As a freelance contractor, I get around to a lot of different companies. They're in all sorts of industries: finance, manufacturing, education, media, retail, transport, and even a mail order company. Wherever I go, I make a point of asking one key question: “How's business?”
Sometimes it's tempting as an IT specialist to step back from the business environment and focus on the technical task at hand. Still, I find it's very helpful to ask a general question about how the company is traveling—it's amazing how much you pick up. Getting a window into a company's business environment can also help you tailor your technical know-how to fit its needs.
For example, some companies work entirely on day-to-day cash flow. The nature of their product or service means they have very few repeat customers. They might even not care too much about yesterday's sales data, so having historical backups isn't that important to them. Or some applications might be important for the short period the business uses them, but after that period has passed, the applications just slip under the radar. I know of a company that does annual budgeting. During that period, the budgeting application needs extra resources. Power Systems Dynamic LPAR (DLPAR) comes in handy here because it allows extra processor and memory to be assigned just for that short annual budgeting period. Once the budget period is over, the application can work with minimal resources or even be shut down completely.
Getting a grasp of these business expectations can be of great help in your technical field. I find I have to force myself to turn off my own -verbose flag and learn a little about the business requirements. Instead of explaining how a database can be replicated or what's involved with migrating to a new Storage Area Network, sometimes it's better to ask, “Why is your business doing this in the first place?” For example, a customer might have hundreds of AIX users logging in, and maintaining passwords is a bit of a pain point. Instead of writing a script to improve the process to reset passwords, perhaps the users can authenticate using their Microsoft Windows Active Directory (AD) password. This effectively outsources the boring password work to AD.
Learning a little about a business can help you manage its system better. You'll have a better grasp of the peaks and the troughs, which is particularly helpful if you need to arrange downtime. A business that has a 24×7 online presence will be more focused on high availability than one that works in a more relaxed business environment. For example, a manufacturing business might want to ensure there are no surprises when orders are being prepared to go out on trucks (I've seen companies brought to their knees because the /var file system filled up and they couldn't print their packing slips). Knowing that sort of information can be vital if you're planning to run a process on the company's system that might have a high impact. Even a basic understanding of the business workflow can help immensely when you're working on a mission-critical system.
The people running businesses are often finding that both time and money are scarce, it's becoming more common for the techies to be told: “We're not so interested in tools or the technical details. What we want to know is the business impact.” In other words, the business is happy not to look too much under the hood, but that's only because the technical people have asked a key question: “How's business?”