A good friend of mine is a civil engineer, focusing on the design and implementation of parking lots, luxury resorts, and municipal routes. He spends a lot of time going back and forth with architects about local laws, codes, and the need for proper water runoff management. He largely enjoys his work, contributing in a very large part to multi-year projects that will be in use for decades if not longer. This wasn’t always the case, and in many ways I now echo his sentiments from several years ago.
In the late 2000s, as housing markets imploded and construction projects dried up, many civil engineering firms in the area folded or otherwise severely reduced staffing, and unfortunately his employer was included in that number. He managed to retain a job in his field – something many of his former coworkers were unable to do – but much of his time was spent engineering holes that would be dug into the ground as part of construction projects; holes that would later be filled in and often paved over, with no indication of the effort that went into ensuring the safety of ground crews. It was good to be working, he said, but with no ability to point at something and say “I helped build that,” he related his daily grind to digging shallow pits at the beach, only to have the tide smooth the shore by the next morning. There was no lasting satisfaction in his job, because nothing he worked on was in and of itself lasting.
I, like he, find satisfaction in the performance of feats, not the repetition of tasks. When I tell a client that my aim is to help them improve, to actually advance their ability to conduct business, I mean it – when I can look at a server, network, or client as a whole and see that their business processes have been improved by my presence, I feel a boost of pride because there’s a measurable difference from my input. There are some clients who call me perhaps once a quarter, and usually for something small, because everything just works now, in ways they never did before. The clients are happy for my assistance and maintain positive feedback because they see the value in the service I performed.
One of my first jobs after college was working in a call center doing phone- and email-based technical support. A step back from the on-site network troubleshooting I had done earlier in my career, but a stable foundation on which to base my future. I liked the people, I liked the hours, I even liked the customers, but the endless cycle of “ticket comes in, resolve issue, close ticket” never filled me with any sort of satisfaction. I knew I was not long for the tech support world. Luckily I was driven and used my frustration as motivation to teach myself how to advance out of the helpdesk role, and I landed a job as a System Administrator for the same firm – the first time someone had ever been promoted out of the tech pool into operations in the history of the company. Instead of working on resolving the topical issues users experienced, I actually began to work on and fix the underlying problems that caused the issues. The culture of that department wasn’t fantastic and I didn’t stay long, but the experience absolutely opened my eyes to what I wanted to do for the next phase of my career.
Having spent nearly twenty years as an engineer – being the person elbow-deep into a server rack or working the late nights coding a fix to a buggy program – I’ve gone from field employee to management, and often some mix of both. My current role is “Business Development Manager,” which means I act as a liaison between the sales team and our engineering department; I have the technical background to speak intelligently about potential solutions, and also the people skills to convey complex topics in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m talking down to clients. The sales team finds opportunities for us to address IT needs, I verify the account both could benefit and is interested in using our services, and then I hand off the account to the rest of the department when all the paperwork has been signed.
In theory it’s a position that should scratch my itch of wanting to feel like I’m contributing to a larger success, that the solutions and services I detail and recommend actually make meaningful changes to a client’s workflow. Theory isn’t always born out by experiment however, and I find that my job satisfaction is reaching a fairly significant nadir. In the past year I’ve identified that I like working on process improvement and analytics even more than more physical problem-solving, and as my department and division underwent changes, I approached my bosses about my hopeful role in the new structure. Not needing or having a position available for internal process analysis, they put my skills to use by giving me my current position.
When I am in front of a client, making suggestions that I truly believe will help their business grow, the position feels good. I still get butterflies in my stomach the same way I do prior to speaking before any large crowd, but after many years of practice I’m able to hide that anxiety. That said, in the past months I have not had the opportunity to make those presentations, to design those solutions, for an appreciable number of clients. Most of my workday is spent sitting in an office cubicle, waiting for the phone to ring. There’s only so many times I can read about the latest tech news or the heat death of the universe (an actually deep and interesting subject) before I run out of ways to keep myself engaged.
Without drawing an entire corporate family tree, our IT services department is a subdivision of a copier and document management company. By and large our sales representatives find opportunities to sell or lease copiers and other document solutions to local businesses, or to upsell existing accounts where appropriate, and the purpose of my position is to visit any accounts the sales rep feels could be a good lead for our network services department. I create presentations and talk tracks for the sales team, educating them on the large suite of products and solutions we offer, and try to excite them about the possibility of delivering IT services to their clients.
Today is January 22nd and over the course of this month I have been invited on four appointments with existing clients, all but one of those initial exploratory meetings to see if there was any opportunity at all. I have made my own appointments, largely with vendor partners and existing accounts that we currently service, but a very clear delineation that separates my position from the regular sales team is that I am not supposed to be finding leads; my job is to work with the existing sales team, who have all of the training and experience to set appointments, and provide them with handsome bonus commission by providing the right solutions to their customers.
In the past senior management and I have tried to dangle carrots before them – extra bonuses, credit against their quotas, et cetera – without much impact. Certainly there are the two or three sales reps who are reasonably actively engaged with me, but even their enthusiasm isn’t enough to fill my schedule. Alternatively senior management and I have tried the stick approach, with “remedial” sales training that specifically focuses on how to identify IT opportunities in existing accounts for those who don’t generate leads. In neither case did the needle move very far, or for very long.
