Time is the fire in which we burn. -Dr. Soran
In the world of IT (and in most other professional/knowledge work settings) there are two distinct types of work that you can perform: reactive jobs and proactive jobs. A reactive job is one where you sit and wait for work to come to you. Common examples would be the NOC or help desk work. With a proactive job, your workload is typically project-oriented. Examples there would be standing up a new data center, deployment of a new application, updating to metro Ethernet from Frame Relay, etc.
Most of us start out our IT careers in reactive jobs. While certainly not less important, they do tend to be less glamorous and lower on the pay/experience scale. My first job in IT was a reactive job, by doing dial up tech support at an ISP in Indiana (working for a guy on who turned out to be on the FBI’s most wanted list, as it turns out). I walked users through connecting their Windows 3.1 boxes to the Internet using Trumpet Winsock. I still have modem init strings seared into my brain (AT&F1&D2 did the trick with most modems). The modem init strings…haunt me.
There’s a lot to be said for reactive jobs. They may be high stress in the moment, but the stress tends to stay at the job, and the lines delineating work and non-work life are very stark (compared to proactive work). A colleague of mine told me about his girlfriend who worked as an Air Traffic Controller in Canada. Being a pilot myself and hearing controllers shepherd planes from one end of the sky to the other, I figured that’s a pretty high-stress job, to which he replied, “Perhaps, but what she loves is that when she unplugs her headset at the end of her shift, she doesn’t take it home with her.” There’s something very appealing about that type of work, no deadlines, no lingering thoughts of, “What did I forget?” You have immediate feedback on whether you’re doing your job correctly or not.
As we move up in experience, pay our dues, and gain certifications, we can make the transition to higher level jobs, which tend to be proactive jobs. However, the transition from reactive work to proactive work is tough, as time management and deadline management are tough to get a handle on right away. There’s not really anything to help with training for a proactive job in the IT world; they are skills you pick up along the way. Yet having that skill means the difference between plodding along in your career and being an absolute machine of productivity. I still have trouble with it. (I also hide under my desk when multicast is discussed, but that’s another blog post.)
In fact, one of the biggest challenges I faced when transitioning from reactive to proactive work was the time management aspect. Instead of waiting for work to come to me, I had to go out and find work. Project management, time management, scheduling, pacing, etc., were all skills I’d not used to the degree that modern proactive knowledge work requires. And unlike skills with technical subjects like IP routing, there aren’t a lot of ways to study up on those skills. It’s largely sink or swim. We’re thrown from the world of reactive work into proactive work, and hope we learn those skills along the way.
If a project is as complex as say “convert Data Center network from 1 Gigabit to 10 Gigabit”, it involves a lot of steps. Even with proper planning, there will likely be unforeseen obstacles. Issues will crop up. Vendors promises will go unfulfilled, and you’ll have to react. Deadlines loom, and the project can get big and scary quickly. When things get overwhelming, the urge to procrastinate becomes almost irresistible. Reddit calls you, your desk gets reorganized, and oh my, there may be funny cat videos you’ve not seen that must be seen. After a while, the instinct turns to just plane hiding under your desk like it’s time to duck and cover.
“I’m hiding from an MPLS deployment, you?”
“Setting up a redundant data center deployment with vMotion”
So how does one get better at time management? It turns out there’s a lot of great resources out there. A good place to start is an amazing talk by the late Professor Randy Pausch. He did the fantastic Last Lecture talk at Carnegie Mellon after learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer; he passed away in 2008. While many have seen The Last Lecture, he also did a fantastic talk on time managment.
There’s also work disciplines like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and related disciplines like agile programming which advocate taking tasks down to their smallest discernible components (sort of a PDU of a task) and widgetizing them.
Another challenge can be when your job is a hybrid: one that requires planning and deadlines and also requires you to drop what you’re doing when a call comes in. I’ve worked a few places like this, and this is an extremely challenging position to be in. In 2006, I worked for a small hardware vendor. There were about 4 employees, and me and the other technical employee did it all from development management to support calls. When a call would come in, I’d have to drop whatever I was doing and take the call. And I would have no idea how long the call would last. It could be a simple issue that requires 3 minutes on the phone, or it would be an intense troubleshooting session that would last the rest of the day. When you’re doing that type of job, it’s very difficult to plan your day and meet any kind of deadline. And there is the mental cost of switching tasks. It takes the brain a while to change gears, and if you’re constantly interrupted throughout the day, proactive work is nearly impossible (or at least far less efficient).
My advice is to avoid this type of role if you can, and if you can’t (or already are in it), do whatever you can to make a full transition (ether to full reactive or full proactive). It’s not always possible to avoid these types of roles, but they are not ideal and hopefully temporary.
My current job is a hybrid job, but fortunately the proactive and reactive aspects are fully separated. Teaching classes is a reactive job. I show up at the appointed time and place, teach the material, then head home. There’s no deadlines (other than where to be to start the class). I do development work and write as well, and that’s a greater challenge. There’s lots of little steps, details, problems, issues, etc. They all have to be sorted out, and frankly that’s a much tougher job. Teaching is relatively easy; getting to know the material well enough to teach it is the hardest part.
However, while my job entails both procative and reactive work, those two aspects of my job are cleanly separated. It’s not like I have to drop everything at a moment’s notice to teach a surprise class since they’re booked weeks in advance, so I have no issues with task switching. When I’m doing content development or writing, I can sit down and concentrate, and any distractions I might run into are those of my own making (cats, reddit, cats on reddit).
If you’re having trouble transitioning from a reactive job to a proactive job, know that you’re not alone. And a lot of the work in getting help is realizing what the challenges you’re facing may be. So what are your favorite articles on time management and challenges associated with them? Feel free to post them in the comments section, as others may also find them useful.