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Author, Speaker and Digital Business Alchemist

Let’s start off with a simple, necessary assertion:

No one book will ever contain all of the things you need to know about a given area of study/interest.

No place is this more evident than in the area of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and (more generally) IT Service Management (ITSM). If you’re reading this, it’s 99.99% likely that you have some interest in one of these topics and are likely consider yourself knowledgeable about them. A wise author once wrote:

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you know that just ain’t so”

Now you might be saying to yourself, “what does this have to do with the ITIL books?!” Well, I am very glad you asked, because I have a story to tell you. Let’s get started…

While I was running the Data Center Transformation Product Management team for Symantec Global Services, I had an open headcount for a Product Manager. As any other responsible hiring manager would do, I wrote my position description, worked with human resources and the recruiters to bring in candidates that fit my needs. I can assure you that this is a long, arduous process, but a necessary one. You see, I was looking for someone that had practical experience about what it took to use the guidance that ITIL provides in the “real world.”

Before the actual certificate became available, it was quite common to find someone who would include the phrase “ITIL Expert” on their resume. I always thought that this was a good bit of fun, an opportunity to question this “expert” to test their knowledge and provide examples of how they actually used it. Just so you know, I was never mean about it, but I was always thorough!

At this stage of the interviewing process, there would have already been three phone interviews, including an interview with practice leaders of the regional consulting teams. By the time we were at the point where we’d be having an in person interview at our facilities, you could tell that things were starting to get really serious. In this particular candidates case, a very experienced and well spoken woman, I was very excited to have this interview and was hoping that it would work out and I could start the process of creating a job offer for her.

We talked about a lot of different things during the course of the interview. While the ITIL/ITSM aspect was important, it was less important than some of the other areas that I needed in my Product Manager. As such, I always left that to close to the end of the interview. I didn’t want to get overly enthusiastic about that or prematurely disqualify someone because I was unhappy with this alone. After all, I did have a plan on how to bootstrap someone, if their experience wasn’t sufficient for my needs.

I asked the candidate a question about the content of one of the ITIL books, offered her a whiteboard and marker, and asked her to go to town. Needless to say, she did a great job. She got on the whiteboard and started drawing, she explained what she was drawing as she was doing it and talked about how this was relevant to her current job assignment.at this point, most hiring managers would probably be beside themselves with excitement, thinking that they had found an ideal candidate. And I will admit that I was very enthusiastic about the way that she handled herself. My follow-up question is where things got interesting! This was the dialogue:

Me: “I really enjoyed your answer to my question, but I asked you to tell me what ITIL had to say about this. Unfortunately, what you told me is not what is published in either V2 or V3 of ITIL.”

Her: “Yes, it is.”

Me: (strongly) “No, actually, it isn’t”

Her: “Yes, it is.”

At this point, one might wonder about why a candidate would invest time to start an argument with their (potential) future boss, but I digress. I’ll give her points for confidence AND presentation, so there’s that.

Me: “OK, got it. Please remain here for just a moment.”

I stood up, walked out of the conference room where I was conducting the interview and went back to my office. I reached into my carry bag, grabbed the five ITIL volumes and headed back to the conference room.I then instructed the candidate that her task was to show me where what she had told me was written in the books. For this task, I gave her 30 minutes. At the end of the allocated time, I would come back to the conference room and she would present me with her findings. Alternately, if she found the information earlier, she could call my cell phone and let me know that she was ready to present to me. I stood up, close the door behind me and walked back to my office.

At the appointed time, I returned to the conference room, sat down and then asked her to present her findings. She told me:

“You were right. It’s not in the books. I was positive that it was in there!”

I acknowledged her for being willing to stand up for what she believed in and the great job that she did in describing how this worked inside of her current environment. She did a really good job!

What she did was use her experience to supplement gaps that are in published guidance. you might be wondering to yourself:

“Isn’t that what you expect people to do?? What what’s the problem with that?!”

My answer to those questions are:

  1. Yes, it is exactly what I expect people to do. I established at the beginning of this story that all published guidance is going to have gaps in it. As such, practitioners need to work to map that guidance to the organization that they work with, their specific service management challenge and what that means to what their customer cares about. In doing these things, if they know and understand the guidance that the books provide, they should be in a position to take that guidance and use it appropriately. The value contained in the published guidance is reinforced and extended by combining that knowledge with the individual practitioners experience.
  2. There are actually several problems with this:
    • An inaccurate citation of the published guidance;
    • An inability to consider that they might be wrong or that someone knows more (the least minor);
    • An inability to distinguish between the publish guidance and how they had supplemented it with their experience (the value add!).

Ultimately, the last one is the most dangerous. Why?

Because stories like this get told over and over again, we end up with popular folklore about the guidance contained in publications and the potential value that it can provide. My point is not to knock the books, but rather to offer an appropriate “caveat emptor” when these are purchased and used. Just having and reading the books or getting a certificate in the content the books cover isn’t sufficient.

