Talkback of the day: Propeller heads unite

My post on IT whining got some well-thought out feedback. I was going to synthesize the talkbacks as a followup, but frankly this one from "Bitboy" says it all.

My post on IT whining got some well-thought out feedback. I was going to synthesize the talkbacks as a followup, but frankly this one from "Bitboy" says it all. Actually it's a post all by itself about the challenges of being an IT pro (the consensus was that there's plenty to whine about):

IT, much like Quality or ESH, adds value in an indirect, cross-functional way. IT is the BASF of an organization -- we don't do what you do, we help you do it better. IT's products are designed to make other folks look good. In a lot of ways, it really is a thankless job because its efforts are often obscured by the lack of visibility and the complexity of the systems under discussion.

It's the triple whammy of large-scale technology deployment, frequent face-to-face contact with internal and external customers, and an unparalleled lack of understanding or commitment on the part of management. IT has the uptime requirements of the electric or phone company coupled with a constant barrage of customer interaction hungry for new features or peddling for favors to change system characteristics for a particular population. IT is frequently seen as a cost center instead of a potential source of profit, and management teams rarely consider the IT ramifications of their decisions in concept development or planning stages.

Gray's assessment of IT is as bland as his website, full of corporate-speak and devoid of value where the rubber meets the road. Guys like him like to cozy up to sales folks and talk about how those technobabbling propeller-heads like to make every problem 10 times harder than it really is.

I've lived in these trenches for 20 years in corporate IT -- as a consultant, as a field engineer, as an IT exec -- and seen a lot of crap come and go. If you want real advice, try these on.

(1) Yes, there are lots of thankless aspects to IT. The thing to do is differentiate between the stuff that matters to your customers and the stuff that is expected. You will need to manage their expectations, in whatever form the organization will allow.

The stuff that matters is what will keep your job. The other stuff should be handled on a commodity basis. Of course, there are exceptions -- however, many IT people get mired in what's expected because of the technical challenge, and never get to fulfill the real value-added stuff for which they are uniquely qualified. To management, who sees all of IT as a cavernous black box, the nuances of technical this or that are not as appealing. Unless IT shows it has a unique contribution, management will deal with IT as a commodity...all else equal, to find the least cost alternative.

(2) Sometimes the geek gods will smile on you, sometimes not. Part of being in IT is taking crap for things you had no part in creating. You need to be thick-skinned enough to redirect the conversation back to the things that add value to the organization.

(3) Technology people in general are often accused of being soft and unable to boil down complexity for the average person. People who do not understand a concept tend to dismiss it, deride it, then fight it wholesale before embracing it. As Gandhi said -- first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

This only works if your argument is sound and if you are persistent. Defend your proposals on sound business principles, good technical foundations, and the most simple language possible given the venue. Analogies to everyday things (cars to explain usability, houses to explain architecture and infrastructure, plumbing to explain networking... etc) are vital tools in your arsenal.

Above all, stay positive. The mind only recognizes positive things.

(4) People are sick of talking about "alignment" because the word has become so badly abused by the clueless that it has no meaning. Don't talk about alignment. Don't talk about "synergy" either. Strip the jargon out of the conversation, and talk in human terms. If you can't relate IT to everyday things, the material is unreachable to the people who need to understand it the most.

You can talk about alignment by talking about business strategy, product strategy, business cycles, project costs, employee satisfaction, product quality, time to market, and similar non-geek terms.

(5) There are three types of unsatisfied IT people: (a) those who feel unappreciated; (b) those who feel unchallenged.

People who feel unappreciated experience a gap between their perceived contribution to the organization and the perceived response of the organization to their contribution. Lots of room for misunderstanding, lots of room for improvement.

People who feel unchallenged have a disconnect between how much their contributions are self-enriching and how much they enrich the organization.

Good IT work is about doing challenging stuff which adds value to the company, is appropriately recognized and part of a larger overall plan. Unfortunately, many management teams don't know what to do with IT as a resource and many IT people don't know how to see their craft in terms of a real benefit to the organization.

In this equation, since IT has no line authority of its own and makes no products for sale (typically), it is inevitable that it cannot win a toe-to-toe battle with the suits in the C-suite.

And that is why IT people whine.