Starter Kit, Survival Guide: The people side of being the first IT hire
by Jessica Greene
Being the first and/or only IT support technician at your company is hard for many reasons—from defining systems architecture to working within a tight budget. But some of those reasons have nothing to do with the tech. Instead, they have everything to do with the people. This guide will teach you how to form positive and collaborative working relationships with your coworkers, leaders, employees—and even other support professionals—as an early IT hire. You’ll learn how to:
connect with company leaders,
build positive relationships with the people you support,
get tips and support from external IT communities,
hire the right people, and
become an effective leader.
Building strong relationships is key to your success. They’ll make you more effective in your new role, more connected with the people you support, and more valued by everyone at your company—all while making you happier. After all, studies show that positive coworker relationships have more influence on job satisfaction in IT than any other factor.
Chart showing the factors of job satisfaction for IT workers
Connecting with company leaders
As the first IT hire at your company, the relationship you build with company leaders in the early days has long-term, lasting impacts on how IT is perceived across the organization.
As Software Engineer Bruno Filippone says: “There’s a much deeper sense of ownership that drives people in an environment where your impact can be visible to everyone and easily reach the CEO. Great work can mostly become unnoticeable in larger organizations, where individuals’ achievements have to be distilled by various upper levels of management.”
Getting people to recognize the value in the work you do now—and the work your whole team will do in the future—starts with building collaborative relationships with your company’s leaders as soon as possible.
A lot of early IT hires make one key mistake in the early days: they focus most of their attention on day-to-day technical tasks but neglect to publicize the positive impacts of those tasks on revenue, productivity, and overall business operations.
And it’s no surprise that this happens. As the first IT hire, you have a lot to do: systems, networks, and infrastructures to set up; processes and procedures to define and document; and—of course—people to support. In the midst of all of that work, it’s hard to find time to step back, meet with company leaders, and share why those tasks are important.
But the “why” is essential. According to Juan Perez, Chief Information and Engineering Officer at UPS: “When business and technology teams work together closely, it’s easier to find ways to use technology to help other areas of the business, and easier to prove—even without hard metrics—the value your and your team are delivering to the organization.”
As the first IT hire, one of your primary goals must be to connect with company leaders—have conversations with them about what you’re doing, why what you’re doing is important, and how your efforts impact the whole organization.
If you can establish this framework early on, you’ll build positive relationships with leaders that will last even as your company grows, ensuring your team gets recognized for the great work they do, reducing the likelihood that your value will be measured by arbitrary metrics, and struggling less with getting the budget you need to do your best work.
Ideas for how to connect with company leaders
Connecting with your company’s leaders as the first IT hire doesn’t have to be hard. Here are some ideas to consider as you transition into your new role:
Connect on non-IT topics. Take time to learn about who your leaders are and what they’re interested in outside of the office. Discovering your shared interests—maybe you both love hiking or have kids that are the same age—makes it easier to strike up conversations with leaders when you run into them in the hallway or elevator.
Speak their language. According to J.D. Meier, Director of Digital Transformation at Microsoft: “Business leaders don’t want to hear about the HOW of technology. Business leaders want to hear about the impact on their business.” Focus on the ROI of tech investment—how much value IT strategies will unlock—not in-the-weeds discussions of implementation tactics and timelines.
Create a framework for collaboration. Set up recurring check-in meetings with business leaders as soon as possible, and come to those meetings prepared with ideas. John Awad, IT Manager at Zoom, also recommends sending regular status update emails to keep leaders informed of your progress: “I never want my leaders to wonder where we’re at on things. It’s always better to provide the information and present options for them to choose from.”
Present solutions, not problems. Awad also says that it’s important to remember that working with C-suite executives is different from working with a team or department manager. He says an important lesson he learned after transitioning into a management role was never to go to the CIO with problems unless he had suggestions for solutions.
Remember: as an early IT hire, there’s a good chance that—like Awad—you’ll work your way into a leadership role in the future.
In a leadership role, your job will be much less about day-to-day technical details and much more about people and strategy. As Brian Taniyama, IT Manager at BuzzFeed, says:
“I don’t actually spend a lot of time dealing with tech anymore. I am usually working on strategy, communicating with stakeholders, and keeping everything running smoothly.”
Building relationships with company leaders early on—thinking beyond the technical details—makes this shift much easier when it’s time for you to move into leadership yourself.
