I’m on a mission, apparently.
The mission is to completely transform IT from a secretive cabal of techno-wizards pursuing their own ends into a collaborative business function that acts as a catalyst.
I didn’t choose it so much as it chose me, and it hasn’t been without some personal cost.
Let me explain.
I began my career as a Trainee Engineer at Vodafone Australia. I was studying Telecommunications Engineering (transferring to Computer Systems Engineering), a specialised Electrical Engineering degree, as part of a scholarship at the University of Technology, Sydney. The deal was, they’d give me $6,000 for first year (paid as a fortnightly stipend), and I’d do paid work for them in second year, gaining part of the 2 years work experience the degree required.
I hung out with nerds. We were all engineers, so we spent loads of time in the labs (mostly MUDding) and the uni bar. Sometimes we’d pull an all-nighter to finish building a real-time boiler simulator or traffic light control system (hardware and software). We kept to our own. Of the 200+ first year engineers, there were 19 women. By second year, there were about 8 left. We had a loose affinity with the CompSci folk, but there was still a gulf between us. We viewed the business students with thinly veiled contempt.
The work experience was largely scut work — writing Unix shell scripts, trying to install trunk routing software on an early version of Slackware — but it led to a full time job offer from the Unix and VMS department, from one of the best managers I’ve ever had. I swapped to part-time uni, and full time work, earning the princely sum of something like $27k. My colleagues were Unix and VMS nerds, including one woman. We were overworked and under-resourced, and struggled mightily for months to reduce the number of high severity incidents. We developed that closeness, that camaraderie, that only happens after triumph over shared-adversity.
I read Dilbert, and the Bastard Operator From Hell, and identified with the protagonist. I hung out in a.s.r. Users had no idea how computers worked, and so deserved my disdain. And yet the users I spent the most time with were engineers like myself, planning base-station deployments using GIS mapping software to ensure maximum signal coverage. I boggled at the complexity of the signal processing of the Ericsson CME-20 GSM system (now with echo-cancellers-in-pool!) and generally felt terribly junior. They weren’t on my team, but we were all in the Engineering department, so we were on the same side, in some abstract sense. I had no idea who the other sides might be, other than a vague sense that accountants were somehow involved.
And when I moved to Mayne-Nickless IT a year or two later, that same culture thrived. The suits from Melbourne made universally bad decisions, or so it seemed. We were fighting a rear-guard action to keep the machines alive and working. Mandates would descend from on-high to use bug-ridden software that “Just Worked”, yet needed constant manual interventions, often at 2am. I experienced the perverse sense of ownership, of intertwined self-worth, that comes from looking after specific systems for a time. I saw the Stockholm Syndrome-esque desire to pitch in at all hours of the day, to go the extra mile, out of some odd sense of loyalty to the team, to the machines.
Just Make Do
After I moved into consulting, I worked at many different companies, in many different places. I saw the same things, over and over. The same Us-versus-Them attitudes, unfocussed though they were. The same camaraderie of brothers-in-arms (and they were almost universally brothers), the same sense of being harried-from-without. The same sense of self-importance.
I saw the same patterns repeating, the same series of failures. Projects ran late. Systems kept breaking. Budgets were rushed, took inordinate amounts of time, and yet still the funds would not be forthcoming. If a system broke badly, The Powers That Be would be angered. Heroic efforts to get things working again would be rewarded with thanks and perhaps a gift certificate. Sometimes overtime would be paid, though always begrudgingly and through gritted teeth.
But the daily routine was that of making excuses, of making do. Budget was ‘borrowed’ from projects to fix operational issues that didn’t get funded. Again. When projects ran late and over budget, project managers would offer a myriad of excuses: increased scope, changed requirements, incompetent vendors. Always the blame would be placed external to the team. Conversely, when budget to do something wasn’t forthcoming, management would insist that we make do. Find a way. Just get it done.
I saw that IT was sick. Lacking the knowledge of how to manage a confrontation, and importantly the confidence, IT wouldn’t say No. When adequate budget wasn’t available, rather than not do a project, IT would “do the best you can” despite knowing that it wouldn’t be their best. But to accept responsibility would be damaging to their own self-esteem, so others would be blamed. Hence the whining and complaining, always about others, but with nothing much done to fix the situation.
Suggestions of “let it fail” would be met with horror. IT staff knew, and rightly so, that to let something fail would invite blame. Lacking the knowledge, ability, and confidence to deal with the fallout, confrontation would be avoided, sometimes at great personal cost. And so you would get systems held together with gaffer tape and string, needing near-continuous, manual care and feeding from dedicated worker bees. Worker bees who learned to derive their satisfaction and self-worth from keeping the systems running, from responding to that 3am phonecall while on holiday. Letting ‘their’ systems fail would be to fail themselves. And to take away this work, ultimately unproductive and pointless though it may be, would be to take away that very source of self-worth.
I came to see the Us-versus-Them attitude as indicative of resentful helplessness. IT is full of technical people who know plenty about tuning databases, but next to nothing about negotiating a deal. Training, when it infrequently occurs, is on how to drive the latest version of VMware, not on how to sell an idea. Managers are promoted from the ranks; the reward for being good at talking to Unix servers is to be responsible for talking to people. Training on technical subjects is revered, but having an MBA is viewed with (not always undeserved) suspicion.
It’s a sick system, and it’s past time to heal it.
Marketing To the Rescue?
Over the past few years, a vision of the solution has been gradually forming in my mind. In recent weeks, it has reached a point where I can articulate with some clarity what this vision looks like.
Consider any business from the outside. It consists of a variety of functions, all working together. There will be finance and accounting, to keep track of the money and fund operations. There will be operations itself, to run the business. There will be HR, to manage the people within the business. There will be R&D, to design new products. There will be management, to coordinate everything.
But what’s missing? Sales and Marketing. Marketing to find out what customers want, to design products and services accordingly, and to communicate these offers to customers. Sales to actually sell the stuff to customers so the business makes money.
Now look at the IT department in your company. In many cases, it’s a small business in its own right, and while some functions are performed by other groups within the company (accounting and HR, for example) they are still performed, just as a small business might outsource some of its functions to other companies. But of all these vital business functions, Sales and Marketing are the ones almost universally neglected by IT. They simply aren’t done.
In any other company, this would send it bankrupt in short order. IT has survived so far because of its monopoly status inside the company. Some might argue that there was no need for them. because Sales were guaranteed, and advertising wasn’t necessary.
While I would dispute these assertions, they are no longer true, if they ever were.
I am increasingly convinced that Marketing and Sales are a large part of the solution to the systemic sickness that afflicts IT. I hope to convince you in coming posts that I’m right, and how we might fix things together.
It’s an odd place to find myself, almost diametrically opposed to where I began my career. But, like myself, IT as a whole must make the same journey, and come to appreciate the value of the out-groups that it has disdained for so long.