IT Employment optimize

One of the most important questions you should ask in an interview

Here's a question that most IT pros won't think to ask in an interview, yet it could be the difference between a good work experience and a bad one.

Any IT professional looking at an employment opportunity should ask one question during the interview process:

"Is technology seen as a revenue generator or a cost center in this organization?"

The answer to this question will tell you something important - if IT is enabled and valued at the organization. It's terribly difficult to execute effectively in an organization where IT is seen as a drain on resources instead of a necessary piece of revenue generation.

Outside of organizations that are directly focused on delivering technology solutions, many industries regard information technology with suspicion, if not outright hostility. I've heard countless professionals talk about how much free time Information Technology professionals seem to have.

Much of this centers around misunderstanding. IT is as much about thinking, researching, and planning as it is about execution. IT professionals who do a lot methodical research and planning tend to implement more reliable solutions. This gives them more time away from fire-fighting in the data center and more time to sit at their desk or planning their next highly reliable solution.

Unfortunately those who are the best at this can frequently appear to be idlers. Getting buy-in that you're not sitting around taxing the company bottom line is a challenge in organizations where nose-to-the-grindstone productivity drives revenue.

In fact, responding to crisis outages that require extra effort and time may be more likely to result in recognition than simply making the systems so stable that they don't require constant upkeep. You may find yourself more popular when working frantically to fix a system that broke than when you've delivered systems that simply work. It goes without saying that the head-down workforce at the office between 7AM and 6 PM (including the executives) very rarely see the IT staff pulling all day and night sessions or working the weekends or scheduled downtime on a holidays. If technology is not seen as a core component of the company's success, do not expect these efforts to be fully appreciated.

Keep in mind, IT is not blameless in this situation. There is a lack of meaningful skill assessment in our industry. The paper tiger with a wall full of certifications may have no practical hands-on skill or aptitude for a technology career, while the college dropout may be the next innovator who delivers a multi-billion dollar IPO. In that environment, it isn't unusual for people who do not have a firm grasp of technology solutions and limitations to be distrustful of IT workers.

We talk in riddles, we often have poor communication skills, and we're an industry that attracts highly intelligent individuals who can seem arrogant and aloof. Executive level staff are frequently frustrated when they can't decide if they're being told the truth or hearing a yarn when IT explains why something didn't work right or on time.

This becomes a particular challenge in certain industries. The financial, legal and health-care industry are particular challenges for Information Technology. Even in a tech company, there's a silent hierarchy of importance. Helpdesk/Desktop support, IT Engineering, Networking to Development - each career level seems to have more sway than the preceding. Add lawyers, bankers or physicians to that mix, and the corporate politics of a workplace may rapidly become toxic.

This doesn't have to be the case. There are a lot of brilliant people involved in these roles - and many of them "get" IT on a broad level and can be very pleasant and understanding to work with. The challenge is being able to figure out if there are enough people in these roles in positions of influence to create a healthy and productive IT environment in the organization.

Figuring that question out before taking a position with a company is a difficult prospect. If you find yourself in a non-technical company where the majority of executives distrust IT and see it as a burden on the bottom line, you can be assured that your experience as a technology professional will be challenging.

The results of working in an environment where the executives see IT as a burden and don't embrace the unique nature of the IT process can be frustrating. I've seen environments where the IT workers are disengaged and unexcited about their positions, and too often this reflects a disconnect between the company culture and how IT works effectively. Working where engagement between the core business and the IT group is adversarial can destroy motivation and self-confidence among even the most skilled technology professionals.

Some may question the wisdom of asking this question during an interview. From my perspective, only a company with a poor relationship with IT is likely to be offended, and that is exactly the kind you're trying to avoid.

On the other hand, companies with positive collaborative relationships with IT are likely to see this question as one that distinguishes you from other candidates. It shows that you see the bigger picture outside of the server room. The best firms are looking for this in candidates.

