This industry puts a heavy emphasis on technology, of course, but not nearly enough time and energy is spent on training IT professionals on how they should act as professionals. You might think that this is something that can be taken for granted. After all, as long as you know how the technology works who cares if your professional and social skills are a little rough around the edges?
The customer cares. That is who, and the customer is the person who ultimately ends up paying for you and your services. Whether you face internal or external customers they need more from you than just your technical expertise. The customer needs you to understand their needs, goals, and expectations.
The customer needs you to have a lot of COIN.
What is COIN?
It is great to have a lot of cash, but it is better to have a lot of COIN. You see COIN is what leads you to cash in the world of IT. IT professionals with COIN are the ones who move up in their organizations to become decision makers and leaders. COIN is what separates those with strong technical skills from those with strong technical skills that actually improve the business.
Nobody cares that you can hack a Linux box in your sleep if you cannot fix the jammed printer that is making them late for their meeting right now. IT professionals with COIN understand that simple premise, and COIN is what I am going to share with you today.
First things first – COIN is my acronym for the four non-technical abilities that every single IT professional must have if they wish to succeed. These abilities are as follows:
- Communicate – The ability to receive, understand, and reply to messages successfully.
- Organize – The ability to analyze a situation, create a project to address the situation, and to allocate resources so as to improve the situation.
- Inspire – The ability to invoke ideas of what may be possible within others by sharing your own ideas and experiences.
- Network – The ability to connect with other resources by maintaining and building relationships with other professionals.
Each of these abilities are needed to compliment, not replace, strong technical skills. You cannot expect to coast through the world of IT without getting your hands nice and dirty with lots of practical real world technical experience.
But keep in mind that the difference between the person who dug a ditch in order to build a house and the person who just dug a ditch is the house. Carry some COIN with you as you progress through your IT career and you will see better results.
Now onto the components of the COIN approach…
I know plenty of IT technicians who can give you a zealous speech about the “best” technology in an instant whether you asked for their opinion or not. Do not confuse the zealot’s rant with communication – it is exactly the opposite of communication. It is noise, and if you practice that sort of thing stop doing so right now. You are just hurting your own career.
A close cousin to the zealot’s rant is the pontificator’s prose. This is what happens when someone wants to impress you with how they can improve the business with their technical expertise, because they are just so special and smart. Again, if you are doing this just stop it. If you really had such brilliance you would have founded your own company and made tons of money by now. Since pontificating prose spewing IT posers are anything but brave entrepreneurs we can safely ignore them as well. They are all talk and no action.
If you really want to communicate the first step is not to talk but to listen. Talk is easy, hence talk is cheap. Listening on the other hand is a difficult skill to master. Enough of a skill that people will spend top dollar to go see a therapist just to have someone really listen to them.
For an IT professional the ability to listen is absolutely critical to their future success. Keep away from the ranting zealots and pontificating posers though, you do not want to be poisoned by what they have to say. Instead go straight to the people that you should be listening to – your customers.
Listen to you customers as if they were about to share with you the very secrets of the universe. Take notes and be engaged in your listening. Let your customer pour out as much as they possibly can to you, and then ask clarifying questions (remember – who, what, where, when, why, and how). Gather as much detail as is reasonably possible when the customer first approaches you with an issue whether it be a problem or a project.
Then confirm that you understand all of the important details that have ben shared with you. Once the customer makes it clear that you understand their situation then you may respond with your own ideas on the matter. But until the client confirms that you understand the details of the matter do not talk. Just listen and ask for clarification.
Follow that simple process of being an engaged listener, clarifying what you have heard, receiving a confirmation that you heard correctly, and only then responding with your ideas and suggestions will put you on the fast track to becoming a world class IT professional.
Being able to configure a database, server, switch, router, desktop, web site, firewall, or any other piece of IT infrastructure means nothing if you do it at the wrong time.
For example, if your customer needs you to build a datacenter full of high performance servers they will not be impressed that you have completely scripted the operating system installation but failed to have the electrician come out and install the appropriate power outlets before the hardware arrives. Doing something well when it does not matter and doing it well at the right time are two very different scenarios.
You need to know the order in which tasks are to be completed, and that requires that you take some time to organize your work before you start it. Perhaps you are working with a great project manager, but just because someone else is responsible for designing and overseeing a project does not mean that you are not responsible for organizing your own activities. Besides, who do you think the project manager is relying upon to tell them what resources will be needed and what the timeframe will be for each IT component that the project is dependent upon? You – the IT professional. That is who!
Get organized or prepare to fail. Take advantage of the solutions that your company offers for organizing your tasks with. If your company does not offer such solutions purchase the best solutions that you can afford yourself. Do not moan about how your company is not supporting you when you buy these solutions. Instead pat yourself on the back for investing wisely in your own career. You can always find another company to work for if things are that bad.