Last week served as a pretty good example for how my calendar goes: several calls with vendors, internal meetings to go over forecasting and the sales pipeline, two appointments with clients, and a conference call with the nationwide corporate organization. Spread across five working days, that leaves a lot of time for me to spin in my chair, trying to invent work for myself to do. In my opinion, self-assigned busy work is even worse than mandated busy work.
On my own initiative I have been running numbers and looking at the revenue and profit trends month over month and year over year, trying to identify where we can exceed and grow as an IT solutions provider, but realistically sales always boils down to a numbers game – the more calls get made, the more likely someone is to agree to an appointment. The more appointments, the more likely someone is to see value in a proposal. Right now, the numbers don’t meet what we need to stay constant, let alone grow.
In an ideal world, I think I would find satisfaction and success helping (one or several) organizations streamline and properly focus their IT budgets. For a managed service provider like my current employer, that would involve looking at which engineers are best spending their time where, how clients differ in their service utilization and profitability, and making recommendations on where or how best to streamline and improve efficiency when it comes to delivering quality IT support. Tools these days provide a lot of data, and while I’m against the idea of data being used to punish (e.g. an otherwise successful employee being chided for only completing 7.8 tickets per day while similar coworkers average 8.1), I think it can provide key insights into where a process is breaking down.
Staying with the sales example, if a successful salesperson is making 200 calls per month, resulting in 10 first-time appointments, and thereafter 3 new sales, we can see where other reps may be having trouble if they aren’t seeing the same success. Someone else making 400 calls per month to get the same number of appointments and sales might need to look at their call script, or the types of businesses they are reaching out to, in order to maximize their time and efficient use thereof. Similarly if a rep is able to get 10 appointments with only 50 calls, but nets only one new sale per month, they may have something to teach the rest about cold-calling, but could benefit from focusing on their closing skills. Looking at the metrics as a series of averages, and addressing where the outliers fall is something I’m interested in.
When I took this position, I asked senior management “what will change?” Over the past several years at this firm the sales reps have been less than enthusiastic with embracing the company’s new direction (meaning IT service and sales in addition to traditional copier and document management solutions), and I worried that I would end up in the same place I was before, waiting around for the phone to ring. We came up with the above carrot and stick strategies and I was assured that the sales force was engaged and intrigued by the new opportunities. So far, I’ve yet to see it.
Any time there is an event on my calendar, I make sure to be present, attentive, and engaged. The client is taking time out of their schedule to listen to what I have to say, the least I can do is to make it worthwhile. Whether appointments take me across town or across Northern California (my territory is from Sausalito up to Ukiah, east through Napa and out to Sacramento) I want to make sure I’m presenting the best face for our products and services. That said, I loathe having to be somewhere without a clearly-defined purpose. My current manager wants everyone on the team in the office at 8:00am every morning for a five-minute stand-up meeting about existing engineering issues, even if there’s a client appointment at 9:00 on the other side of the county, where it would instead make more sense for the employee to fight through traffic just once on the way to the client instead of sitting in rush-hour traffic twice in the same morning.
I wholly understand his idea that employees need to either be in the office or at client locations during business hours, and that’s the expectation he has set, I just happen to disagree. Our copier service techs work out of their homes until it’s time to attend a client needs, our sales team is so infrequently in the office many employees don’t even recognize them, and our sales manager has been in the state once in the past quarter. I use these as examples to show that much of the modern workforce can be trusted to work where and how it’s most beneficial.
When it comes to the IT industry, particularly one where the prevalence of remote-access tools is a key driving technology, work isn’t a simple 8-5 shift; servers don’t care what time of night it is when they go belly-up. Migrations and proactive maintenance are largely performed outside of normal business hours, to minimize impact to the client’s daily operations. Everyone in my department is salaried – we’re paid to perform a specific job role, whatever it takes to get the job done to the best of our ability, and it is in our best interest to be as efficient and timely as possible, because we don’t get overtime pay for lengthy or after-hours issues.
I look forward to the day when I have enough on my calendar to keep me busy for a full work day more often than not, but that mythical day has been a scant and infrequent whisper in the long droning story that is my tenure in this position. Right now I come to the office, attend a meeting to which I can’t contribute, and finish most all of my work by 9:30am. Aside from the occasional scheduled vendor consult or rare client appointment, most of my day until 5pm is spent trying to keep myself busy, lamenting the lack of new puzzles in my crossword app. Ironically my lack of activity is a large stressor, so much so that I often find myself unable to put words to paper, though I have long hours dedicated to my own devices.
Bringing this entry back around to the beginning, my current job situation feels like I’m engineering holes that are filled back in, with no record of or lasting impact from their presence. I’m going through the motions, what few motions there are, because I don’t have the challenge or engagement of actually helping improve others’ processes.
I admit, the irony of my inability to improve my own workplace process is not lost on me, but in truth I long to feel productive, to feel helpful, and to feel like I’m actually contributing to the team. Right now, I just don’t have any of that when I walk through these doors.