Eric's Technical Outlet

Learning the hard way so you don't have to

Hello, IT? You’re Doing It Wrong–Part 2

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the ways the traditional approaches to IT fail to address the purpose of IT’s existence. In this part, I’ll suggest approaches and concept changes that might help alleviate the deficiencies and maybe even restore your IT department to the status of company heroes that it deserves.

Reconsider What You Do

If you’re on the front lines, don’t tell people that your job is to fix computers. Your job is to work with people experiencing problems with computers. The operative word is, and always will be, people. If you have a more hidden server-room type of position, then your job is to make computers accessible to the people in (and sometimes outside of) your organization.

Don’t Spot-Fix

When a user calls in or brings an issue to you, don’t just jump straight to addressing the technological concern. Find out what they are trying to accomplish; maybe there’s a better way. Taking an interest in users’ overall objectives will never hurt you.

If your first and best “fix” for problems is re-imaging the user’s computer, then you are absolutely doing it wrong. You are one of the top reasons users dislike IT. If you don’t see a problem with that status, then this is not a viable long-term career path for you. Take the time to learn about computers and how to fix what’s wrong. Most problems don’t need a “fix” at all, and from the ones that remain, it almost never takes nearly as long to fix as it does to reimage a computer and adjust the gold image to maximize an individual’s productivity. Never leave a user looking at a day or two of re-arranging icons and resetting window views and retrieving favorites/bookmarks and all the other busywork involved with recovering from a re-image just to avoid looking up how to resolve an error message.

Learn What Your Company Does

I don’t just mean what its primary industry is, I mean really get a good handle on how it operates. Spend some time talking to the people in other departments, observe, and ask questions. You will have an easier time supporting them when they call. They will generally be appreciative if you take the time to express interest in their functions and will be more likely to view you favorably. In any planning meetings you happen to be part of, you will be able to form more meaningful input to address their concerns and desires.

Be Aware of the Business Aspect

This is closely related to the above, but involves your own involvement in operations. Everything has a cost attached, including the things you choose not to do. Don’t boil everything down to just a simple cost/benefit analysis either. ROI calculations and charts are like novels; with a bit of work, you can get them to say just about anything you want. The people you’re trying to convince to buy that fancy new gizmo are well aware of this. You must be able to quickly and directly demonstrate how your idea will save money or generate money and how quickly it will do it. You also need to know things like your company’s fiscal year- and month-end cycles and how spending and billing align with them.

Technology Won’t Fix Everything

Be on the look-out for good old manual methods of solving problems, and, as early as possible, try to point out when a technological solution will not work or will only partially apply. It costs companies a lot to implement an unsuccessful system.

Don’t Be Loyal to any Company Other Than Your Own

If you’re buying or recommending a particular brand just because you’ve always used that brand or because it’s the market leader or because someone you respect said to, then you’re doing it wrong.  Research competitive offerings of the products you’re considering, even if you’re renewing a subscription your company has had for a while. I can promise you that when you go to recommend a product to an executive panel, you’ll get a lot more traction by showing why you feel that a particular vendor’s cost and offering structure aligns better with the needs of your business than you ever will by saying you bought Brand X because everyone else was doing it.

Take Notes

Pay attention to what people say and follow-up on it. It’s amazing how quickly this behavior can build up peoples’ trust in you.

You Don’t Know Everything – And You Don’t Have To

It’s tough trying to know everything; it’s so tough that most of those who try to answer every question as soon as it’s asked generally wind up fudging something just to get through a conversation without blowing their cover. It’s pretty obvious that they’re doing it too, and it’s not long before the whisper is that they’re not as smart as they think they are. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know, provided that you don’t leave it there. Find out. People respect a person with honesty and integrity a lot more than they respect walking encyclopedias.

A really tough lesson to learn is that sometimes, it’s less important to be right than to maintain social harmony.

Communicate

Are you going to take a server down on Sunday at 2 AM? Tell somebody. Tell everybody. Are you going to update the firmware on a switch? Send out a notification. You don’t have to tell people exactly what you’re doing. You don’t have to write a thesis paper. The details are unimportant and would be ignored if you included them. The point is to show to users that you care enough about the impact of your actions to let them know, even – especially – when you don’t think those actions will have any meaningful impact at all.

Most companies of much size have a formal or semiformal policy of communicating IT downtime, so the above may just be a topic starter. It’s a good way to practice keeping people in the loop on other things. If you’re researching technology for a project, update interested and invested staff and executives. If you’ve got a project brewing, don’t let it progress in a darkroom.

Be Visible

I once picked up a saying from someone else and used it myself: “IT is like sewers; we’re absolutely vital, but if users are aware of us, there’s a problem.” That’s exactly the wrong attitude to take. First, if users only see you when something is wrong, then they’re going to attach a negative association to your presence. Second, it means you’re not involved enough in the goings-on of your business. Get out there and interact. If your company is too busy or restrictive for idle chitchat, then try something like, “Haven’t heard from you in a while, do you have any technology issues you’d like to address?”

Toot Your Own Horn – Gently

If you’re sitting around just waiting on your boss or your boss’s boss or the user-base-at-large to notice your brilliance and shower you with praise and raises and letters of commendation… well… don’t hold your breath. Most of them don’t even understand what you do. No matter how brilliant your last triple-switch nine-server solution was, it’s no more magical to them than when you save something from their Recycle Bin. Of course, no one likes a braggart, either, so don’t overdo it. Regular written reports is one way, but I would say it’s critical to at least have a verbal highlight reel to periodically present to your boss. Do what you can to get more than just break-fix bullet points.

You Are Not Indispensable

Remember, the people who maintain your employment don’t even understand what you do. They’re unlikely to see a significant difference between you and the thirty other people that applied for your job. You may be the most knowledgeable person about your organization’s IT structure, but if you figured it out, then someone else can, too. It might take three people to replace you; if necessary, they’ll hire three people to replace you.

Do Everything You Can to Remold IT Into a Proactive Entity

As stated in part 1, IT is often relegated to a reactive role, fixing things as they break. It is in your best interests to get ahead of the curve. Fortunately for IT professionals, equipment and operating systems have dramatically matured in the past few years such that catastrophic failures are decreasing in frequency. That’s not enough. You need to be able to quantify a rational expectation for the maximum lifespan of equipment and have presented a replacement cycle plan before anything goes wrong. If you can include the projected replacement cycle with the initial purchase proposal and then track that accordingly, you’ll find that it’s far easier to get funding for the replacement when the time comes.

IT is one of the few departments that must really plan for failure. You know that things are going to fail, and when they do, you need to look like you saw it coming. If you haven’t got a plan in place for how to handle the failure of any given component all the way down to a digital camera, then start documenting. Then, when the CFO’s hard drive fails and you sail in with a checklisted plan of how to get him back up and running within the hour, you’re the good guy. Part of your recovery plan should also include presentation of a post mortem evaluation. Those look especially nice when the checkboxes you ticked off on your plan solved the problem neatly. Remember in school when your math teacher said you had to show your work? This is the real-world application of that, even though the problems aren’t algebraic.

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