Education

Career management for small business techs


Working as the only computer dude in a small business certainly has its perks but one of them is usually not a high rate of pay.  It's easy enough to get the job if you are halfway decent at what you do.  To most of the employees in a small company you walk on water when it comes to understanding all the confusing messages on the computer screen.

Over the years I've developed a plan for increasing that rate of pay that has worked for me.  Tell me if it is flawed or will ultimately be my downfall.  When I join a new company, it usually takes a year or two to put out fires, bring in new systems, create websites and make sure that everything talks together like it should. After that it gets to be routine.

So what I do is convince management that I need an assistant.  It usually ends up being the kid brother or son of one of the executives in the company.  I train him and let him or her take the endless calls from users about printers that don't print, files that have mysteriously disappeared or programs that don't respond the way they think they should.

I then work on projects that have long-term benefit and value to the company like switching to GigE, putting in a secure wireless network, updating the SQL Server to the latest release or redesigning the Intranet for the umpteenth time.  Once those projects are completed (usually by the end of year three), I see no more potential and start looking elsewhere.

I'm able to leave the company in good hands because I have trained my replacement and it's usually someone who will stick with the company a long time because they are related to the owner.  We part on good terms with the offer that they can call me anytime when they need help with something I put into place that they don't understand.

The resume looks good, there is recent experience with current technology, the track record is adequate - not too many jobs over the past ten years - so the offer from the new company has almost always been substantially higher.  This plan has worked several times in my career, especially early on, and I have almost always been pleased with the results.

Here's the only drawback to this plan which has been pointed out to me many times by someone who loves me and relies on the steady paycheck that I bring in.  What if my trainee becomes just as good as I am and management decides that the care and feeding of the computers can be handled by the nephew who makes less than half of what I make?

If it's towards the end of this cycle of my unique kind of career management I simply accelerate the time table and make sure I have what my next target company wants and needs that much sooner.  But what if it happens before I am ready to make my move?  I have been fired twice in my career but never once for implementing this strategy.

How do you manage your career?  Nobody likes a job hopper but it seems that in the small business market the only way to get ahead and improve the standard of living is to find a bigger company that can afford to pay more.  Am I unique in my approach or do you do something similar?  And don't tell me that I'm bring unfair to the employer because I'm not.

33 comments
Starrdaark
Starrdaark

Ahhh...the dilemma and paradox of the small business IT manager. It's a strange and somewhat bewildering situation to experience; that one can be so indispensable, yet earn a salary more fitting to an order entry clerk. I've been the IT manager of a small business for about 7 years. In that time, I've had 2 different staff members, but for the majority of my tenure, it's been a solo act. Not only am I responsible for all technology, system development, network design, database management, etc., I am also the sole contact for any and all tasks related to maintaining or modifying the corporate database and application software. The vendor of the software package went belly-up long ago resulting in company ownership of the source code. I very much like the job, and there are a large number of examples which could be recounted demonstrating appreciation of my skills and efforts. However, neither my accomplishments, nor the dependency on my services will bring my salary from the ranks of the lower class. This situation may be more of a specific case, but I feel I may be in good company here.

mjs1138
mjs1138

I think it's a great plan. At some point though you may find in order to increase salary you may end up having to become the manager of a multi-person IT department. That will represent a new set of challenges but I would guess you're up for them! --- Mike

Will.Conner
Will.Conner

I'm glad to see that many of you have the ability to have a second person in your department. That's doesn't apply to where I work. I'm the only person, will be the only person, and can't beg enough to get another person. The owner only sees IT as a red mark on the bottom line (we're private) and no matter what I try I'm met with resistance to change. I've attempted to bring e-mail in house to better manager our corporate communications and provide many more services to our field users and that was crushed. I've attempted to implement a type of Intranet site for company communications. Same result. Sorry to sound negative but in my position there's nobody to train to replace me and nowhere to go. Updating the network diagram? Testing backups? Theses are things I dream of having time to do. I probably shouldn't be wasting time responding to this but everyone needs a couple of minutes to think sometimes. To those out there like me that are solo and will probably stay that way I say "Hang in there." Now back to the grind.

buddyfarr
buddyfarr

@ WillC88 - Have you looked into the Mitel SME Server? It used to be called E-Smith. It is a great, free, product that runs on linux. it has email, intranet and internet websites, ftp, dns, dhcp, and others built in. it takes about 20 minutes to install then you go to your computer and manage the whole thing via web based admin pages. I run this for my father's business and for my sisters web site. works great. has anti-spam and antivirus built in too. and if you don't have new hardware think of this, I am running it on an old compaq 300MHz server. works great. you can look it up at contribs.org.

tim
tim

I see you are in Hazard, KY. Would Cumberland be too far a commute? It looks like there might be more opportunity there for a good tech. Yep, most owners see IT as red on the bottom line, but then so is the bookkeeper. Unless the company is really small, there is usually more than one person in accounting, so why not a backup tech? My point is that maybe management needs an education about what a professional service it is that you provide so that they will treat you with a little more respect. Bringing email in-house is a big step but adds so many options. Maybe the boss saw only the costs and not the benefits. Are there any outside consultants that you use or are you really it - you support the servers, the workstations, the network, etc? Where management would not spring for another body I have been able to get them to pay for an occasional outside consultant. I would never consider responding to a tech post as a waste of time. For every one that actually responds there are dozens out there who were thinking the same thing. It's good to know there are intelligent people reading Tech Republic and trying to get ideas to make their career better. We spend so much of our life on the job - anything we can do to make it less stressful is good.