Does the company support employee growth with training and education reimbursement? Do they try to offer compensation for on-call or emergency shift work, even a token like a flexible start time the following day? There are many ways to subtly discover if a company considers IT an asset to be invested in or a necessary evil to be tolerated. How do you determine a company's culture toward IT?  Let's hear your tips in the forum.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

47 comments
Goshawk
Goshawk

I hear both sides of the story in this article, but no real positive yes or no to the question. I see little time spent by IT personell on whether to be technologily asute or the best in customer service. One well established company hands down says customer sat skills are the best and will make you get hired. Wrong on their part to make this the basis of hiring you. It makes me feel forget your techno skills and just smile...! No. This shows lack of managing skills. More managers will find themselves always on the customer sat war front and that's all they do. They have no tech skills. You may ask the question, but make sure your on the interviewers good side first. He or she may not be the customer sat manager.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

assumption in it. First that you are going to get an honest answer. But far more important, many companies would deny that they do treat IT as just a cost. "our people are outr greatests assets" etc. More often you find out you are a cost, by their deeds not their words and you are not going to learn that at an interview. Might as well go into it, on the basis that the traditional view will apply, then you can be pleasantly surprised when it isn't.

rajgopalhg
rajgopalhg

In most of the organizations, technology is seen as a cost center. It is an art to convince the organization even for procuring a small device.

mjc5
mjc5

If IT is viewed as a cost center, it's time to terminate the interview. My experience with cost centers is that from the moment you walk in the door your first day, the company is doing it's best to get rid of you.

BrianSnow
BrianSnow

In larger companies, you will frequently be interviewed first by someone from the personnel department, who screens you using criteria established by the various organizational components looking for new employees. If you pass their screening, you finally get to talk to someone from the component you want to work for that actually has a clue and can answer such questions. If you ask for too much detail from the intial interviewer, you might not get far enough up the chain to ask someone who can understand and be responsive to your intent, with the correct knowledge to give in their answer. So establish early what credentials your interviewer has, and gently ask for an opportunity to ask for additional time with someone in the department you want to work in to further assess you pass the initial screening, and don't get too detailed with the first guy, for both of your sakes.

ITTechJared
ITTechJared

Really wish I had asked this question when I came aboard the company I currently work for because I know they consider me a "necessary evil to be tolerated." Maybe I should go ahead and ask my communist boss this question now lol.

medfordmel
medfordmel

Another important and delicate question is whether the IT organization spends more time on proactive or reactive activities. That will help determine the perceived value of the IT department. If a company has the IT resources to proactively manage its systems to improve uptime and productivity, this demonstrates that the company regards those efforts as valuable. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that firefighters are generally much more popular than planners. I currently have a peer who's seen as the "go-to guy" because he's always the one running around fixing his systems. It's because he allows and sometimes causes them to break by virtue of his poor planning and rushed approach. This always causes more downtime and costs more time, effort, and money in the long run. Meanwhile, I feel like the less people know of me, the better job I'm performing, because my systems run consistently and are highly available because I plan and maintain them that way. I'm not rewarded for my actions, though, and he's recognized for his. In the eyes of management, I'm seen as less valuable and less of a contributor, when really it should be the other way around. It's frustrating, and it's something I'd like to avoid in the future.

mastrapa
mastrapa

I have to fully agree with the statement that asking if "IT is considered a revenue generating or a cost center" should be one of the most important questions that an IT professional could do. As an EX-Cisco employee, I remember the times when the company considered IT an investment to generate revenue (and the company was growing accordingly). In the last 10 years or so Cisco has become a cost center where every single penny needs to be accounted against quarterly results (and long term investments are ignored or phased out because they won't contribute to the quarterly figures). It seems that as the company fortunes followed this trend closely since their stock prices are still sitting at their early 2002 figures while the Nasdaq and NYSE have already almost reached their former maximum levels (almost directly correlated to the company long term investments in IT infrastructure)

chris.moller
chris.moller

I'm reminded of a story they used to tell of a large IT company, which commissioned a time-and-motion expert to review their operation. After a week walking around with clipboard and stopwatch, he gave his report. "The first thing you must do is get rid of that guy in the end office - he's spent the whole week with his feet up on the desk", he said. The manager replied, "That guy last year came up with an idea that saved our company $10M, and if I remember rightly, when he came up with it, his feet were right where they are now."

