Expand Your Horizons

We need to talk about something that, let’s face it, many IT professionals are a bit uncomfortable with. While there are those of you out there who are social chameleons, able to adapt to any situation you find yourself in and thrive, there are still those of us who struggle with no small amount of social anxiety. This fact is true in any profession, so we’re not picking on IT professionals in particular, but this is an IT-centered forum, so it needs addressing in this context. Furthermore, there is a long-running joke out there that may have some underlying layer of seriousness, where IT tends to attract individuals who prefer the logic and consistency of their computers to the strange banality of other people. Whether this stereotype is true or not, the fact is that many professionals struggle with a fundamental concept that is vital to career advancement in any field: networking.

horizon

Networking can expand your horizons.

Networking is a nebulous term. For many people, it calls to mind awkward encounters at rigid business functions making stilted and awkward conversation. There are thousands of articles out there about how to successfully work a “networking event” or how to stand out at a career fair, which in many instances can amount to the same thing. Networking is often uncomfortable and people in any profession often hate to do it.

The right way to network is to do it without thinking about it as networking. To do that, you need to do your homework and overcome some mental barriers you probably have in place about the whole “networking” idea.

First of all, networking should never be aimless. If you are attending a networking event without a clear goal in mind, then you are in for an awkward time. If you send out emails to your potential mentors or contacts with the general purpose of “establishing a connection,” your efforts may be doomed to failure from the start. What does “establishing a connection” or “networking” even mean, then?

Consider this scenario: suppose you have a snarly problem you’re trying to work out in the customization settings for the accounting group in SAP. You’ve tried, but you just can’t seem to get everything working properly. Phone support hasn’t been much help, so you turn to the SAP community. You manage to find an article that alludes to your problem but doesn’t address the solution specifically.

Networking means that, rather than giving up in frustration or trying to rig your own solution, you email the author of that article and ask for some insight. And it’s just that simple. If you make contact, you’ve expanded your network. You’ve started a dialogue, and now it’s up to you to keep it going. They may or may not have the answer to your problem, but even if they don’t, you’ve taken your first step towards connecting with that person.

If this tactic sounds suspiciously non-threatening, that’s because it is. There are no tricks to networking. It’s a matter of putting yourself in touch with people who have similar goals, interests, or areas of knowledge, and communicating with them about the things you have in common. It doesn’t mean you need to make strained conversation about a sports team you have zero interest in following. That kind of attitude will get you nowhere and you’ll eventually be exposed as a phony. But if you make real connections with people that you can offer value, and who can offer value to you, then you’ve just successfully “networked.”

One mental barrier that might hold you back is the simple thought that why should anybody waste their time communicating with you? Do you really have to email the author of that article to get their help? Why would they ever respond to you? And sometimes, people won’t respond to you. You’ll attempt to make contact and the connection will fall flat. You shouldn’t allow that kind of situation to discourage you, because chances are, it has nothing to do with you. But most of the time, you will find people who are ready and willing to help you and to talk to you. And all you have to do is be willing to ask a few simple questions to get the conversation going.

*Image courtesy of rosmary via Creative Commons

Over-Doing It – Don’t Be A SAP YES Man

Anyone who is in any aspect of business, whether it’s operations, IT, finance, or any other field, knows that hard work is highly valued. We obtain bragging rights for the number of hours we have worked this week, not the amount of time we saved ourselves by finding a more efficient method of performing a job function. We stand around the water cooler, half-complaining, half-gloating about how tough our jobs have become. And in many instances, we’re right: our jobs have become tough. Particularly for people who have some amount of earnestness behind their braggadocio, there is a distinct habit of refusing to admit that human being have limits. Saying “no” feels like a sign of weakness or laziness, while saying “yes” might cause you actual, physical distress at the thought of taking on yet another task.

Stress Kit

There are better ways to reduce stress.

Here’s the problem with saying yes, though: eventually, something is going to give, and your “yes” is going to come back to haunt you in the form of a missed deadline and disappointed bosses or clients. When you over-promise and under-deliver, it is often much, much worse than if you simply admit that you cannot make the deadline and complete the function within the timeframe provided.

To understand why that is, consider the ripple effect of your “yes” using a concrete example: if you tell your boss that you can have the entire SAP system implemented within two weeks, knowing you actually probably need closer to a full month or more, your boss goes to your client and tells them when it will be done. Your client, in return, makes plans with their clients, employees, and vendors in preparation of that implementation. These plans would not be possible without SAP, so their future revenue cycles, client management practices, and business processes would be halted if the SAP system isn’t in place as promised.

