Tech & Work

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...

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