Odipides
Odipides

Companies that exploit their employees and companies that go bankrupt. Sadly, that's the commercial reality.

brian.p.moore
brian.p.moore

Slayer's point is well-taken. However, asking the question probably won't cost you the job - in fact, most interviewers will probably never remember that you asked it. The good news is, you don't have to ask it. The answer to the question is always 'Cost.' Nobody who is not delusional thinks IT is a revenue generator. A better question might be, "Who within the company dictates the strategic vision for IT?" If it's the CEO or CFO, there's trouble ahead. You want a CIO - a CIO with a great relationship to the CEO. Next might be, "How are the budgets for IT determined?" Some sample factors that contribute to budgets are: - number of employees and contractors - geographic location of employees and contractors - R & D (both for products and for IT) - IT Strategic vision (see question, Who dictates the strategic vision for IT?) - quantity and nature of Intellectual Property (are you in the business of making widgets, or developing killer apps? IT warriors want to be with the killer apps people, not manufacturing) - training - this is big! How serious is the company about keeping you up to date with technology trends? - revenues - this would be interesting. doesn't happen often, but the best you can do to alleviate being perceived as a cost is to have budgets tied in some way to revenue - incentive programs for IT professionals - what bonuses are available to IT staff, and for what reason are they given? Is there an employee stock purchase program, or are IT staff eligible for stock option grants based on individual or company performance? You want the answer to be, 'yes.' - growth paths - is it possible for an IT professional to contribute to product management or development? Probably not, but it's worth asking and so on. I'd consider these questions fair at any stage of the interview process. They are not at all negative, but they are probative - answers will help you gauge the company's respect for IT, even as a cost center. You will gain respect if you ask them. Certainly if I'm the interviewer :)

MichP
MichP

According to other articles I've read, the interview is not the time to be asking about benefits like training reimbursement and comp time. That should be saved, they say, until they make you an offer. The interview is when you should be convincing them you will be valuable to the company, not that the job will be worth it to you. Asking about how IT fits into the organization might work during the, "Do you have any questions?" part of the interview, but I would stay away from those questions in the last paragraph. Maybe you're really just trying to figure out how things work around there, but it will sound like, "What's in it for me?"

Slayer_
Slayer_

this sounds like the sort of questions that would cost you a job. I think if you asked this in an interview you would come off as negative.

tbmay
tbmay

You would be doing well if you got an honest answer. The problem for the IT worker is people don't know how to value knowledge work. Tech is ubiquitous. It changes at a blazing pace. And expectations are set by salesmen, or even imagination. Its why I won't consult any more. At least you don't have to worry about collection with most employers.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Sure as heck wasn't our idea... The question is a good one and the points related to it are good, unfortunately however there are so many "qualified" people about now, you have to be in a strong position to be able to ask it and act on a negative. From my own point of view I'm not too bothered what the answer is, if it's honest....