You miss the deadline. Now what? Your client is upset. Their clients are upset. Their employees can’t start working again until the SAP system is implemented. They are losing thousands of dollars waiting on you, and you, if you’re human, feel terrible.

All of this could have been avoided by doing one thing: saying “no.”

Consider the consequences of saying no: the client may be disappointed, but they would not hinge their hopes on your dishonest evaluation of the situation. Their own deadlines can be pushed back as needed without this looming, unrealistic timeframe hanging over their heads and yours. By being honest, you could save them thousands of dollars, and yourself a great deal of stress.

Honesty will win most of the time; setting realistic expectations and timelines will keep you out of trouble and keep your bosses and clients satisfied. But, what about the few times in your life when being honest will cost you that big account? A client comes to you wanting a job done, and wanting it done fast. You know it can’t be done – even if you operated at full capacity for the timeframe specified, it simply wouldn’t be possible. The client disregards your recommendations and warnings and decides to take their business elsewhere.

This kind of behavior can be discouraging and could deter you from being honest in the future. This is understandable – you have expenses to pay and revenue to generate. But you should not let this minority of clients discourage you from being honest for the sake of making some quick cash. Keep in mind that, many times, they will go to another company that promises them the world, only to find that you were right to begin with. Sometimes, you will even get that conciliatory phone call: “XYZ Company said they could do it. You were right: they couldn’t. Can we hire you to fix the mess they made?”

Besides avoiding the domino effect of giving a false “yes”, being able to say “no” has other advantages. If you have built up a reputation as being a capable and competent worker who does not slack off, your “no” has an effect. People will re-evaluate their expectations and give you the benefit of the doubt: if you say it cannot be done, then perhaps that is an opinion worth listening to. You have established your credibility, and your answer is reliable. When you say “yes,” then, it carries that much more weight.

A hurdle that you will likely need to overcome in your quest to say no is wanting to avoid disappointing people. When you feel guilty saying no because you know someone truly wants something completed but you are unable to take on the task, you may succumb to being guilt-tripped into saying yes. You should try to avoid this situation as much as possible; remember the scenario with the domino effect of the errant “yes.” Feeling guilty about saying no is a much shorter-lived guilt than the sometimes disastrous effect of a misplaced “yes.”

* Image courtesy of Eamon Curry via Creative Commons

How to NOT Crash and Burn Your SAP Career

Chances are, there are times in your life where you have become frantic and felt out of control. These feelings can arise in a variety of circumstances: a missed deadline at work, in the midst of a traumatic accident, or during any number of high-stress situations. Sometimes, the situation is actually dire, warranting your intense feelings of distress. Most of the time, however, your feelings are a reflex reaction to intense circumstances and may actually hurt more than help your situation. When that is the case, you need to evaluate these reactions and determine a better way to handle them, particularly at work, when clear-headed thinking is the better response more often than not.

 

Crash

Avoid losing your cool in difficult situations.

Consider people in jobs that involve life or death situations. If you were admitted to the hospital with a critical condition, would you want the doctor who took one look at your wounds and felt a surge of panic to be the same one who treated you? Is that doctor able to be effective if she is overcome by intense emotions that render her unable to think critically? Or would you want the doctor who evaluated your situation, made a mental list of treatment options, and started smoothly following through on the steps needed to save your life? Chances are, you would go with the second doctor.

While IT situations do not always have a direct effect on life or death situations, it is easy to feel that way sometimes. A company rendered paralyzed by an IT glitch can end up bleeding money, which can impact that company’s livelihood and the jobs of all of its employees. When the computers go down, then, tempers start to flare, people start to panic, and the IT team suddenly becomes the center of some much-unwanted attention. It can become paralyzing in and of itself, and if it is not handled correctly, heads could roll.

If you’re an SAP administrator and this situation happens to you, what would you do? Would you become the novice doctor who is suddenly rendered ineffective by panic, or would you be able to smoothly transition from understanding that there is a crisis to handling that crisis one step at a time? Would you be able to delegate a member of your team to fielding incoming calls reporting the various errors that are cropping up, and then set up the rest of the team to start performing diagnostics in order to lock down where the issue is coming from?

