So you're thinking of leaving the IT department of an old-school manufacturing or retail company to work for a high-tech vendor, a company that sells products and services to other high-tech companies. But while the grass appears greener on the other side, you should be aware that, like everything else in life, working for a vendor has its pros and cons.
One upside to working for a vendor is what David Foote, president and CEO of Foote Partners, an IT workforce research and consulting firm in New Canaan, Conn., calls the idea of "affiliation." People want to be associated with successful, high-powered organizations. And within the IT community -- even for those not working on the product side -- having a big name like Oracle, Sun or Microsoft stamped on one's business card carries a lot of cache.
"Part of it is the satisfaction they get working for a famous name and being associated with high-profile executives like Ellison, McNealy, Jobs or Gates," Foote says. "Also, when they read about their company in the Wall Street Journal, the CEO is talking about what they do, technology, instead of Pampers or sugar water."
Another benefit is the ability to work with cutting-edge technology. Many vendor companies put their latest network- and systems-related products into use internally first, so people on the inside get the first crack at it.
"That lets you provide an excellent, strategic resource for the company to see how their technology plays out in real life, providing a secondary source of innovation," says Frank Bernhard, an analyst with Omni Consulting Group in Davis, Calif. As an example, he pointed out that many Apple Computer products were created out of the experience of people maintaining databases and systems within the company.
Erin Kinikin, an analyst with Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass., adds that at vendor companies, IT managers don't have to go through as many processes and strict justifications to put in something new.
"For example, if an IT company wants to implement their own router, they just do it," she says. "Just so long as the resources can be scraped and scrimped from here and there."
Additionally, says Bernhard, vendor companies understand the inherent value of technology and reliable systems and networks because that's their business. This means IT people don't find themselves constantly having to defend their very existence.
The grass isn't quite as green
On the other hand, there are drawbacks when working for a vendor. At the top of the list is what Bernhard describes as the "arrogance of the engineer versus maintenance." In other words, if you're not working on the product side, you might be viewed as a second-class citizen. This means that when bonuses and options are handed out, the guys building the products -- and bringing in the money -- may be taken care of before the guys who make everything run.
This second-class citizenship can also result in diminished resources, Kinikin says.
"I call it the 'cobbler's children' syndrome," she says, pointing out that vendors tend to spend a lower percentage of revenue on internal IT than do non-vendors. "IT companies deal with technology every day, so it's not a mystery. In some sense the value of IT is underestimated because the attitude is, 'Why can't you just put it in and turn it on?' when you'd think it would be the other way around."
Another negative is the industry itself. IT is not yet a mature industry. This translates into lots of mergers, acquisitions and shutdowns. If you're the type of person who panics at the prospect of layoffs or management shakeups, beware. You may be better off looking for work in government or with more recession-resistant industries like pharmaceuticals or consumer packaged goods.
What to ask a vendor
This all means that there are questions you must ask before going to work for a vendor. First, you'll need hard information about the resources the company will give you to work with. You'll need to hear why the internal IT function is important to the company, as well as what's worked and hasn't worked in the past. And you'll want to get a good sense of the company's personality.
"A good question to ask in this respect is simply, 'What type of person is successful here?'" Kinikin says.
Many people join vendors as network and system administrators, thinking that once they're in the door, they'll quickly land a sexier spot on the product side, only to find that out the company has a policy against interdepartmental "poaching." Or it may pigeonhole support people as, well, support people. Be sure to ask about this beforehand.
Finally, talk to your contacts in the IT world to gauge the reputation of your prospective employer. Some have better reputations than others. For example, Bernhard says Cisco enjoys a very good reputation as an employer. Oracle, on the other hand, has a high rate of turnover among employees who complain about feeling constrained working with few resources. "Oracle's philosophy isn't to get the latest technology. It's to go out and sell and worry about shopkeeping later," says Bernhard.
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