chriscol
chriscol

I was converting an in-house app from Lotus to Excel--and the business analysts were having difficulty understanding why it took so long. I had most of the product working, so when they asked me to explain what I was doing, I turned on the screen-flicker, (explaining that this would all be invisible and faster in the final version, but this way they could see what was going on). Excel was opening all these feeder folders, grabbing information, pasting it to particular sheets and locations in the main workbook, and then summing and processing all this fed-in information. While this was going on, the computer screen looked like the runaway computer in the last Terminator movie. I just talked them through it...It's doing this now...Now it's doing that... etc. Worked like a charm! They don't care to know exactly why your product works, but if they can get some sense of how hard it is working to give them what they want--they are MUCH more appreciative! Sometimes, even showing your code documentation (minus the code itself) can help. That double use can even be the extra reason you need to actually WRITE those intro paragraphs of comments that tell what the next chunk of code is supposed to do and not do.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Well, this brings up another, "it is a two way street," issue with the interview process. Do candidates lie to employers during interviews? Do employers lie to candidates during interviews? I've been on both sides, and you need to develop your senses to be acutely aware of tells and ticks in situations like these that indicate when someone is holding something back or not telling the whole story. At my level as an engineer, I typically find that I interview with several people in the company. There is usually a hiring manager, then one or more interviews with actual engineers. Ask the question several times of different interviewers - and figure out how to ask it different ways. Try to ask it *indirectly*, see if you can relate a challenge of being in an unappreciated IT role at another organization and how you solved that and see how the engineers respond to that - try and get them to offer "oh, yeah, that is a skill you're going to be using ALL the time here," and if you get them on the hook like that, probe deeper. The chances are you're going to be interviewed by technical people who *aren't* good interviewers, and you can use that to your advantage to find out things about the company that the manager or HR team wouldn't disclose. Here is the *real* question - does the company have a collaborative or an adversarial relationship with the IT department? If you want to ask it straight up like that, heck, give it a shot. Tell them *why* you're asking. Again, these sort of questions should *impress* a quality employer, because they show you are *business* minded and *career* minded and not just a typical IT guy who thinks, "pay the money and lock me in the data-center and leave me alone." You're asking important career questions that a lot of IT pros just don't *think* about. It is a two way street - if an IT employer is hiring IT staff that *acts* like a commodity, they shouldn't be surprised when their IT staff delivers commodity results.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I wind it up quickly, thank them for their time and leave, on the basis that the company is run by incompetents.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to things right, and then ending up in a catch-22 where you are so busy putting fires out you have even less time to do it right. You want to work your way and get a name for yourself, help the firefighter...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

we'd still be keeping slaves. Exploit is way too strong a word. Do my bosses leverage me as an asset, do they try and get the best out of me for the least cost, certainly. It's only fair I'm leveraging me as well....

dcolbert
dcolbert

I'm always up front. I want to do the least amount of effort for the maximum amount of compensation, as an employee. I know the company wants the maximum amount of effort for the minimum amount of compensation, as an employer. That is the commercial reality. Finding a balance where both parties feel the exchange is a mutual benefit is the key to finding a satisfying position and minimizing tension between the employer and the employee. A company can treat their employees respectfully, and employees can treat their employer respectfully, without risking bankruptcy. It isn't an All-or-Nothing "Hostess Baked Goods" scenario in every case.

Goshawk
Goshawk

Good point. If it's the guy in charge of money that means the ups, downs and perhaps the fall of the orginization IT is the loser.

dcolbert
dcolbert

But if you're at a company that sees IT solely as a cost-center, remember that the next time their systems are down and they're at your door with the rope complaining about how much revenue they're losing because of that downtime. Hand them a slide-rule and a ledger and tell them they're back in business. (And start sending your resume to Monster...) IT is the core of revenue generation in modern business processes. Otherwise, these are all excellent questions (training is an especially effective one to gauge how invested a company is in their IT staff. A company that is worried that people will leverage training to leave and find better jobs - is probably a company you should skip).

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

, thank them for their time and leave to go look for someone with a functioning brain. If they don't like/accept the idea that I need to get something out of this too, my last question, is "Why have you wasted our time then?"

Goshawk
Goshawk

I like it Slayer. The company your interviewing with is already the bottom line to the company you'll be working for.

dcolbert
dcolbert

But that doesn't mean they're not out there, and the executives have no real meaningful way to tell the paper tigers apart from the people who have passion, drive, and talent.

