One of my great loves in IT is helping to mentor new technicians who are either just starting out or are only a couple years in. I love this kind of mentoring because it gives me the opportunity to help get people on a good path so they can succeed and become effective workers. So, I’ve decided to write up a few posts that go over some of the ins and outs of the industry so newer IT specialists or people who are just considering a career in IT can arm themselves with knowledge. This post, I’ll give a high-level overview of the industry and what you can expect to see.
Internal IT vs Managed Services vs Consulting
There are two primary paths you can take in an IT career; Internal IT and Consulting. Internal IT work tends to be what most people think of when they think about IT. If they think about IT. Which, if things are working correctly, they don’t. Consulting is more knowledge-based work, where knowing exactly how to accomplish a task is not always as important as knowing *why* to accomplish a task. Managed Services work seems similar to consulting, since you work for an outside company if you are employed with a Managed Services Provider (MSP). In reality, MSP work is much more like Internal IT work, but you are working for multiple clients and interacting with a lot of diversity in software and hardware.
Internal IT is what most people are familiar with, since it’s the “face” of the Industry. Users tend to interact more with Internal IT folks much more often than consultants, though it’s not impossible for a consultant to work with users in a limited sense. Internal IT workers are typically the system administrators that do the regular work of adding and removing users, setting up devices, and occasionally troubleshooting problems. They are directly employed by the company they work for (hence the term “Internal IT”) and are focused on accomplishing tasks needed to keep that company running.
Working Internal IT is the simplest form of IT work because it allows you to become intimately familiar with a single IT environment. You will learn the ins and outs of the environment and use that knowledge to get work done. Deep knowledge of a single IT environment and how it works is a great way to learn and grow knowledge, but changing jobs and moving to new environments can be a challenge if you’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time. Depending on network complexity, it can take a long time to get this kind of deep knowledge. Aside from network knowledge, you also learn terminology. Every network has its own “language” because people come up with different terms for the same systems. I’ve seen environments that had as many as 5 different terms or acronyms for the same application. You have to learn every one of those terms so you can know where to look to get things done.
Internal IT is sometimes considered a “thankless job” because people only seem to notice your existence if things aren’t working like they are supposed to. Users can be impatient and difficult to work with at times. It’s *extremely* important to understand that anger and work to alleviate it. Remember that you are not smarter or better than the users you support because they if know how to use the systems correctly. I’ll repeat that with emphasis. You are not smarter or better than the users you support because they if know how to use the systems correctly. Users haven’t spent countless hours tinkering with computers and are frustrated because the system is making their work harder, not easier. In many cases users are panicking because they are under a deadline and can’t do their work because those systems aren’t function they way they need to. You’ll want to develop a thick skin as well, because sometimes users will blame you for the problems because you represent the busted system in their minds. If you are someone that requires constant validation and gratitude for the work you do, I would avoid Internal IT if possible, and you may want to think about a different career altogether. Realize that a lack of feedback from users often means you’re doing your job correctly.
The managed services industry is where you want to work if you want to learn a lot quickly. MSPs are hired to manage an IT environment at all levels (depending on contracts) and can include desktop support, server admin, troubleshooting, and other tasks typically performed by an Internal IT department. The principal difference is that an MSP is a company that is hired by the leaders of an Internal IT department to do work that their current employees either aren’t numerous enough or skilled enough to do on their own. The way MSPs make money is by charging less than the cost of a fully staffed IT department but by working with multiple IT departments. MSPs tend to have staff with a higher level of knowledge than Internal IT departments out of necessity.
Work in Managed Services is usually fast paced and often high stress because you can end up managing requests for several clients at the same time, all of which can be very time sensitive. It helps to be very organized and able to multi-task. The best way to manage in an MSP environment is to help build automation and improve processes. This can be challenging, depending on how well the MSP is managing their clients. New MSPs have particularly challenging work environments because new clients often have poor documentation, poor processes, and have not been properly maintaining systems. That’s why they hired the MSP. The company’s internal staff isn’t meeting demands, so they need outside help. It’s your job to improve documentation, processes, and bring systems into a fully functional, secure, and stable state.
You will work more with IT people when working for an MSP, but end user support will require you to interact with users just like you would as an Internal IT worker. You have to be careful when working with multiple IT departments in an MSP. It’s very easy to get mixed up and accidentally make a change in the wrong client’s environment. Change management processes can mitigate the risks of this happening, but how that functions is usually a management-level decision. This doesn’t mean you should ignore problems. Just because a problem isn’t your responsibility to solve, it doesn’t mean you should ignore the problem. Management usually needs to know the problems in processes that need fixing. If it’s not brought up, it won’t get fixed. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”, as they say.
MSP work is not quite as thankless as Internal IT work, but it depends heavily on the relationship the MSP has with their client. A good relationship will result in positive feedback from Internal IT workers and management alike, but a bad relationship will often cause a client’s employees to ignore your successes and focus on failings. That relationship is fostered by management but enabled by competent, efficient, and kind support efforts. I’ll dive deeper into this subject in a later article, as there is a lot involved in MSP operations.
I tend to lump a few different job functions under the umbrella of “Consulting.” Whenever companies need to have a specialist in a certain technology come in and perform any function that is a short term engagement, I call it consulting. The industry generally follows this guideline, but it’s a little more nuanced. I don’t want to get dug into the specifics, because the consulting industry can get very complicated. However, consulting tends toward project-based implementation, migration, upgrade, and other functions that are done by outside contractors or businesses. Not all IT departments use consultants, but most do at least involve some consultants when planning upgrades, implementing new solutions, or just when they need advice. I use it as a catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit the definition of Internal IT or Managed Services despite the fact that MSPs developed as an out-growth of the consulting industry. Because of how MSPs came to be, consulting and MSP operations regularly overlap, and most MSPs have employees who focus entirely on consulting type work.
Consulting is very knowledge-based and can involve everything from deep hands-on involvement to strictly hands-off advisement and support. Successful consultants tend to have specialties that they work in exclusively, but it is extremely helpful to have a solid generalized knowledge foundation to build on when you start doing this kind of work. That is, you will want to know about servers, networks, cloud, and other pieces of the IT infrastructure world so you can properly view things from a bigger picture perspective than you would in Internal IT or MSP work.
Building a Career
You don’t really have to stick with a single one of the above categories throughout your career. I’ve done work in all three categories. Just realize that it’s easy to get pigeon-holed in your career. That occurs when you get stuck working on a single kind of system and focus so thoroughly on it that you can’t escape it. Desktop support is one of the easiest focuses to get pigeon-holed in, and when this happens it can seriously hamper your career growth. Desktop support is almost always considered an entry-level role because there are many desktop-level workers out there. You will want to break out of desktop support as soon as you can. The most important thing you can do when building a career is study. Always build up your knowledge and expand what you know out to the newest technologies if you can. Knowledge is power, and knowledge can’t be taken from you.
That’s all I’ll write for this post, but I will continue to write more on this subject in the future. I’ll make sure to link all the articles I write on this page, so keep it bookmarked if you like.