What’s it like to work as an IT pro at a company experiencing super-charged growth? How do you approach change, leverage innovations in Windows, and help shepherd an entire organization into the IT future?
To find out, we sat down with Aaron Buckley, Infrastructure Applications Engineer at Alex and Ani, a highly successful jewelry company that recently celebrated giving more than $45 million to charitable causes, from clean water to children’s wellbeing. In an environment where many retailers are struggling, Alex and Ani has bucked the trend, growing to about 100 stores last year. For Aaron, this means his role as an engineer has grown rapidly as well.
“When I first joined Alex and Ani three years ago, I started at the help desk, but today I jokingly call myself an ‘army of one,’” Aaron said. “My role as Infrastructure Applications Engineer covers client management through overseeing our cloud and mobile management systems using Microsoft Intune and System Center Configuration Manager. I am also our SharePoint architect administrator, and I handle our Windows image creation process, which includes our corporate workstations and our retail point of sale environment.”
Aaron started his journey toward an IT career earlier than most. He grew up in Rhode Island and attended a vocational high school where his kid-level curiosity with computers developed into a computer science certification. “I came from a working-class family and was the first member of my family to go to college,” Aaron said.
But Aaron didn’t go all-in on computer science right away. He actually got his degree in psychology and political science, focusing on the intersection between psychology and technology. He credits his psych background with giving him an understanding of human behavior when it comes to tech, such as the user experience and how to ensure user uptake. It has also helped him advance his vision for keeping IT systems at Alex and Ani on the cutting edge. Studying psychology has given him the interpersonal skills to effectively make the case for his ideas across the company.
“Whether we are experts in a field or just starting out, we almost always take for granted all the stuff that we know,” Aaron explained. “Sometimes, we fall into the idea that, ‘Because I know this solution is obviously the right way forward, my director, my vice president, and my budget team must know this as well.’”
“But they don’t always know that. As a matter of fact, they have all sorts of other things that they’re dealing with and specialized knowledge that informs their perspective. So in IT, we not only have to be able to design and implement solutions—we need to also make the case for them, defend them, and promote them, in order to be truly effective.”
While Aaron’s background in psychology has given him valuable insight (and possibly Jedi powers), IT pros from all educational backgrounds can boost their ability to succeed by embracing their unique position to champion the solutions they design. “Continue communicating the benefits of your ideas to your managers and your end users,” Aaron recommended.
“Really know what you are trying to solve for and how you will solve for that before you talk to your business partners. It’s also important to take the initiative to understand your broader environment, and communicate how the solution you’re proposing leverages components of the present environment and existing investments like Office 365, SharePoint, etc. If you can tell that story, you’ll bring people along with you for the ride.”
As an example, Aaron shared a story about how his team was initially considering deploying Skype for Business as the company’s main communication platform. However, after doing extensive research, Aaron determined that Microsoft Teams was actually the best fit for the company’s use case.
“All year, my management team had been hearing ‘Skype for Business’ from me, but I had to say, ‘Hey guys, actually, jettison that. Microsoft Teams appears to solve our needs and usage better. That’s what I recommend we orient toward,’” Aaron said. “Without good research and preparation, that conversation would have been a great example of a muddied message that would have left my users and management confused. But I’m able to tell the story of how Microsoft Teams works so well with SharePoint and other elements of our present environment. It’s making a lot of sense to my management, who have started testing out these capabilities and giving me feedback.”
By being prepared in this way, IT pros can both optimize their solutions and confidently advocate for their ideas.
Beginning this year, Aaron’s mission at Alex and Ani will be to move the entire organization’s 700-plus users to the Windows 10 environment. He also has big plans for standardizing the use of Sharepoint, specific machine models (including the Surface Pro 3), and the same program versions across desktop, laptop, and mobile.
So what motivates Aaron to keep optimizing his work and empowering people with technology?
“I’m someone who really loves a challenge,” he said. “I identify with the persona of the mastermind—’I am the super-user. I am the administrator.’ I love taming chaos. It’s one of the most exciting parts of my job to help evolve legacy systems into a more perfect system. That’s a big part of my motivation.”
Aaron also credits specializing in a technology that drives him personally as the reason why he loves his career. “Calling back to my background in psychology, I am driven to make this experience—this information stack and connectivity to the cloud—as seamless and approachable as possible for my end users. So, to the aspiring technologists out there—it might sound cliché, but truly find and pursue your passion. Love what you do.”
Editor’s note: In addition to being an IT superhero at Alex and Ani, Aaron serves on the board of directors of Youth Pride, a local LGBTQ non-profit based in Providence, Rhode Island. Connect with Aaron on LinkedIn here.