Humans have an innate desire to categorize everything from animals to social status. We do so because it is how our brains simplify and understand a complex world. People may categorize or stereotype you based solely on your job title -- your prestige, or respect if you prefer, is determined by your position.
This class structure within IT is largely unspoken but real nonetheless. I will discuss it here and attempt to rank the following IT functions from most to least prestigious.
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1: Systems analyst
The systems analyst is admired for his or her expertise in the multiple roles needed to build a successful system. They're self-supervised and independent, and managers get out of their way and let them do their job. They are envied for their autonomy, high pay, and challenging work. They earn admiration for their high level of education, knowledge, and accomplishments. This unique combination puts the systems analyst at the top of the list.
The programmer enters the room and a hush falls across the crowd. One person with awe and reverence showing on his face whispers in a respectful hush, "That's the programmer who wrote the AI code!" Okay, programmers may not receive this amount of aggrandizement, but they are typically held in a special place of esteem.
To the average person, programmers do nothing short of magic. They make the Web come to life with a multitude of useful applications. They create new and strange virtual worlds. They enable computers to do everything from gaming to running essential functions of business. And they do so with mysterious and enigmatic languages known to only those select few who are the keepers of the code.
If you have done any database work at all and are fortunate enough to have a database administrator, you will appreciate the workload that the DBA removes from your plate. A smart developer learns early on that a good, experienced DBA is critical to the successful completion of the project. Part art and part science, DBAs' skills can have a significant impact on the performance of the systems they help develop and support.
4: Project lead
Project leads who get their hands dirty and help with all phases of the project lifecycle are respected for their technical as well as their management skills. The role is not given to newcomers. Only those with years of experience make it to project lead. This alone is enough to earn the high esteem of the other project team members.
5: System admin
Access rights granted by sysadmins are just a hurdle in the completion their peers' tasks. Sadly, the other good work they do goes unnoticed, primarily because even IT professionals have no clue what else they are responsible for. And all it takes is one bad experience trying to get system access for a user to lose any admiration for all system administrators.
6: IT manager
Unlike other professions, where manager would be at the top of the list, IT managers are hurt by the perception that they don't do the "real work." IT managers earn respect for their advancement up the career ladder, but this is offset by their perceived lack of technical skills. It may be unfair ,but managers lack IT cred. In addition, employees believe that their managers may have a general idea of their work but lack a detailed understanding of exactly what they do.
7: Network admin
Mention the words network admin to most, and these are the thoughts that are likely running through their head: "Isn't he the reason I can't see Facebook and Twitter? Sure, I get a blazing fast connection to the Internet, but what good is that if I can't get to Youtube? He's probably reading my email too!" No love there, and the network admin gets no love for the network being up, either -- only grief when it goes down.
8: Reporting specialist
When you get right down to it, the reporting specialist is nothing more than a glorified cleric, pulling data from the system, putting numbers into charts, and spitting out reams of paper in the process. If you have to deliver charts with bad numbers to your manager, you may need to use this time-honored phrase: "Don't shoot me. I'm Just the messenger!"
Never appreciated until a hardware or system emergency occurs, the lowly technician becomes associated with bad circumstances. You know there's trouble if the tech shows up. He or she may be given the moniker "hero for the day," but more often than not, users just want technicians to fix their system and be on their way. The uninformed may compare the technician's skills to the auto mechanic or the Maytag repairman. Usually in crisis mode, the high stress, low pay, and difficult hours typical of the technician do not garner much prestige.
10: Help desk analyst
Help desk analysts are the Rodney Dangerfields of the IT world. The people answering the phone on the help desk get no respect from clients or other IT professionals. They are expected to solve as many problems as possible at tier one but are not paid the wages befitting that level of technical expertise. When the phone rings, there is almost always an unhappy customer on the line. Help desk analysts take unwarranted verbal abuse for circumstances beyond their control and are rarely recognized for their efforts. Their performance is typically measured by the number of calls they take and complete per hour -- not exactly a formula for friendly verbal banter, low stress, and thoughtful problem resolution. Respect? Even Rodney Dangerfield got more respect without the added stress.
The bottom line
Much of what I have written is totally unfair to the IT professional. Unfortunately, I believe it's how many people perceive the IT roles I have listed -- and perceptions can be difficult to overcome. While it is true that stereotypes and perceptions often predetermine prestige, it is equally true that prestige can be earned in the most mundane of jobs as well as lost by those in the most respected of jobs.
Unlike the social classes of Victorian England, where right of birth was the sole determinant of one's class, the working classes of IT are open to all who are talented enough and industrious enough to achieve them. The reporting specialist, or any other IT role for that matter, can be a stepping stone to a better paying position with higher prestige. For example, I turned my reporting position into a developer's role by automating the weekly charts. If you are looking to climb the prestige ladder, you can do the same. You only need to be clever enough and wise enough to recognize and seize the opportunities that present themselves.
I am reminded of the old joke where the body parts get together to decide which is most important and therefore should lead. One of the morals of the story is that all of the body parts are important. If you have a job that is low on the prestige ladder, you should walk proudly with your head held high. You know how hard you work. You know the unique skills required to do your job. You know how important you are to the overall success of the company. Never let anyone, including me, tell you otherwise.
Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a writer for TechRepublic.