow or thereafter.

There’s more to life than work: don’t skip exercise, recreational hobbies or family time. It’s not always possible, of course, such as when emergencies develop at the office (or elsewhere), but the majority of tasks on any given IT professionals plate are not immediate priorities. Remember that it’s important to pace yourself for the long haul; doing too much at once, too late into the day or night is a recipe for burnout.

Now, I’m not saying you have to magically develop these characteristics or traits overnight; plenty of resources such as books, blogs, conferences, seminars, leaders or mentors, speaking with IT veterans, and other sources of strategy can greatly benefit you in embracing these 10 truths.