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Confessions of an IT Pro: Say it Back to Get it Right

By - Source: Toms IT Pro
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Software developer Adrian Agresta explains why employee tracking tools can inspire fishing trips, why developers are like carpenters, and why it's important to invest two seconds paraphrasing a request.

Adrian Agresta has one of those "donut" careers in IT – it spans a long timeframe, with a gap in the middle. But Adrian's love of the field drew him back and inspired him to complete his degree and advance his career as a software developer. In this interview, Adrian explains why employee tracking tools can inspire fishing trips, why developers are like carpenters, and why it's important to invest two seconds paraphrasing a request.

MORE: Confessions of an IT Pro: Small Changes Can Make Big Impacts

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

A.: Adrian was attending school at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana when he received an offer for a job. "I was doing development in C for them, working primarily in Solaris and AIX," he explains. He describes it as grunt work – copying configuration changes to security patches from vendors. His intent was to continue his career in software development when the .com crash happened in the early 2000s. "I went back to school in 2007," he continues, "and since then I've been alternating between doing C# and Java development."

When it comes to education, Adrian says is was "super important" for him. "There's two parts to that. Once you have some solid experience under your belt, the degree becomes much less important. But until you have that degree, if you don't have 3 to 5 years of experience, you might as well not have anything." He cites completing his degree as the reason for being able to get a job and relaunch his IT career in 2009.

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

A.: "It strikes me as a tool that has a specific use," Adrian says. He feels that tracking tools are generally used either to substantiate issues that have otherwise been uncovered or used as a "fishing trip" to try and find problems where they might not otherwise exist. Either way, it's easy for these tools to be misused by management and misinterpreted by team members. "Employee monitoring is a great way to cause your employees to concern themselves with how they are being perceived, and spend less time worrying about the actual work they need to get done."

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

A.: To answer this, Adrian uses the analogy of software developers being like other tradesmen – plumbers, carpenters and so forth. But unlike tradesmen, software developers don't have building standards that they had to follow. "Imagine if every building had different gauges of wire running to different places, they could have power coming in different ways. One house is built to last the next 1,000 years, the next is built so that it will need to be torn down in 10." If that were the case, when you needed work on your home the best estimate you could hope for is "It will be done when it's done." Because of the unknowns in software development – how a previous piece of functionality was built, what the unknowns about connecting to another system are – it's difficult to give an estimate beyond a seemingly flippant response. The business may see a project as straightforward, where the unknowns may present challenges that make a presumably quick task an unending one.

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

A.: Adrian initially struggled with this question. "I don't think I've ever run into anything really crazy," he begins. But the question did bring to mind an instance where he found himself working around a highly over-engineered piece of code. "It should have been something trivial," he says, "and I remember thinking 'I don't know why or how this works, but when I run it, I know it works' – and that was terrifying." He spent days trying to understand it and finally turned to the changelog to find whom the developer was and ask them to explain it to him. "Even then," Adrian recalls, "it took a few hours for him to explain to me what these few lines of code did."

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

A.: Adrian suggests that "The instinct to paraphrase anything that comes out of someone else's mouth," is key to an IT professional's success. "I've lost weeks of development time because I thought I had an understanding of the requirements, and then I start working diligently based on my understanding, and it turned out that understanding was wrong." Part of that is repeating back to the requester what you thought you heard. "It doesn't matter how simple or how complex the thing you heard was, as soon as you paraphrase it back you might discover some unspoken assumption that makes that simple thing hard, or the hard thing becomes simple. It takes two seconds to open your mouth and clarify it."