Out of Alignment

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This week's tirade is irrelevant to people working for computer hardware, software, and services vendors. If that includes you, take a coffee break. If your boss objects, tell him or her that you have my permission. You will be back before he or she realizes that he or she does not have the foggiest idea who I am. (Note to self: Compose a tirade about the cumbersomeness of politically correct writing.)

Are they gone? I sent them away because you might find the advice that I am about to give a little embarrassing if they were still around. Here it is. Many of you suffer from a severe identity crisis. Seek professional help. Now!

I usually only admit this to my closest friends and readers of my articles--which may be the same three people--but I used to be a programmer/analyst. That was in the days when the only business computers were mainframes offering performance about equivalent to that of an abacus in the hands of an inexperienced user.

Back then, if you walked into the DP department (we called it Data Processing, not Information Technology) of a bank, insurance company, automobile manufacturer, or any other enterprise and asked people what industry they were in, most would answer DP, not banking, insurance, automotive, or whatever. If you told them that they were not in the DP industry, they would have burst out of the department in a blind rage, tearing out their hair and shrieking, "Say it isn't so!"

This seemed incredibly wrong-headed to me since these people, including me, were paid only if their employers sold banking services, insurance policies, cars, etc.--not data processing hardware, software, or services.

Since it has been more than 15 years since I was a programmer, I wasn't sure if this was still an issue, but, being an incredibly lazy person, I hate to throw away a perfectly good idea. To make sure that this problem is still with us in these days of enlightenment, I searched a publication and wire service database for the words "IT" and "business" near "align," "aligning," or "alignment." I came up with 2,244 hits. I then restricted the search to documents published in just the last year and got 558. Limiting it to just the last three months still retrieved 150 documents, mostly about the need for IT/business alignment or about products and services that can help achieve that alignment. Clearly, IT professionals are still not doing a great job of aligning themselves with the business. Many of them still put IT first and the business second.

Here is the bottom line. You don't work in the IT industry. How do I know? I sent those people away in my opening paragraph. If you are still not convinced, try this experiment: Stroll out to the lobby. There are probably some annual reports or company brochures lying around on the reception desk or a coffee table. Leaf through them. I'll bet that none of them talk about sales of IT hardware, software, or services.

Fortunately, everyone outside of the IT department seems to be immune to this disease. When you ask sales people what industry they are in, they don't answer the sales industry. Clerks don't answer the clerical industry. Executives don't answer the executive industry.

I'm not saying that there is anything fundamentally wrong with people who work in the IT department. We all know that they are all absolutely wonderful human beings and the true rulers of the universe. It's just that IT has value only in context. Secretly devoting all of your working hours to single-handedly developing the best manufacturing system in the world is unlikely to win kudos from your boss if you work for a bank. You are in the banking industry, not the IT industry.

What really gets me is that people can't understand why their jobs are being outsourced. If all you have to offer is C++ expertise, then you are a commodity. You are like a bushel of Durham wheat. One bushel is pretty much like another. If you don't buy the cheapest available bushel, you are not getting your money's worth. Likewise, one single-minded C++ professional at a particular skill level is pretty much like any other. You can easily be replaced by another C++ expert who is willing to work for less, no matter where he or she lives. However, if you are a C++ expert who also knows the insurance industry inside out, you are interchangeable only with other insurance industry C++ experts. And, if you are a C++ expert who is as knowledgeable about your employer's business as any of the company's executives, you are irreplaceable.

Wheat is for bread, pasta, and some beers. As enjoyable as those may be, it's time to be a valued employee instead. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step on the road to a cure. Seek help. Either that or drown your sorrow in copious quantities of wheat beer.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. An identity crisis is only one of his many problems.

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