Goshawk
Goshawk

Nice going Chris. I'd like to be assocaited with Business Analysts. They make more money, seen as improving the bottom line and much more growth potential in the company. This answers the question to this subject line. Become a business anlayst. LOL. This could lead to some programming type position. I know someone at CIGNA making big bucks going through this avenue. Well, that's my point in all this - make the bigger buck. Too much outsourcing in IT.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I never lie while being interviewed, stupid thing to do. One of my favourite questions as a programmer is asking about the QA process, you can find out a great deal with question like that. What lifecycles they use is a good one as well. The fact that they just happen to be two areas I'm very strong in, is a happy coincidence. : D I can't imagine ever getting a direct "yes you are a mere cost" as the answer to the question. How many people do they have, what sort of ticketing system do they use, what sort of testing and deployment policy, how often do they refresh their hardware, what mixture of operating systems do they use. Couple those sorts of questions with some basic ones about the business, revenue, turn over and profit, you soon get a picture. If asking questions like these is a problem, it was non-starter anyway. Besides asking questions is a good way of controlling and directing the interview...

tbmay
tbmay

...if I'm reading it right, the firefighter probably doesn't want the help because he's learned running around and looking frazzled gives people the impression he's working his chops off and getting things done. This is VERY common. The catch 22 for the firefighter is if he really does stop LOOKING so busy, probably doing lots of unnecessary work, dealing with manufactured crises, etc etc....management might decide they don't need him any more.

Slayer_
Slayer_

They are our slave labour.

merounds
merounds

I don't remember who to attribute the quote to, but I've always remembered this: "The only thing worse than training an employee and having them leave is not training them and having them stay."

dcolbert
dcolbert

In my mind, the question is *certainly* for the, "Do you have any questions about the company" portion of the interview. It should be *before* the offer. I need to know this information before I am on the line to accept or reject an offer for employment. If you come in acting as if you're a *commodity*, don't be surprised if you find yourself employed at a place that *treats* you like one. Slayer, haven't you complained frequently about the lack of respect that you feel as an IT professional? Maybe it is time that instead of saying, "these are all the great reasons why you should HIRE me," more IT candidates should ask questions that mean, "why should I consider investing the most significant portion of *my* life to your organization?" Not asking these questions is approaching the hiring process as a one way street, you're the one who NEEDS a job, and this employer can decide to give it to you. That is true, and you certainly need to be able to answer their questions and display that you have the talents, skill and dedication necessary to be an asset to their organization. But there shouldn't be anything wrong with asking "what is in this for me, beyond a paycheck. Why should I *want* to work at *this* company." I think if more people did this, fewer people would be *miserable* at the places where they work. Too often, when considering a position from an employee perspective, we focus solely on the *compensation* portion of the position. I've worked 6 figure positions for fortune 100 companies, I've worked for a third of that wage for SMBs. The 401k, the vacation time, the benefits package, the health-care and the salary are *important*, but being at a place that respects me and *wants* me to work there is far more important, in the long run.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Before certs they had no way of telling either though. We've discussed this one ad nauseum over the years first time I've ever heard someone say the situtaion is down to IT though.

dcolbert
dcolbert

And this is the value of Tech Republic's discussion forums. My article is really a seed, in that sense. I knew that I was just scratching at the surface of how you can really dig into finding out more about the company culture and attitude toward IT than they would be willing to tell you in the interview. You've hit on some GREAT probing questions that will probably surprise a lot of hiring agents looking for IT employees, but that absolutely help draw a picture of how a company approaches IT. I especially like the, "hardware refresh cycle," and "testing and deployment policy," questions. I can tell you from experience that if a company says, "well, we generally recycle our oldest machines as they break down or become too slow and replace them with current systems," you want to zero in on that. "So, what percentage of your desktop machines are still on XP, or still running Core Duo Centrino or earlier processors?" "Does running older machines on client desktops present a challenge for the IT organization?" "Doesn't having fractured hardware and OS levels on client machines cause support issues that would be addressed if all staff were on machines with similar hardware and OS platforms?" You *know* what the answers to those questions *should* be. But the way the interviewer answers is going to tell you a lot about the reasons that particular company approaches it that way. Being a SMB may just make it a practical need to maximize hardware life-cycles. Being greedy and short-sighted and robbing productivity because the executive staff doesn't want to pay for company-wide hardware recycles, though, indicates a problem with how the company perceives IT expenditures.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I'm pretty confident I could get it, because I know why I got it. Don't ask for a new hard drive because you keep filling it up, stop filling it up. Don't say yopu are going to increase uptime by 2%, say you are going to reduce down time by 4%. Get a contribution to profit of downtime for a type of failure. In our case that was 28 GBP per minute, numbers that big you don't have to do much before the bean counters think you are a great guy.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

