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The Ends Justify The Work

My first big corporate IT job was with a major electronics company. I did desktop and server support for the smallest business unit in the company that had maybe 200 employees and just north of a billion dollars in annual sales. I loved working for the smallest group in a big company, because I got to know most of the 200 folks that worked there and I had access to all of the resources of a Global 50 company.

About 6 months into the job, the Director of my group left and a new guy was brought in. The new guy was fanatical about customer service and creating a partnership with the business. I immediately liked him. Unfortunately, not too many others did. He wanted to change things in a big way, but no one else wanted to change. He only lasted a year, but in that year he did a few things that helped shape how I approach my work to this day.

One of his first actions was to send everyone in IT to a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People class. Being the good corporate citizen that I am, I negotiated attending the class in San Diego as it was only 90 minutes away from a sales office that I supported just outside of LA. I could save the company money by combining the 7 Habits class with a site visit to the office. Did I forget to mention that this was in February and it was zero degrees where I lived?

I loved the class. 20 years later, the primary thing that I remember and try to use daily is this – Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind.

Basically, how can you get somewhere if you don’t really know where you’re going? This is amazingly relevant to folks in IT, yet rarely practiced.  We usually do a good job at our assigned tasks, but do we really understand why we’re doing them? Everyone from code developers to infrastructure people to support and operations folks are working towards a common goal. That goal is to move our respective businesses forward. Unfortunately, we’re usually too busy being heads down on our individual tasks to see and understand what we’re really doing.

My company, like most companies, had a set of annual goals. As I recall, they went something like this:​

  • Deliver great products and service
  • Service existing customers well
  • Innovate to deliver new products
  • Improve the quality of existing products
  • Improve customer retention

IT plays a key role in the achievement or failure to achieve these goals. For example, the project you’ve just been assigned to that requires you to work late nights over several months wasn’t funded and put in place simply to keep you busy. It was funded and put in place to achieve one of those company goals.Unfortunately, many rank and file IT practitioners aren’t really aware of their employer’s goals, let alone how their daily work supports them. I’d go so far as to say that many managers, directors and even higher ups would struggle to list the company goals for the year.

So, why is this a big deal? Some might say, “I don’t need my database developer to be aware of what the company is doing. I pay her to develop databases.”That’s both correct and completely wrong at the same time. Yes, you might hire her to develop databases,but what is your company actually paying her for (hint: it’s not just to develop databases)? She is a member of the company as a whole, not just some cog in an IT wheel. She is a stakeholder in the company’s success, and chances are she’s pretty good at what she does otherwise she would have been let go or outsourced.

Regardless of how good your IT team members are, I think the majority of them can make more of an impact and feel satisfied by their work just by understanding why the work they do is important to the business.

Case in point – I remember being in a meeting at a pharmaceutical company I worked for some years later. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how we were going to roll out a new application to support what our Research and Development teams were doing. The conversation got way down into the technical weeds and I blurted something out like – “It doesn’t need to be this hard…It’s not like we’re trying to cure cancer here.”  A very quiet gentleman at the head of the table cleared his throat, stood up, walked over and gave me his business card. He was the VP of Oncology R&D. He was trying to cure cancer. My company was trying to cure cancer and that meant each of us in IT were trying to cure cancer – including me. Talk about a wake up call.

This one meeting was a shot in the arm to remind me again to always practice Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind. If you know where you’re going, it’s going to be much easier to get there and help you make better decisions along the way.

After that meeting, I put some time on my Director’s calendar and asked him to work with me over the coming days to help me map what my team did to what the company’s business goals were. In some cases, it wasn’t that easy. How did a new storage array contribute to releasing 10 new pharmaceutical compounds?  How did a new desktop image enable revenue growth of at least 7%?

This is our challenge in IT, and you have to figure it out. Teach you peers and the folks on your team that by organizing your projects and tasks according to business goals, it’s going to be easier for everyone to prioritize your work and make better decisions. It’s going to be easier for everyone to go through your end of year review and answer questions like – “What did you do last year that was valuable to the company?”

What we do in IT matters. It matters to our customers. It matters to our employers and it should matter to us. But, first, you must understand how your work enables the business to achieve its goals. Only then, will you fully understand why your work really matters.

If you’re a rank and file member of IT that can’t get answers from your boss to help you connect your work to business goals, then keep pushing but also take the initiative yourself. Read your company’s annual reports and SEC filings. Maybe even take the bold step of requesting a meeting with your CIO. Walk into that meeting and say, “Hi, I work in this department and I do X. I want to help our company move forward as best as I can. I’ve been reading about our company goals and I want to be sure the work I do supports them. Can you help me validate that the work I am doing is what the company wants me to focus on to help deliver on our goals?” You may be very surprised (in a good way) at the response you get.

Joe Rogers

Director of Technical Services

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