Manage your calendar with an iron fist. Keep all of your contacts’ information sorted and easily searchable. Develop and use a filing system for both digital and physical content. Create folders under your email’s inbox. Learn the phases of project management, and then learn how to use a project management software package. Develop the discipline to be organized at all times, because being organized enables you to do more with your time.
The important point to remember here is that technical skills are worthless if you cannot formulate a plan with which to use them effectively. The better organized you are the more your technical skills will shine when it comes time to use them.
You listened to the client and confirmed what it is that they need from a technical solution. You have gathered all of the details and have organized a plan of execution. All you need is the customer’s approval of your proposal. You explain to the customer what you want to do and share your well detailed plan with them.
Then the customer says “No.”
What happened? Why did the customer say no? Assuming that you did indeed communicate effectively, and that your plan is highly detailed and organized, why would the customer say no?
Because you failed to inspire the customer to see the same potential outcome that you see!
Perhaps your solution is expensive, and the customer is only seeing the cost and not the value gained by it. Perhaps your solution is difficult to implement, and the customer only sees the risk and not the expertise that will ensure that the solution is pulled off without a hitch. Perhaps your solution is unique, and the client is scared by how strange and different it is instead of realizing that the solution is an innovative advantage to have over the competition.
If any these, or any of an infinite other number of customer misunderstandings results in the customer rejecting your idea do not blame the customer. Blame yourself. You did not inspire your customer to see the solution as you do. Part of your job as an IT professional, and a very big part by the way, is to explain your solutions to your customer so that they understand why it is in their best interest to acquire those solutions.
If your customer rejects your solution start asking why they are uncomfortable with it. Get specific details. Do not accept “I just do not like it.” or “It does not feel right.” Either of those responses (or any response similar to those) means that the customer does not understand your proposed solution. Ask for specifics and then be ready to explain in more detail why the customer should not reject the solution for those reasons.
What if you cannot explain why a customer’s reasons for rejecting your solution are not justifiable? Then the customer is justified in rejecting your solution, because you yourself cannot defend it.
Bottom line: If you want to do great work you have to inspire the customer so that they see the greatness within the proposed work.
Not the kind of network that you send packets over, but the kind of network that you add real people to in order to provide support to each other with. No matter what profession you are in you should work on developing a personal network with other talented people.
(Hint: You network should not just be limited to IT professionals. More on that in another article.)
No matter how good your technical skills are you cannot master everything. Yet so many techies insist on doing everything even when they have no experience with the matter at hand. This is completely acceptable when you are either learning a new technology at a relaxed pace, or there is no accessible expert to turn to for help.
But insisting on learning a new technology is the wrong thing to do when a project is on a deadline that is tighter than your learning curve can accommodate. You cannot justify a day of personal study when a phone call to an expert can resolve the issue in minutes. If you needed training in order to deliver the project on time that should have been included in your project plan. If you did not plan to be trained on the product, or did not schedule enough time to read through the manuals and learn the solution that is on you and not the technology.
Likewise, claiming that you have no expert to turn to is usually a sign of poor planning as well. Technical solutions come with technical support. Work with the vendor before acquiring the solution to ensure that you have the number of an actual expert on hand before you begin the work. Make sure that that expert knows when you will be calling them, who you are, and why you will be contacting them for support. Arrange the call in advance. Even better, arrange for an expert to be on site and in person when you are going to do the work.
Do not let your techie pride cause your customer pain. Know your limits, expand upon your abilities when you can, and be ready to bring in a more qualified person as needed even if you have to pay for their services. A techie might fix the issue after learning how every little detail works in a day or two, but an IT professional in the same scenario pulls in the right talent to fix the issue in an hour or two (maybe less).
Ever notice how the best IT professionals always seem to have an inside contact for each solution that they must support? That is not by accident. Start developing a personal network of IT professionals that you call on a moment’s notice, and be ready to return the favor when they do the same.
(One last thing regarding technical support: Do not use the excuse that the “Service desk sucks!” if you have problems with a technology. If you chose the solution, then you failed to do the proper research before acquiring it. If you inherited the solution, then you failed to convince your customer to replace it with a better supported solution. Work with what you have, because blaming others does not help you fix a problem.)
I hope that you enjoyed learning about the methodology that I have used in the development of my career as an IT professional. If I sound harsh in how I describe its execution know that it is because I believe in pushing myself very hard in the pursuit of excellence. The more you expect of yourself the greater your accomplishments will be, and you will also become a better judge of what to expect from others as well.
So hold yourself to the highest of standards and start increasing the amount of COIN that you have. Doing so will only make you a more valuable IT professional in the long run.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment below, or email me at Patrick@PBenson.net with your thoughts. Until next time, keep doing great work!