When panic sets in, we often forget that the best way to eliminate it is to remove the source of the panic – i.e., fix the problem and move on. But fixing the problem becomes a pipe dream when you’re overcome with sudden fear. It is important to focus and drown out the noise of other people’s chatter. Remember that by remaining the clear-headed one in the group, you can lead the way out of a crisis much more effectively than running around with everyone else without a clear plan for handling the situation.

Avoiding becoming flustered and panic is all well and good, you might say, but is it really feasible? You can think clearly now because you’re not in the middle of a crisis (at least, we hope not if you are taking the time to read this!) but when a problem actually comes up, it’s much harder to channel that energy when you have people yelling at you, systems crashing, error codes flashing, and all manner of chaos everywhere. So, what do you do then?

The truth is, only experience will help. The more you have to deal with stressful situations, the better you will eventually be able to handle them. That is why schools and companies hold fire drills. That is why novice doctors are paired up with experienced doctors and receive such extensive training, so that eventually they become the cool-headed one in the hospital calling the shots. That is why police officers and firefighters are exposed time and again to difficult situations before being sent out into the field. We don’t receive such intensive training in IT, perhaps because most of the time we are not putting out fires or looking down the barrel of a gun, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come across intense problems once we enter the workforce.

The first step for you to start your de-sensitizing process towards crisis situations is to observe other people in stressful circumstances. Who do you notice is running the show and keeping a level head, while everyone else panics? That might be a good person to work with in the future. Watch their behavior, and watch how other people react. You are more able to do this if you are not in a position with a huge amount of responsibility yet. If not, you may get a crash course in crisis situations fairly quickly.

The good news is, so-called “crises” are often not. It can feel stressful and upsetting at the time, but consider all of the situations you have already dealt with in your life that have felt similar, and how they all panned out. Where are you now? Did the crisis you dealt with back when you were 15 years old, 20 years old, 25 years old, etc, have a real impact on your trajectory in life? Chances are, this “crisis” will be the same. So relax, don’t panic, and keep a level head – it’s good for you, and for your career.

* Image courtesy of Jessica S. via Creative Commons

The Opportunity in SAP Maintenance

Setting up a new SAP system is often a fresh and exciting experience. Utilizing the ASAP methodology, consultants and their companies can get up and running smoothly and efficiently, mapping each company’s processes to corresponding functions in SAP and tweaking and customizing settings where needed in order to provide optimization. The company gets a brand new system, on which they receive extensive training that helps them build their efficiency and competence, and the consultant gets the reward of a job well-done. They leave the company happily humming along on its flawless new program.

If this description sounds a little too good to be true, then you have obviously worked in IT before. A smoothly running system with no bug fixes and no glitches is either a dream come true or a nightmare, depending on your philosophy regarding job security. For SAP consultants, it may sound ideal, given that it means they get accolades for their successful deployment.

And being an SAP consultant is generally a pretty nice job. You are helping businesses become more efficient and bringing them exceptional solutions for their IT needs. But another position can sometimes be overlooked by SAP professionals: maintaining already-installed SAP systems.

IT professionals often think of “maintenance” as a four-letter word. Installing a new system can be fun. The technology is new, the software is updated, the hardware hasn’t had a chance to develop the bugs associated with old age yet, and users haven’t managed to work the system into a frenzy with their requests and meddling. Installing them can be challenging, but not as challenging as figuring out what the guy 4 cubicles down managed to do to his computer this time, and perhaps far less frustrating. A new, untouched computer system is often a thing of beauty.

But that’s not what IT solutions are made for.

ships

A ship in the harbor is safe, but…

IT solutions, and SAP in particular, need to be used. Employees need to abuse them a bit, cause some hiccups, crash the system a few times, and test the limits. Without some use and abuse, these systems will never evolve into future generations of IT solutions that provide even more functionality and convenience.

The downside? The current systems still need to be maintained. An abused system still needs to operate, and that means there will always be a need for maintenance people, until they somehow devise an IT solution that is completely dummy-proof. That may seem like a Utopian idea, but again, start considering this in terms of job security. A few bug fixes here and there is a small price to pay for being a valued member of a company.

As someone who is or may one day be in a position where you are maintaining older systems rather than rolling out new ones, it’s important to remember that your function is just as vital, if not more important, than implementing that shiny, brand new system. With your help, a company can keep running on a cost-effective system that will last them for years, saving them excessive costs associated with constant upgrades and frequent equipment replacements. You can therefore have a direct effect on a company’s bottom line, which in turn makes you that much more valuable.

