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Confessions of an IT Pro: Communication Means More Than You Think

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Angela Dugan took a path less traveled into IT, and learned how much communication matters along the way.

The path into, and within, IT can be winding. This perfectly describes Angela Dugan's career track; from accounting major to computer science grad, from developer to agile coach, Angela apparently has an affinity for the path less traveled. But it's a trail that has served her well in her 17 years in the industry. We spoke with Angela about her major shift in direction during college, her vast experience across the IT career landscape, and the importance of admitting "I don't know".

Q: How did you start your career? And how important do you think education and certifications were for you?

A: "So, I didn't go directly into IT," Angela says. With her red hair and bubbly personality, it's hard to believe she started school intent on becoming an accountant. But after a few classes she realized that wasn't her passion. "I took a few classes in community college and realized I would claw my eyes out. Not saying it's a bad profession, it just definitively wasn't for me."

MORE: Confessions of an IT Pro: Precious Ideas Will Hold You Back

Business management classes felt too generalized, and Angela wanted to play on her love of working with people, so she diverted her studies to elementary education. A semester short of graduating, she had a fateful dinner with her brother, who suggested she consider a career in IT. She took one class — Intro to Pascal — and fell in love. "I had such an affinity for it, I ended up scrapping the whole elementary education thing. Computer science was such a natural fit for me."

When asked about certifications, Angela feels there are a few ways to look at them. "When you're first getting out there, they help to differentiate you, the same way grades do." And for some people, like herself, certifications are the goal that proves to yourself you've mastered the concepts. But, she points out, "Your mileage may vary."

Q: What are your feelings about the ethics of employee tracking? How far should companies go?

As someone who is highly active on social media, it was no surprise that this wasn't the first time Angela had thought about this. She acknowledges it's a tough question for employees and employers alike.

"If you're going to start judging me based on the things I say on Facebook, or the things I'm Tweeting about, where does it end?" She has an interesting, employee based perspective on the subject. She was questioned by a previous employer about a Tweet she'd made. "As an employee, it put me off," she said, and pointed out that employers need to keep in mind the impression they leave if they are overbearing in their approach.

Q: What do you wish non-IT employees knew?

Angela deals with business and IT relations a lot — that's part of her job as an agile coach. In the process, she says, she must "un-train the business people that IT is easy." She thinks we need to look at ourselves as well as outside sources.

"I don't know if this is what people see on TV — I think part of this is our own doing as technology people, we tend to portray things as easier than they are, and because of that people think 'Oh, can't you just bang on the keyboard for 30 minutes and pump out something cool and new?', but at the end of the day, it's still kind of an art and a science." She adds, "Sometimes we just do too good of a job hiding the complexity of things."

Q: What is the craziest technical support issue you or your team has ever had to deal with?

Angela's support issue sounds like the moral at the end of a usability expert's fairy tale. Earlier in her career she was on a team that built an application for teachers. These teachers worked with kids with behavioral needs, and needed to record classroom activity, but they kept reporting that data in the app was just "disappearing". The team dug in to troubleshoot and found there were pauses in the teacher's day. While the teachers were attending to classroom needs, the browser's cache was expiring, and the data was disappearing. "Nobody went 'Hey, do you need to use this in such a way that you'll walk away for 20 minutes?'" Angela admits, "That was a miss on our part."

Q: What is the most valuable skill an IT professional should have?

"Communication," Angela quickly answers. Both in school and during their career, she says, people in IT should make sure they can practice the expected tasks in communicating — talking to a group, giving a presentation – but also the less obvious ones, like active listening and empathy.

One of the most challenging things for Angela is communicating when she doesn't know something. Being able to admit you're "not Wikipedia", as she puts it, is tough. "Sometimes the answer is 'This is hard. I don't want to lie to you, I need some time to figure this out'. That's an integral part of IT, being able to give people news that they don't want to hear."

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