Over at Computerworld, Jeff Ello offers an interesting proposition – that the stereotypical IT person (antisocial, anti-management, anti-bureaucracy, etc) is merely a logical being who reacts in a logical way to their stereotypical environment. In particular, this quote caught my eye:

    Antisocial behavior — It’s fair to say that there is a large contingent of IT pros who are socially unskilled. However, this doesn’t mean those IT pros are antisocial. On the whole, they have plenty to say. If you want to get your IT pros more involved, you should deal with the problems laid out above and then train your other staff how to deal with IT. Users need to be reminded a few things, including:

    – IT wants to help me.
    – I should keep an open mind.
    – IT is not my personal tech adviser, nor is my work computer my personal computer.
    – IT people have lives and other interests.

    Like anyone else, IT people tend to socialize with people who respect them. They’ll stop going to the company picnic if it becomes an occasion for everyone to list all the computer problems they never bothered to mention before.

Without fail, not merely for myself but based on the experiences of friends/family I have known in IT, this is a major failing on the part of many organizations. IT people are “leaned on” constantly. They’re expected to fix their friends’ computers, neighbors’ computers, the computers of family members. Heck, they are sent questions by family/friends in other states who think that things can be fixed remotely. Co-workers piling on with this add to stress, especially if it’s done (a) often or (b) unappreciatively. Trust me when I say: we don’t mind, once in a while, helping someone out of a jam, especially if it’s something Worst Buy/Geek Squad/etc routinely screw up on or overcharge for. On the other hand, when we get 10+ requests for such help in a month, there’s a point where even we say “enough is enough.”

There’s another part as well:

    Insubordination — This is a tricky one. Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The difference is both subjective and subtle. Good IT pros, whether they are expected to or not, have to operate and make decisions with little supervision. So when the rules are loose and logical and supervision is results-oriented, supportive and helpful to the process, IT pros are loyal, open, engaged and downright sociable. Arbitrary or micro-management, illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary work and exclusionary practices will elicit a quiet, subversive, almost vicious attitude from otherwise excellent IT staff.

I’ve added the emphasis above for the basic point – people who go into IT, fundamentally, are (again) logical beings. They approach computers and technology, which are logical machines, in a logical fashion. They appreciate people like Will or Will’s normal working-environment types who, when they bring a problem up, bring the background research (error code, method to reproduce, etc) with it. They don’t appreciate Carol in accounts payable who sends in a request saying “this stupid thing doesn’t work come fix it while I go to lunch”, leaves no indication of what application is “not working”, leaves no recorded error code or method to reproduce the problem, and then has a screaming fit when she comes back to the office to find an email or note indicating that the IT staff would like her to inform them when she is available so that they can observe the problem and implement a solution.

IT people react quite well to Will-types, who we usually refer to by titles similar to “power users.” As far as IT goes, Will-types are collaborators; they respect us, we respect them, and when they ask for help, they’re willing to work with us to see that the solution is found and works well. Likewise, IT people react well to what I’ll refer to as “Joel”-types. Joels are people who know that computers are logical, have a little trouble grasping what they are doing, but are (a) patient about a response and (b) willing to be present and educated on what to do. Yes, we may have to answer the same question 2-3 times for a Joel in order for them to remember what they are doing, and occasionally they forget how to do something, but they recognize when their knowledge is insufficient and call for help rather than making things worse.

There are two other types we have to deal with. As I referred to a moment ago, there are the “Carol” types. Carols are the type who believe that somehow, with zero information and zero cooperation on their part, the magic box sitting on their desk can be made to do whatever they want to do. They believe that sending an email or help request along the lines of “this fucking thing isn’t working fix it” with an “available time” of ASAP and perhaps a threatening note about “reporting IT to the VP” if it isn’t done by the time they’re done with their noon “rendezvous” will somehow make it so that the fix “just happens.” Carol-types are also the type who insist their computer is “so slow” and “takes forever to log on”, but scream bloody murder if you want to remove the 10 different “IE Toolbar” apps, instant messaging apps, screwy spyware-laden screensavers, and other non-job-related miscellaneous widgets that they’ve put on their computer.

The final type I’ll refer to as the “Todd” type. Todd-types are the IT department’s nightmare. Todd-types, in fact, account for 99% of the aggravations that sparked my response to Farhad Manjoo’s column (hey, I warned you; we IT-types are anti-stupidity) earlier. The problem with Todd-types is that they are the portion of the world who overestimate their own competence. They believe (for example) that because they managed to plug in their DSL modem in at home and get their computer plugged in, they are competent to build and maintain a 500-machine network, or that because they managed to install “free” software package X at home, it should be used by everyone in the company (setting aside all questions of the legality, licensing, and security questions of doing so). Worse yet, when they encounter an issue, they don’t check in with us first. Instead, they flail around, delete this, rename that, alter this setting, alter that setting, and instead of coming in to implement a simple fix based on a known error code, we are then forced to work backwards through all the other things they messed up along the way. Todd-types are the type who jam in print cartridges without removing the packaging tabs or “rip-cord” tab first, damaging printers/copiers in the process. They try to remove a paper jam by hand the wrong way, turning a simple removal process into a 4-hour process of taking the printer half apart to get to the one scrap of paper still covering the jam sensor. They see an “error” and download a “driver search” package infested with malicious software. In short, Todd-types are the reason that many companies lock down computers and take “admin” (software installation) permissions away from most users in the first place.

Now, looking back above, what’s the difference between the Will/Joel and the Carol/Todd types? I’ll take them in sequence.

– IT wants to help me. Both the Will-types and the Joel-types recognize that IT wants to help them. IT wants them to be able to do their jobs well. When Will-types feel that IT is taking things away, it’s probably helpful to remind the Will-types that for every Will in an organization, there’s probably an even dozen Carol/Todds, and upper managment freaks out when they see “problems” like that (for example, when “Carol” screams bloody murder and IT’s only defense is to give the now-screaming VP a list of all the extraneous crap loaded to Carol’s computer or else see themselves subjected to the VP’s wrath).

– I should keep an open mind. Again, Will-types and Joel-types do this. When IT tells Will that they may not be able to be there instantaneously, or that they may need to do some research on a fix, Will knows they’re right – hell, he’s already been researching it himself. When IT tells the Joel-types that they would like to schedule ~30 minutes (5 to fix it, 25 to train Joel to better use the application), he gets it. Meanwhile, the Todd-types lie about their thrashing (lest IT twig them for what they did and start proceedings to restrict their access to prevent future damage) and then complain that IT didn’t “completely fix” their issue, and the Carol-types are just downright uncooperative from the start.

And, of course… the Carol and Todd-types are also the most likely reason your IT guys don’t go to the company picnic.

Category: Office, Server Room

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