In addition, the rewards of your work continue to be seen throughout a system’s lifetime. Rather than receiving a glowing but short-lived accolade after implementation, following which you have to set out finding another client that could benefit from the SAP system, if you are able to implement on-going solutions that adjust, adapt, and maintain the existing system, you will have the potential for significant rewards on a consistent basis.

Furthermore, remember that implementation and creation of new systems is not always a road paved with gold. Companies are more likely to try and control upfront creation-related costs, which can curb how creative implementors are able to get in devising their solutions. When it comes to maintenance, however, it is possible to exercise extreme creativity when it comes to finding a cost-effective solution for keeping a system running. Additionally, companies tend to allow maintenance personnel to have more freedom and less oversight, meaning you have some real opportunities to exercise your problem-solving skills whenever there is a malfunction, or whenever you happen to hear of a feature someone is really eager to have that you can find a creative way to incorporate.

Maintenance folks have a few other direct advantages: they know more of the people that their work directly affects, and can establish longer-lasting relationships with them that could result in further opportunities down the road, meaning a wider network of colleagues. They can also spend more time learning about the underlying business that their work impacts, making them a versatile asset to their companies.

*Image courtesy of Moyan Brenn via creative commons

Need to be More Productive? Take a Break.

lounge chairs

We all need a break sometimes.

IT professionals are no strangers to long workdays. Particularly when deadlines are looming or systems are crashing, they often have to burn the midnight oil to troubleshoot and fix last minute problems. While such days can be stressful and even occasionally aggravating, they are hopefully few and far between. Right?

Unfortunately, that statement is not really accurate any longer, especially when companies are trying to squeeze more work out of fewer people for less money. People also often view the accumulation of too many working hours as a badge of honor. Someone who works a normal 40 hour week is viewed as comparably less hardworking than someone who is able to cram 50, 60, or 70 hours of work into a week.

The question is, though, is that view necessarily true and accurate? When was the last time you really evaluated your work habits and took note of your daily activities? If you take the time to do this now, you may be surprised at what you find.

In particular, think about how you used to be when you first started your job, before some amount of complacency and apathy set in. Eager to impress your new boss, you worked diligently to exceed expectations and meet rigorous deadlines. You may have worked some additional hours here and there, but the hours you did work were usually productive.

Now, fast forward to today. How much time do you spend on menial tasks, or going to have a cigarette, or stopping to talk in the hallway, or browsing social media sites, because you know that you will be working late anyways, so you may as well enjoy some of the time you have to spend at work? What would you be able to accomplish in just one hour if you turned off Facebook and Pinterest, picked a particular project you’ve been procrastinating on for months, and focused entirely on that?

To answer this question, you also should consider what happens when you are confronted with a hard and fast deadline. How much do you suddenly find yourself able to accomplish in a short amount of time? If you had to accomplish the same amount of work but you had twice as much time to do it, spend just as many hours at work, or would you spend even more time at work because you know you have the time to spend? To put this in practical terms, suppose you were tasked with implementing a new SAP system. How long does that usually take? A month? Several months? A year? Now, suppose you were told you had to get it done in three weeks. Or even two weeks. Could you do it?

There is something to be said for limiting your work hours. When you have the pressure of needing to accomplish a lot in a short period of time, you use that time much more effectively.

But on top of that, you will also find that the more time you spend at work, the less productive your time spent will become. As fatigue sets in from too many long hours spent sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen, it starts to take longer and longer to accomplish even the most basic job functions. Therefore, taking time off is an important part of working. If it’s difficult to take a day off or get a vacation, the next best option is to increase your productivity. If you want to go home early, how can you turn eight hours spent at the office into the most productive eight hours you have ever spent? Can you replicate that feat each day?

If you truly manage to maximize the value of your time, soon you will find yourself listening to the boasting conversations of your peers with a different perspective. Are they bragging about suffering through 60 grueling hours at a desk and computer last week? You might be tempted to ask them what they managed to accomplish in that time. As for yourself, you may be able to trim your hours down to a standard 40 hour week once more, but the list of things you managed to achieve with that time would be enough to convince anyone that you spent much, much more time than that.

*Image courtesy of John Morgan via Creative Commons