TheGooch1
TheGooch1

If enough IT techs throw up their hands and switch careers, businesses will either realize what they lost and try to get it back, or outsource and be satisfied with less.

Amnezia
Amnezia

I managed IT for a small school - 3 servers, 110 PCs, designed, coded and maintained a website and intranet, fixed all user problems, managed the network, looked after all the audio/visual gear, went to conferences etc: all in 30 hours per week. Was a good and well paid job, but after a new boss, a financial deficit of $80,000 over 6-months and cost cutting, my hours were reduced to 12, and no help or overtime was allowed. Subsequently there was never enough time to do much of anything with the result I had a huge backlog, and finished only the most urgent issues for the management team. User problems waited until they became so severe they "had" to be fixed. After having several conversations with my new boss about this, and learning it was going to be a long-term problem I resigned in frustration. Now there are two people doing what I did - one has the same hours as I did, and the other is a full-time teacher whose salary is not directed at the IT department - and all the server work is outsourced at five times my hourly wage. A year later I still get emails from staff members asking me how to fix "this" or "that", as the problem still exists. When I thought about it, the thing that stood out was some costs can be hidden within different budgets, so the books "look" good. With onsite staff, wages are clearly visible and are a tangible evidence of "restraint" when cost cutting happens.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I had the joy of watching a family member leave a work possition. The company needed to replace them and hire on two new techs too gover the same workload. I wonder if three anual salaries was less red ink than the recommendations to improve the networks would have been.

sgamby_joejr
sgamby_joejr

I've worked in both large and mid-sized companies and have found, more often than not, the "We'll give you more expertise" to be misleading, unfortunately. So for me, after remaining stagnant in many a company, I have decided to become a business owner in providing particular IT services to startup proprietary businesses in my area. In many respects, I expect to be replaced as their business grows and they take on an in-house IT department. So for me, finding new proprietary businesses is important to me, because I am a new business owner and I want technology to be a key tool business growth.

Komplex
Komplex

become a body shop. Hire a jr tech person for them, he'll cover the day-to-day stuff and you can come in for the special projects and major upgrades.

llynara
llynara

I am thrilled to be at a small company, being trained as a replacement under the guidance of a very talented and capable IT manager. I could not ask for a better environment to learn in, or a better person to learn from. I think if you have the right combination of mentor and student, this arrangement works very well. In addition, our company is growing very quickly, as is the IT department. It just makes sense to train up replacements as the duties and opportunities in our IT department continue to expand. Someday I may be the person doing the mentoring/training, but for now I'm content to learn and take on new duties little by little as my knowledge and the company I work for, grows.

tim
tim

I am glad to hear that mentoring is alive and well. I have seen too many situations where the new guy or gal is thrown to the dogs as soon as they come on board. It's tough enough trying to get your bearings with technology that you didn't put in, but to have to be expected to respond to the pack of ravening wolves without a backup? That's a sure-fire situation for failure. What a rarity to have a company that cares enough to provide the security of a mentor who is willing to show someone new how things are done. Refreshing! Thanks.

ssswessssss
ssswessssss

I did exactly the same thing and even recruited a second person whilst I got a handle on projects. It worked for me. They key is to get the new staff up to speed on the most time consuming, least complex maintenance tasks, so that you can focus on new projects.

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

Out of interest.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

Then there's the higher version with more power, the Jihadi Edition, which self destructs every 5 minutes with a bluescreen of death. :^0

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

Trust me, the kind of a--holes I've dealt with in my career require one to have nerves of steel and balls of titanium.

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

too see whats down there.... Your verbose reply gave me all I needed to know. Thanks.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

or whatever else it is you're smoking. Oh and yes, Afghanistan still has the Taliban running around, so I wasn't making that part up. The Flight Simulator Twin Towers Edition was used by Al Qaeda.

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

you work it out! (not going to be accused of anything of offensive). How does that feel, now you know?