We need to be able to understand what portion of what we use in an organization is based upon the guidance that is contained in the books and that which we use to supplement and add value as practitioners. The important task here is to be able to document the difference between the two and see that this is communicated to those that follow after you have gone. If this work doesn’t get done, it can serve as an unnecessary and (potentially) significant risk to the success of future changes/initiatives.

This brings me back to my first quote:

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you know that just ain’t so”

As long as we are publishers and consumer of guidance, we will face these challenges. How thoughtfully and effectively we respond to this challenge is the real question. I encourage you, as a practitioner, to bring the rigor to your work that allows you to distinguish between the knowledge that publicly available frameworks provide and the level of skill you bring to that which represents added value. Not only will your customers love you for it, it’ll also help you make the case why you should be given your next assignment — because you added so much value!

Comments or questions about this? Jump on in. Let’s go!

BONUS POINTS: Which famous author gets the credit for the quote. Don’t cheat and Google it either, I’ll know! 😉


NOTE: A few minor edits/corrections after publishing. I’ll fire the editor later!

  • Phil Green

    Interesting article. I agree entirely with the notion of understanding the value we add; creating solutions for customers/stakeholders with often competing and conflicting requirements whilst drawing from multiple frameworks is often no mean feat.

    I also agree that failure to distinguish where a body of knowledge stops and our own expertise takes over poses a risk, but it’s one that’s easily managed through a simple review process that includes a checkpoint against the various bodies of knowledge and other sources we’re drawing from; and if we’re creating solutions for legal or regulatory requirements then this review process becomes a necessity.

    that said, I don’t think the example given to illustrate the key message was the most robust. the candidate was asked to ‘go to town’ on the contents of an ITIL book; at what level of detail did they fail to differentiate between what the book said and their own value added expertise? If the discrepancy was at a high level fundamentals then I would be concerned; if it were for low level detail it’s understandable – remember, the books are extremely detailed and 200+ pages long (service design is 400+ pages).

    What was the outcome of the interview – was the candidate hired?

    Something I didn’t like about this article was the notion of a hiring manager setting out to have fun at a candidate’s expense. a manager that behaves in this way does not deserve to get the best candidate 🙁

    (please can you correct the uppercase typing before posting? thanks)

    • Kenneth Gonzalez


      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your taking the time. Addressing your points:
      1. It seems that the uppercase issue is only on text entry. On the display side, it shows up as it is actually typed. Working the issue now and hope it is resolved soon.
      2. In my experience, tHe review that you mention in your second paragraph is *extremely rare*. Most are willing to accept what is *commonly regarded of as fact* at face value. THe way I see it, this is where we sow the seeds of failure.
      3. In making my request of the candidate, I was very clear about what I wanted. I may have a lot of shortcomings, but when I ask for something, I am very specific about it. I don’t intentionally set people up to fail.
      4. The outcome of the interview? I submitted the completed package to my H.R. team to generate an offer for the candidate. It was rejected by my manager and then my job requisition got cancelled. I think she would have been a top flight Product Manager and I would have been proud to have her be part of my team! 😀
      5. I can see where you could read my bit about having fun with the candidate as something detrimental to the candidate, but I can assure you that this is not the case. I do enjoy a quality conversation with people and go to great lengths to design conversations that are worthwhile, meaningful and give everyone (yes, me included!) a chance to come to a higher level of understanding or new appreciation for a given area. That’s my definition of “Fun”!

      Again, my thanks for taking the time to offer your comments! I sincerely appreciate it.


  • Phil Green

    Thanks for clarifying what you meant by fun – it makes more sense now – just a shame that the hiring requisition was cancelled like that.

    That’s worrying if you’ve found that a basic quality reviews covering sources of reference are extremely rare. It makes me wonder what else might not be happening! Perhaps on reflection I shouldn’t be surprised… I’ve come across a lot of folk that think that the way to engineer solutions is for someone to lock themselves away in a room somewhere and devise solutions that must be accepted with little or no challenge. In my experience that’s the worse possible approach!

    This has got me thinking now… time to pen something myself in this space 😉

    • Kenneth Gonzalez

      Yes, indeed it was. Unfortunately, it was the “beginning of the end” of my tenure there, I just didn’t know it at the time.. I don’t even know that my manager knew that, but who’s to say.

      Your second point about “what else might not be happening” is also important. IMO, there is much more at stake, because it’s not just about proper attribution of sources and methods OR some sort of academic exercise.

      I think there are some important points to be concerned about, like:
      1. Appreciation of history (of an area/field of research);
      2. Giving credit to those who laid the foundation;
      3. Preservation of context for subsequent research.

      The last point is critical, because it helps protect the integrity of the original research and ensure its consistent use/interpretation over time by future generations of practitioners. I feel that, if these three points are not effectively addressed, it decreases the value and accuracy of the works that are inspired by or derived from them. These are important enough to me that I am hoping to write on them in the very near future.

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