There's no question that the job of an IT professional in a small firm is a world apart from that of his colleague in a big corporation. But small business IT can be just as rewarding, if not more so, since you're likely to have more responsibility and the opportunity to handle a wide range of tasks. Then again, the hours may be longer, the pressure a bit more intense, and the opportunity to specialize in one area may be virtually nil. Know the basic rules of the road, and your IT career in a small or medium-sized business (SMB) can be quite beneficial.
Establish a stable IT environment. Without a stable, reliable IT infrastructure, the IT staff will spend all of its time fighting fires. So your first goal in an SMB IT position should be to establish a stable IT environment with policies and security protection that will ensure stability.
Focus on the core business. In an SMB, there's precious little money to waste. So everything spent on IT should be for a specific business purpose -- to increase sales, reduce overhead, speed billing, or whatever the business goal might be. If an IT activity or expenditure doesn't have a direct benefit to the bottom line of the business, then it probably shouldn't be done.
Learn to prioritize. Every day someone will have a crisis that needs to be solved by you immediately. Some of those issues will be critical to the business, but others can wait. Take the time to set up some parameters for evaluating these emergency tasks. Otherwise, you'll never have time left to focus on your own strategic to-do projects.
Treat the customer well. At the same time, realize that everyone who comes to you with a problem is a customer and must be treated well. Explain to them when you'll be able to get to their issue, and how they can work around it in the meantime. Let them know you consider their projects to be important, even if you can't work on their problems right away.
Nurture relationships. Also make sure to develop relationships with other department managers and colleagues, so you know their problems and they know yours. You'll be in a much better position to negotiate for your department if you have a good relationship with business peers.
Be a proactive problem-solver. Show that IT supports the business by identifying problems and proposing technology solutions. IT shouldn't be a silent partner that people turn to only when they want something, but an active contributor to the success of the business.
Polish your business skills. In an SMB, an IT professional can't easily hide missing skills, such as in public speaking or proposal writing. You may be called upon to do things that require business skills, so identify your one or two key weaknesses and look for ways to improve. Take a class at a regional college, for instance, or even ask a trusted mentor for suggestions. After all, an SMB environment is an excellent one for expanding your skills and taking on senior management responsibilities that you wouldn't have in large corporations.
Know the latest tech trends. All small business IT people have a lot on their plates. But while it's tempting to focus on the here-and-now and put off studying up on the newest technologies, it's important to stay abreast of trends. For example, even though you may still be using Windows 2000 in your environment, you need to know what the upgrade options are, and what the tradeoffs are if you choose not to upgrade. Take some time at lunch or after hours to play around with demo versions of new software, hardware or development environments.
Special thanks to the following experts and consultants who contributed to this article: Melissa Maffettone, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based branch manager for Robert Half Technology, and David Foote, head of Foote Partners LLC, a management consulting and IT compensation firm in New Canaan, Conn.
Read Sue HIldreth's first installment on IT hiring: Check IT List: Seven steps to IT staffing.
Sue Hildreth is a freelance technology writer based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at Sue.Hildreth@Comcast.net.