wrong. I know the scenario thoroughly though, if the poster wants some ideas and can give a bit more detail, I might be able to help. When we did it my manager had recognised the problem, even more fortunately though initially it didn't appear that way at first the regime that instituted and maintained this foolishness was retained by the previous owner, we were their replacements.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I think what he was implying was that the other engineer is causing problems through bad planning and inferior knowledge - but the constant busy-work wins him favor with upper management, whereas the OP is more diligent, has less issues, and is overlooked for his contributions. If I hadn't seen that so many times, in so many places, I might have read it differently. Being "jealous" is different than being legitimately disgruntled. :)

tbmay
tbmay

But both of us have been through more than one instance of office politics. This perception of running around like monkeys = productivity is just as common as busywork = productivity. My advice to all people, not just IT pros, is try to read the environment early enough to move on if either of them prove to be the case. When someone doesn't want your help, especially if it's someone over you on the food chain, you're not going to be able to do much about it. The old adage "Perception is everything" is definitely the order of the day. Fortunately for me, I'm old enough to know what I want out of the rest of my career, and it's not recognition, or responsibility for anyone else. However, it is darn common to find yourself in no-win scenarios because people have arbitrary ideas about what's valuable. When they don't understand something, it's even more likely to be arbitrary. I say all that just to say I take the OP at face value. Maybe he's BS'ing us, maybe not. Assuming he's not, I would only advise him to assess whether your recommendations are politically do-able for him, and look elsewhere if they aren't.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

In my experience, setting your own fires is unnecessary. If that was happening, first order business, gather evidence, get arsonist sacked. It won't be hard. More likely that the OP is in the perfect position to follow the fire fighter around and re-build things out of less flammable materials. You can't do that while it's on fire...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Unfortunatelty the poster threw in the deliberately starting fires bit, which in my experience is totally unnecessary in that sort of environment and I got the impression there's some sort of jealously involved. I know how to fix this sort of thing, and I can say for definite that it never can be be except by freeing up resources and combined effort. That's why if it were me I'd help the firefighter. In what I consider to be the extremely unlikely event that said person was deliberately starting fires, well then they are mine or gone, their choice... I helped do this once, I was so successful, they let me go... :(

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

those perceived as masters. Being significantly exploited by your employer is a choice, could be a Hobson's choice, but the real issue is and has always been complying with being a slave.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

indenturing, but doing that is still more of a choice than a slave ever got.

Alienwilly
Alienwilly

If we would have been smart, we would have picked our own cotton and not sent all of our money and jobs to the far east buy buying their (mostly) lower quality stuff. Now we are the slaves.

Goshawk
Goshawk

If the issue is training under that company, then they loss the the contract. IBM never looks back.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but it falls into the same category as people are more IT literate now. They are interested in more hard drive space or playing games, they are monumentally uninterested in electronics, drivers, or AI theory. You want a laugh, give one of these Black ops champions a copy of space invaders.

tbmay
tbmay

"If you come in acting as if you're a *commodity*, don't be surprised if you find yourself employed at a place that *treats* you like one. " If there's one thing I hope this cloud obsession accomplishes for IT professionals, I hope it wisks away the silly train of thought that a kid that likes video games and can replace a hard drive is in the same category as experienced devs and engineers. It might not, but there already is a lower demand for low level skills, and many of the people into computers at that level don't have the patience or gray matter to take it up to the next level. I don't say that to insult or be condescending. It's just what I've noticed.