Iowans pride themselves on not being rude.
“Please. Sit down. Can I get you a cup of coffee? Do you want a slice of pie with that?”
It may explain how in a state that has conservative leanings, we early on embraced racial equality, women’s rights, and gay marriage. It’s simple. It’s not that we are some great progressive society. It’s just rude to treat people rudely. Every Iowan knows this from an early age.
Also, it is a common politeness to ask where a person works. In fact, it is rude not to ask.
So, of course, I asked — what do you do for your job?
“I’m the president of Alliance Technologies.”
Wow, really? The president?
Steve Sikkink shrugs self-consciously.
“Well, we started Alliance Technology in 1994. We are a comprehensive IT solution partner.”
Sikkink has a broad smile, bright blue eyes, and not a smidgeon of guile that I can detect. He speaks English. Nothing is garbled. I can even identify the subject and the verb of both sentences he spoke. Shouldn’t I be able to understand “a comprehensive IT solution partner”?
Trust me, I don’t.
And it reminds me of all the conversations I’ve had with people who identify themselves as doing IT work. “Yes, that’s short for Information Technology,” they always helpfully add. Did that help you?
Not for the first time, I’m suspicious that IT doesn’t really exist. Perhaps all these people who say their work is in information technology are really going bowling. Or is it possible that IT is part of a larger conspiracy involving smart phones, the demise of Dahl’s grocery store, and the Des Moines Water Works? Clearly, anything is possible.
But here’s my chance to get to the bottom of this. I begin a steady barrage of questions to ferret out the truth.
Let’s start at the beginning, I say cunningly.
“I was a student intern at Weitz Corporation in Des Moines while I was going to Central College in Pella. I was captain of the basketball team, but I carried a briefcase on the bus back when no one carried a briefcase.”
Sikkink is a self-described business-nerd who got in at the ground floor of the computer transformation. “Grew up in hotbed of conspiracy,” I jot in my notepad.
“I had a double major, business management and information systems. Computers just weren’t there yet. If you wanted to do computers, you did math. I didn’t want to do math. So I did information systems.”
Sikkink stayed with Weitz after college, and he and his partner began solving business issues by using computers.
“I was programming. It was a great opportunity for me. I could make a computer do something. People would come to me and say, ‘Could you write a program to help me do general ledgers or accounts payable?’ Of course.”
However, to Sikkink’s dismay, most folks were sticking with the tried and true.
“To watch people who had done things manually to switch to an automated system was amazing. Initially they wanted us to pave cow paths. People would tell you how they did it manually, and they’d ask if I could do it with the computer. People didn’t understand that the real improvement wasn’t just repeating the same winding steps that they did manually, paving the cow path, but it was to reinvent the process entirely — make a new path.”
Okay, “paving cow paths”? Did he just say that? I think I’m wearing him down.
“I didn’t want to just be a geeky programmer. I wanted to be a tool to help us accomplish a new way to do things.”
I didn’t want to tell Sikkink that it might be too late to ditch the geeky programmer label.
“Back when we started you had to do everything. We bought the hardware, we did the wiring, we had to make sure it was being backed up, we had to write the software, we inherited phone systems, which had their own wiring and their own networks. We had to work through all the data communications. We had to do it all.”
Sure you did. And now?
“You don’t need a computer anymore. We will fix your issues. We have 150 employees with connections to multiple services. There is no need to even come to your location. We have clients who are being served by people they’ve never met. It is very efficient. But a very different way to serve. What this misses is the people, and people still want to be treated as people.”
Ah, a businessman philosopher.
“Concern for employees and customers is the constant. Technologies have come and gone. Systems and solutions have come and gone. What hasn’t changed? Good employees and valued clients.”
My oh my. A passionate businessman philosopher.
“I get excited about a vision. The only constant is change. Especially in IT. The vendors prominent in the 80s are mostly gone. Pioneer and Wells Fargo have IT departments bigger than our whole company. But medium to small businesses have the same problems as these big companies and need our help. That is sort of my vision these days. I’m not an IT purist. I’d say IT was just a skill that allowed me to get to where I really wanted to get — to help businesses solve their issues.”
Here’s my chance!
So, is there such a thing as IT?
“I don’t think IT really exists,” Sikkink says with twinkling eyes. Then, getting serious, he continues, “I will say one thing, IT is certainly changing and evolving into something different.”
Hah! It’s too late. I have what I came for. The dark underbelly of IT — it doesn’t really exist. You heard it here first.
Sikkink thanks me for the chat and heads back to work. At least so he says.
Now I just have to get to the bowling alley before he does. I don’t want to be rude.