What Makes an IT Professional?


The other day, I was talking with my dad and told him IT Pro Day was coming up, and that I needed to write something about it. "Why is it IT PRO Day?" he asked, "Why not just ‘IT People Day’ or ‘IT Enthusiasts Day’? Why leave out all those aspiring amateurs?"

My dad was trolling me using my own arguments from a debate we frequently had when I was a kid. You see, my dad has been a musician his whole life. He attended Music & Arts high school in NYC, then Julliard and Columbia, and then had a career that included stints with the New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony of the Air, and 46 years with the Cleveland Orchestra. Suffice to say, my dad knew what it meant to be "a professional."

As a kid, I insisted that the only thing separating pros from amateurs was a paycheck (and the fact that he got to wear a tuxedo to work), and that this simplistic distinction wasn't fair. Of course, what was simplistic was my reasoning. Eventually I understood what made a musician a "pro," and it had nothing to do with their bank account.

So that was the nature of his baiting when I brought up IT Pro Day. And it got me thinking: what IS it that makes an IT practitioner a professional? Here's what I've learned from dear old dad:

First, having grown up among musicians, I can PROMISE you that being a professional has nothing to do with how much you do (or don't) earn at “the craft,” how obsessively you focus on it, or how you dress (or are asked to dress) for work.

Do you take your skills seriously? Dad would say, "If you skip one day of practice, you notice. Two days and the conductor notices. Three days and the audience notices. Pros never let the conductor notice." In an IT context, do you make it your business to stay informed, up to date, know what the upcoming trends are, and get your hands on the new tech (if you can)? It even extends to keeping tabs on your environment, knowing where the project stands, and being on top of the status of your tickets.

"If you're not 30 minutes early, you're an hour late," Dad would say as he headed out at 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m. concert. "I can't play faster and catch up if I'm 10 minutes late, you know!"

Besides the uncertainty of traffic, instruments needed to be tuned, music sorted, warm ups run. While not every job requires that level of physical punctuality, it's the mental piece that's relevant to us. Are you "present" when you need to be? Do you do what it takes to make sure you CAN be present when it is time to play your part, whether that's in a meeting, during a change control, or when a ticket comes into your queue?

When you first learn an instrument, a lot of time is spent learning scales. For those who never made it past the beginner lessons, I have some shocking (and possibly upsetting) news: even the pros practice scales. In fact, I'll say *especially* the pros practice scales. I asked dad about it. He said that you need to work on something until you don't have to think about it any more. That way, it will be there when you need it. As IT pros, we each have certain techniques, command sequences, key combinations, and more that just become a part of us and roll off our fingers. We feel like we could do data center rollouts in our sleep. We run product upgrades "by the numbers." The point is that we've taken the time to get certain things into our bones, so that we don't have to think about them any more. That's what professionals do.

This IT Pro Day, I'm offering my thanks and respect to the true IT professionals. The ones who work every day to stay at the top of their game. Who prepare in advance so they can be present when they're needed. Who grind out the hours getting skills, concepts, and processes into their bones so it's second nature when they need them. Doesn't that sound like the kind of IT pros you know? The kind you look up to?

The truth is, it probably sounds a lot like you.

  • Good catch. The old "Ctrl-V twice" trick, apparently.

  • Your father's musical story of professionalism reminds me of a tale I heard many years ago.

    A virtuoso composer and pianist (I think perhaps it was George Gershwin) was interviewed in his later years, and when asked about his first truly memorable performance, he reminisced something to this effect . . .

    "My first paying major concert hall performance was in Paris.  I was excited and proud to be so honored, to be flown there just to play piano, and to be given my own hotel room for the duration!  I arrived early in the week at the hotel, and VERY early my first morning I was awoken by the sound of a piano being played upstairs.

    It was not a pleasant melody, not something that challenged one's mind and ears.  It was a boring and repetitive single note, played slowly and evenly over and over.  After much time it progressed slowly to two notes, and then three notes.

    It took hours for the notes to increase to four notes and five notes, and to the first complete scale.  And more hours to progress to include two hands, and slowly the tempo of the scales and exercises would increase.

    I felt I would go out of my mind!  I, who had been paid to travel across the Atlantic ocean to perform at the grandest music hall, for the most important appreciators of musical talent, was forced to listen to this child, this beginner, performing rudimentary exercises for hours on end!

    Friday came--the day of my first performance.  As I came back to my hotel to dress for the evening's performance, in the lobby I ran into a very old fellow--one whom I recognized instantly!  He was one of the greatest composers and pianists and conductors of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

    'Maestro!' I cried.  What are YOU doing here?"

    The old man smiled and said "I have been given a room here, where I would not bother anyone as I practiced piano for my concerts."

    I was dumbfounded!  "You?  You're the one who's been playing from dawn each day, beginner's scales and arpeggios?  Why would you need to practice these, and so slowly, as if a beginner?"

    He looked down at his hands. and then held them up for me to see the joints bent and twisted from terrible arthritis.  And he replied:

    "I must practice twelve hours like that every day to warm my stiff fingers up for every evening's performance.  If I were not to practice, I could not play as the audience expects."

    And Gershwin was humbled, and embarrassed, and he bowed and helped the old man to his room.

    And cried when he was again alone . . .

    That's what being "professional" can mean.

  • Well said adatole​ !

    The term I believe you speak of is proficiency.  Much of it is muscle memory.  Professionals stride toward proficiency. 

    Pilots must maintain proficiency in various aircraft to maintain their ratings in that type of aircraft in order to be able to fly them. 

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