Building positive relationships with the people you support
If you’re able to connect and build collaborative relationships with your company’s leaders, that’s great—but it’s not enough. You also need to spend time building positive relationships with your coworkers: the people you support.
Why? There are multiple reasons. For one, people with influence aren’t always leaders. As Technical Product Manager Cliff Gilley says:
“When figuring out who to build relationships with, it’s not enough to just look at the company org chart, pick out the managers and above, and focus on them. There are many times when the influencer in the organization might not be a director or manager—some people simply don’t ever want to manage other people, so they never move ‘up’ on the org chart.”
By forming partnerships with your coworkers, you gain advocates throughout the company. That not only helps advertise the value your team delivers to the organization, it also makes it easier to get people to support you when you need to make major changes.
When the people you support trust you, they’ll be less likely to fight back when you make recommendations that impact their day-to-day work.
Remember, you don’t just support your coworkers; they support you too. When they’re on your side, you don’t have to struggle with issues like getting people to use the ticketing system to log their requests. Just ask and explain why it’s important. When people respect you, most will do what they can to make your job easier.
Ideas for how to turn coworkers into IT advocates
Just responding to people’s questions politely and being a subject-matter expert goes a long way, but connecting on a personal level goes even further. Still, if you’re not a “people person,” the idea of trying to build strong working relationships with the people you support might sound hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
You don’t have to go out drinking with your coworkers or friend them on Facebook to earn their advocacy. Just follow these tips:
Be patient and kind. Or as u/atomicDaikaiju says: “Don’t be Nick Burns. Talk to people like they’re your customers, and instead of asking them to get up from their seats to fix their computer, use a phrase like ‘Hey, do you mind if I drive for a bit?’ Kindness and customer service excellence goes a long way with less tech-savvy folk.” Be open to discussing tech issues and topics even if they don’t relate to closing a ticket.
Don’t just do, teach. Take advice from u/-jdtx-: “Try to teach your coworkers things here and there. There are a lot of situations where they can actually help themselves if they know what to do. That can go a long way toward reducing how often they bother you with trivial things. So while fixing something on their computer, be transparent and show them what you are doing. If you’re lucky it might just stick.”
Help people help themselves. Sometimes, the best way customer service happens when your coworkers don’t have to request support. As Meg Ciliberti, IT Lead at Shopify, says: “I prefer to hands-on troubleshoot because I get to see the ‘light bulb’ moments. That being said, I am a huge fan of having things like great documentation and lots of automation in place so that people are able to help themselves.”
Show appreciation. “Smile a lot, and genuinely try to help everyone while maintaining a good and friendly attitude. People will forgive a lot of mistakes if they think you’re genuinely on their side and trying to help them. Don’t make people feel stupid for asking questions, and try your best to make them feel good for asking you to help.” (Source)
Share IT tips… and food. One systems admin on Reddit suggests bringing in donuts on Fridays. It sounds silly, but food is the great equalizer. Everyone loves surprise pastries.
If you can successfully form great, collaborative relationships with both leadership and your coworkers, it will set you up for success in your new role better than any technical feat you pull off in your early days. Plus, if you have aspirations to one day work your way into a CTO or CIO role, those early people wins go a long way in setting IT up as a key role in the organization.
Learning from other IT professionals
If you’ve built relationships with leadership and your coworkers, work should become a little less lonely—even if you are still the only IT person and haven’t yet hired a team of your own.
Still, the people you work with may not understand issues that are unique to IT. Loneliness can still creep in, especially when you’re frustrated and need to vent—or when you’re struggling to solve a problem and don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of.
In these scenarios, it’s important to take advantage of external IT communities for support, advice, encouragement, and commiseration.
The best part: these communities are vibrant places full of people who are happy to share their advice, letting you consider lots of diverse suggestions when trying to make a decision.
Awesome communities for IT professionals
When you need help, advice, or just a sympathetic ear, these online communities have plenty of other IT professionals ready and willing to engage with you in a discussion:
r/sysadmin: A subreddit specifically for systems admins and IT support professionals.
Windows Admins: A Slack channel for techs who work primarily on Windows systems.
MacAdmins: A Slack channel for techs who work primarily on Apple systems.
IT Think Tank: A San Francisco-based IT community with quarterly meetups.
Macbrained: Communities of IT professionals with chapters in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, South Bay, Vancouver, and Washington, DC.
If none of these communities are a good fit for you, it’s worth taking a look at this list of tech Slack communities on Slofile. There, you’ll find a Slack channel for every specific discipline within the industry. There are even location-specific channels if you’re looking to connect with other IT professionals that live near you.
