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Confessions of an IT Pro: It's Not as Easy as It Looks

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Peter Heltzer career started with education and has led him back to school, but it's not just about the technical skills.

Peter Heltzer has had a broad career, starting with a master's degree in Information Systems and expanding, over time, to touch project management, management and even teaching. In this month's Confessions of an IT Pro, Peter talks to us about his impressions of certifications, the need for good communication and why your database should match your source system.

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

A.: Straight out of grad school, Peter was hired by what was then SBC Global (now AT&T) as a PowerBuilder developer. He was in St. Louis at the time and was looking to make a move. After adding some skills to his resume, including database work and Unix scripting, he quit and moved to Illinois to take a job at Ameritech, which was then purchased by his former employer. Over time his career evolved from development to Project Management, and from there into data architecture.

Education, Peter says, is important, but not in the obvious ways. "My education has helped me a lot, but it's less of the technical education and more of the general education." The critical thinking skill taught in school are what's significant to IT professionals. Certifications he has a harder time with.

"When I was a project manager, I found it hard to get interviews because I didn't have my PMP certification," Peter says. But he also points out that many of his peers with the certification knew the theory, but not the practice, of project management. For the more technical disciplines, though, he sees it as a jumping off point for new skills.

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

A.: Peter points out that he has locked down all of his social media accounts, and doesn't post while he's on the clock. "My personal life isn't the company's business," he says. You should be able to have a personal life, Peter says. But as a manager, he points out that when he's hiring he will look at professional profiles, such as LinkedIn. When asked how he feels about accessing personal sites while on company equipment, however, he concedes they have a right to know what you're doing with their assets. "I don't want to admit it, but yes, you're using their assets, is it valid for business?" He recommends using work equipment for exactly that – activities you can directly tie back to your job.

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

A.: "It's not as simple as we make it look," Peter says. He gives the example of being asked to add a column, but it's never just that simple. "Do you want data in the column? It's not just adding the column, there is programming to migrate data to the column, plus there can be a lot of bureaucracy around IT." With such regulations as Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulations, Peter points out, mean that changes that only take a day can take an additional three or four to get the appropriate approvals.

Some of that comes from the commoditization of IT. With the ability of the "everyday man" to purchase software and install it, it abstracts the complexity involved with creating it. As Peter points out, users think "How come I can download and install this app on my phone, but you can't make a database change?"

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

A.: In dealing with a data warehouse, Peter says, "We have to deal with our own past mistakes." Even though he's only recently inherited the team, the sins of the past are still his responsibility. "Way back when they first set (up the data warehouse)," he explains, "we were pulling in a person's state – a two-character field." The data field was set to accept 10 characters, just in case. But no one matched the length with the source systems, their CRM, which has an 80-character field for state.

"As we've gone international," Peter goes on, "we've started getting very long state names." In addition, they are getting foreign characters, being translated into their ASCII codes. This has resulted in frequent 3 a.m. calls to fix problems and no one can trace it back to why the original decision was made.

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

A.: "I've run into so many people that I could not put in front of a client," Peter says, explaining why communication is such an important skill for IT professionals. "There are so many ways people fail to communicate," he says, whether it's because of attitude, ability or even reactions to what's happening in a meeting. He admits even he can shut down when he gets frustrated, but by and large he's praised for his ability to speak the language of both the business and IT.

"That's why I succeeded as a PM all those years – my ability to talk to the technical resources and explain what the business wanted in technical terms, and then go back to the business and explain to them in a language they understand."