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Technical Roles: Am I In IT?

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Issue: 
Spring 2011

Shaun Haber (PAL)

I am sitting in a hotel room in Henderson, NV.  This is my home for the next four weeks while I undergo Customer Loyalty Team (CLT) training with my new employer, Zappos.com.  I’m taking part in a required training program for all new employees, regardless of position or level, in this customer-service focused company that sells shoes and apparel online.  Being temporarily disconnected from my home near San Francisco and dropped into the desert for a month before moving into a new job gives me a space from which to look back over my work roles and experiences.

I recently joined Zappos.com as a Senior Web Developer.  Previously, I’ve held positions at Warner Music Group (WMG;  2007-2011) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) with LTER from 2004-2006. In these jobs, I was also doing web-based work.  While these employers vary greatly in their specializations (retail, entertainment, and academic research respectively), but each has much in common for the role of a web developer.

Developers - whether web developers or software engineers - are often confused as being in “IT”.  For the public, IT is a general term including a whole range of positions relating to computer work, but to an insider this is a naive categorization.  Software development and IT are two disjointed worlds.  In IT, the objective is the long-term maintenance of systems and status quo.  In development, the objective is to build and create.  IT focuses on stabilization whereas development focuses on change.

My department at the Warner Music Group was named the “Strategic Technology Group” specifically as a way to differentiate ourselves from the IT department.  At Zappos.com, the all-encompassing ‘technology’ term is dropped completely, and I am a member of the “Development” team.

It is interesting to note that at the intersection between IT-focused systems administrators and software-focused developers is a borderland, the site of an emergent role:  development operations, or dev ops. This role acts as a technical liaison between systems administrators and software developers.  An effective dev ops lead will make sure software developers produce clean code and applications are deploy-able to production with minimal complications. Likewise, he/she will work with IT to make sure production systems are updated to support innovative products based on new technologies.

Communication is the key across the technological spectrum -- from system administration to dev ops to software development -- for what is highly collaborative team work.  In my experience, good communication is frequently enhanced by the creation of documentation. Teams need both a tradition of documenting everything and a shared understanding of the documentation as a reliable reference guide.  

After a period of trial and error at WMG, we found that using a plain Drupal site with the book module was most successful as a documentation mechanism. Alternative systems considered included using a wiki, shared documents in Google Docs or Evernote, and README.txt files for software projects. The Drupal book modules organize pages in a hierarchy.  New documents were placed in an “Inbox” book and later reorganized appropriately in the “Documentation” book.  We relied on Search to find most documents.  Categorization seemed to be a necessary formality that we carried out for peace of mind, but in reality we did not actually use it for discovery. Similarly at Zappos, we use a custom MediaWiki installation behind the corporate firewall to house documentation for everything, both technical and non-technical.

Why does this all matter? Regardless whether you are a system administrator, dev ops, or a front-end developer, it’s imperative to have a clear understanding of the full technology stack. A well-rounded technology team is more likely to have a solid server infrastructure that supports web and mobile applications optimized for system performance and user experience. Although maintaining good documentation may slow down the development process somewhat in the short-term, it is a small price to pay for enhancing long-term coherence and scalability.

I am looking forward to my new role as a web developer for Zappos.com. Though it is not classified as an IT position in a targeted sense, doing the job well requires an understanding of both IT and Dev Ops.  Thus, with a nod to constructive ambiguity, whenever I am asked if I am in IT, I just answer yes!