Being part of the larger IT community may even be important for your career. In fact, John Awad, IT Manager at Zoom, says he asks potential hires in interviews how they keep themselves updated with technology: “I do like to hear r/sysadmin as an answer because it’s really where the hardcore people go for questions.”
Awad also recommends following the blogs and YouTube channels for TechCrunch, MacRumors, and Macworld to keep up with industry and technology news.
Hiring the right people and becoming an effective leader
At some point, you will no longer be the sole IT person at your company. And since you were the first IT hire, you’re most likely going to be the person in change of growing your team. That means you’re eventually going to need to hire help, and with new people on board, you’ll need to learn how to develop your skills as a leader.
The best time to learn how to be an effective leader is before you become one. According to leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman:
“Developing these skills takes time and effort, and organizations typically want to see immediate positive results. New managers tend to be overwhelmed with their new responsibilities and often rely on the skills that made them successful individual contributors, rather than the skills needed to manage others.”
So even before you have someone reporting to you, you can build leadership and managerial skills.
Ideas for how to develop your leadership skills
There are a lot of different ways to learn how to become an effective leader. And there really isn’t a best option: the best option is unique to you, one that caters to your learning preferences. Here are several options to consider:
Ask HR for recommendations. A big part of HR’s role is making sure employees get the training they need to succeed in their jobs. For example, when Zoom’s John Awad asked his HR team if there were any leadership training classes scheduled, they sent him three pages of recommended reference material on developing leadership skills.
Find a mentor. Studies on the benefits of having a mentor all show positive results. To find someone who can help you transition into your new role, start by talking to your HR rep and see what mentorship opportunities your company offers. If there aren’t any, you could recommend a tool like Glassbreakers to set up a mentorship matching program at your company. There are also many external services to help you find a good mentor like CTO Craft and SCORE.
If the cost of any of these opportunities is prohibitive, talk to your company’s leaders or HR team to find out if you could get reimbursed for your costs through a professional development benefit. Most companies are happy to help employees expand their professional skills. Plus, pursuing training on your own time shows them that you have the initiative of a true leader.
Ideas for how to hire the right people
Once you have the skills you need to be an effective leader and it’s time to grow your team, the next big hurdle is finding the right people to continue the great work you’ve done so far. Here are some hiring tips from other tech professionals to consider as you start recruiting:
Look for fit, not just expertise. According to IT Systems Infrastructure Architect u/asdlkf, “If you have all the knowledge you need to do your job, don’t hire for qualifications. Hire for learning capacity and personability with yourself.” Redditor u/gsxr agrees: “Toss all of your tech wants away. Hire based on if they’re willing and able to learn and if you can sit next to them for 8 hours a day.”
Get creative in interviews. “We have a game that our office likes to play. It’s a machine—kinda like a pinball game. After candidates go through their interview schedule, we ask them to play the game with us. They usually think it’s about culture fit. But here’s the catch: We have them watch the game first. And then instead of telling them the rules, we ask them to tell us the rules. We’re testing to see if they can extract how to play the game from observation.” (Source)
Hire for skills you don’t have. Redditor u/crankysysadmin says that “One of the big mistakes I’ve seen people do is not create proper roles for people but instead treat them like assistants.” Instead, take advice from this systems admin who suggests that you “Try to complement your own skill set in the hire. If there is an area that you feel weaker in, look for a hire that has some experience you don’t.”
“The role of the CIO is to free the IT organization, company workforce, and executive peers from their ‘vertical prisons’ and look horizontally at the enterprise as a whole.”
People who work as the first IT hires at their companies often work their way into CIO roles as their companies—or their careers—grow. To be a successful future C-suite tech executive—to help free IT from its misunderstood silo—you need to find ways to connect with the people you work for and support.
Explain to leadership why the things you’re doing are important and how they’ll help the company meet its goals. Teach the people you support; don’t just solve their problems for them. Show them ways to use technology to help with their day-to-day tasks so that the technology feels more accessible and less scary. And hire people willing and capable of doing the same.
It’s not enough to know how crucial a role technology plays in the day-to-day operations and long-term goals of companies today. You have to tell others—explain it in a way that they understand so they see the value as well. And the starting point for that is very simple: make your job about more than just the technology. Make it about bringing technology to people.
If you can do that, you’ll be on the right path to turning your job as the first IT hire into a wildly successful career.
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