In the IT department at Indiana University, Joe Skorupa quickly learned he wasn't there to put technology in place just for the fun of it.
"I knew the guy selling the alumni their tickets to basketball games could have had me fired on a dime if his systems weren't working," says Skorupa of his first IT gig some 20-plus years ago. "If the alumni didn't get their tickets, the university didn't get millions of dollars in donations. In the real world, there are business values attached to the technology."
Skorupa today is a research vice president covering networking and communications equipment at Gartner. He values the lessons he learned early in his career, as do many other industry analysts and consultants who also got their starts building switching equipment, setting up networks and putting out fires on the front lines of IT.
"Nobody can know how IT interoperates with the business as intimately as someone within that business, because they eat, live and breathe it all day long," says Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of enterprise research at Yankee Group. Kerravala started working as a Unix programmer at Canada's University of Victoria and moved into enterprise companies, including investment banking firm Alex Brown.
"Having this experience gives me credibility and helped me a lot early on. I know it's not just about speeds and feeds; people don't really just buy off that, it's just one part of the equation," he says.
Takes one to know one
Having spent time as a practitioner makes it easier to establish a rapport with clients who need advice about how to run a project, says Mark Nicolett, a vice president and research director at Gartner covering security and privacy.
Nicolett worked at several insurance firms in the Connecticut, U.S., area until he spent 15 years at Aetna, working on projects such as disaster recovery and client-server management systems. Now with 10 years under his belt at Gartner, Nicolett says he still works to keep his technology knowledge fresh, even if he doesn't get the chance to touch technology daily.
"Any IT practitioner, regardless of their background or current position as an analyst, faces technical obsolescence and must refresh their skills. But as an analyst, you have to adjust to a situation where you are not placing your hands on technology," Nicolett says.
Not only does the hands-on experience lend analysts credibility among end user organizations today, but it also instills in them an ability to attack business and process problems with technology. Thinking like a technologist translates into the analyst role, some say.
"In principle, working as an analyst is not far from working as a software architect. You just have to adapt your conceptual and logical skills to another type of process," says Jean-Pierre Garbani, a vice president with Forrester Research.
Garbani started in IT at a small company in France that was automating control processes of nuclear power plants and moved to Bull GE, where he developed networks and transactional systems. Garbani also took part in launching a software company, but ultimately made the leap to analyst after two of his colleagues in IT at John Hancock moved into the area and lured him to the other side.
Garbani can still recall how he perceived consultants and analysts when he was in the trenches and works to avoid coming across that way to his clients. In addition, his past life as an IT professional gives Garbani a healthy dose of cynicism when evaluating vendor pitches.
"I remember trying to make sense of Gartner or Giga reports and finding them lacking in details and sometimes downright inaccurate," he says. "I now know how it is done: the politics, budgets and influences. I have been there, and it has not changed in all these years. I know the B.S. that is served to analysts [by vendors]. I did it myself."