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

endless calls from users about printers that don?t print, files that have mysteriously disappeared or programs that don?t respond the way they think they should. ?

swheeler
swheeler

Near the end of last year I went from being the single in-house IT manager to a programmer on a team of 3 in-house IT folks. There's an all around tech, the manager, and me. This may seem a backward career move, but I'm actually geared to be paid more this year and I have much less work. I'm currently a grad student for my MBA in IT Management so this couldn't be a better fit. I have an intelligent boss who is so laid back I swear he gets inverted. I would have never imagined being a programmer before now, but it works here. (I work for a manufacturer with about 500 employees that manages their own software and hardware systems- for the curious.)

tim
tim

I have often considered joining a larger company and becoming part of a IT team. There are real perks to being the top geek in a small shop. So far the benefits outweigh the drawbacks like constantly being challenged by wanna-be tech end-users. Congratulations in making that move to the programming side. I used to be a programmer back in the day. Been out of that area so long that I would have to hit the books hard to write any Java, VBasic or C++. What's you language of choice?

swheeler
swheeler

I'm working in VB.net and translating/updating from VB6. We also run SQL Server as our data layer. I'm right at home with databases, since that was my focus as an undergrad. My boss gives me plenty of time to brush up and do research. My first week I reviewed the old code and for two days I wrote all the case studies in my old VB6 book from college. The switch has been great. I'm constantly challenged to learn more instead of keeping day to day processes afloat. My first project of adding features to a VB6 project survived DLL Hell and went into production without a peep from users. It's posts from people like you that have gotten me through it! I remember the days before WWW and I'm glad we're not limited to dial-in bbs to join forces.

bfpower
bfpower

Yes, there will be calls. I am the guy at our company who answers them (but am not related to management). There are a LOT less than there were when I started. Definitely not a huge amount, but as long as there are users, there will be calls. This is inherent for two reasons: (1) technology has its quirks, especially MS products and printers, and (2) users. Need I say more?

tim
tim

Good point. Everyone inherits fires when they come on board. The biggest fire I put out was a non-responsive predecessor. So I exchanged the discontent of poor support for users that I should be training. But hey, if I didn't have people calling me with dumb questions then what would they need me for?

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

In your own words... They were ready for a update from seven year old swithes. (Switches - your typo) Everyone has to have wireless these days. SQL Server 2000 was the engine for the accounting system. Since MS is dropping support for 2000, it was time to upgrade anyway. And the Intranet...it just needed to be more functional. The old one was a kludge that nobody really used.

tim
tim

When I was younger and much more ambitious I would hold occasional Windows training sessions. I figured the investment would be good to reduce the number of help desk calls. I had good attendance at first when it had management's initial endorsement but gets old after awhile. This was in the days when Windows was new to some long-time employees. Now most everyone comes to the job with at least some basic point and click ability. Everyone is so busy that trying to hold a training session on how our network and servers are organized is just not the best use of time. So I wait for the calls of frustration to come in and handle them one at a time. It's just a philosophy I've developed over the years. That's why there are still fires to put out - things break and things get lost. I fix them and find them - that's why they still need me. Unfortunately, I sometimes resent my own lack of proactive training - if only I had taught them how to prevent that problem in advance I wouldn't be spending the time now to restore that file or move that share to the right level.

alex.a
alex.a

Sounds to me like you still have a lot of smouldering fires. And what if the owner's son turns out to be a dudley studley, incapable of learning, with no aptitude for troubleshooting, who thinks you're all wet (despite the smouldering fires) with your cautious approach to security, organization, documentation, etc. and makes no bones about telling his father so? And what if his father, who has lots of friends in other companies where they run wide-open networks without trouble, agrees? And does this small company really need, or can it afford, the GigE, secure wireless network, updated SQL Server or Intranet redesign you're so keen on implementing?

tim
tim

The latest small company is a little bigger than some of the previous outfits. This one has 100 computers, four locations on the WAN, 10 servers and a fiber campus backbone because of the distance between the hangars (I work at the airport). Did they really need GigE? Probably not but they were ready for a update from seven year old swithes. Everyone has to have wireless these days, even if it's just a bunch of LinkSys WAP54G in each hangar. SQL Server 2000 was the engine for the accounting system. Since MS is dropping support for 2000, it was time to upgrade anyway. And the Intranet...it just needed to be more functional. The old one was a kludge that nobody really used. We actually went and talked to the users in each department before designing this one...imagine that!

tim
tim

Sabotage from the junior staff? Yep, I've seen it before. Some have their own agenda and just use the opportunity for a jumping board to the next best thing. I've been lucky. We try junior out for a few months as a part-time temp while he finishes school. We can tell before we bring him on board full-time if he can cut the mustard. Give him a few ongoing tasks to manage on his own and see how he does. Dad's pleased as punch that the kid is accepting some responsibility. I would hate to be saddled with an apprentice that has no respect for the hired help. So far that hasn't happened. Sounds like you've been hit with that.

tim
tim

Who has time for all that :-) Even the boss doesn't appreciate investments in this area - until something breaks down and you can't find where you put that print screen of the settings. I can't tell you how many times I've said to myself, "I need to update that network diagram." I tried to give the assignment to junior but he just doesn't have the whole picture yet. I know I'll wish I had it when the big Southern California earthquake comes and I have to rebuild some things from scratch. So do I take the time to explain things to Junior so he can document it or bite the bullet and do it myself? No response necessary - just musing aloud. Thanks for the comments.

alex.a
alex.a

He's not exactly the apple of his father's eye anyway. But I've seen this scenario unfold elsewhere.

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