Being IT in a company has a unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest advantage is the sense of freedom you get from being in a support role. When you work IT, you’re not confined to one particular location in the company. You’re not always in the marketing room all day, or always in the merchandising room. You can move about the building and be everywhere and never be out of place. It sometimes feels as if normal restrictions are a little more loose for you. Since you’re support for the various structures of the company you can move around outside of those structures.

One of the downsides to this freedom is the lack of clear management structure with people not in IT. When you’re outside the system, so to speak, the average employee doesn’t know if you’re someone above them or below them in the business hierarchy. I’ve come across many users who, when presented with this ambiguity, take the default position of you being beneath them.

It’s also often that people view you as not part of the essential business structure. I think this view comes most from people who are involved in pushing whatever the company is selling. The way they see it, they make the sales and so without them the company wouldn’t exist and you wouldn’t be here; so naturally they’re more important than you. What they fail to realize is that without their IT infrastructure, they wouldn’t be able to sell in the first place, so it’s actually a necessary codependent relationship.

This attitude comes across most in the view that the IT guy is a glorified “digital janitor.” The normal janitor takes care of the toilets and the IT janitor takes care of the computers. It doesn’t matter that the IT guy has a set of valuable and hard learned skills, or can often be making more money than the condescending employee sitting at their desk annoyed at the IT guy that something isn’t working to their expectations. People have a mental image of a socially inept nerdy guy with poor hygiene crawling under desks to plug in cables. I try to avoid this as much as possible. (Well except the nerdy part and the crawling under desks. Sometimes idiots pull out cables and I’m forced to fix them. Apparently a lot more people are incapable of completing the pre-school puzzle of round peg in round hole, square block in square hole)

One of the most frustrating thing you will come across as an IT guy is when an employee (or a user as we like to call them) comes up to you while you’re in the middle of something and asks you to “just come take a look at this real quick.” This might sound innocent and friendly enough, but it leads down a very very bad path for the IT guy and the company as a whole. Since our work doesn’t often look like everyone else’s work, it’s easy to make the mistake that we’re not busy. IT is sometimes a very mental intensive job as you’re trying to think through technical problems and diagnose why something is broken. Coming up to us and interrupting us in the middle of doing this is really counterproductive. However, interruptions aren’t the worst problem with just coming up and asking for help.

As an IT guy you will often have several projects or issues you’re working on at once, especially if you’re the only IT guy, which is often the case in many understaffed environments. Keeping track of all the projects you have going is critical to completing them. Furthermore, it is often the primary way your employers measure your workload. If someone comes up to you and asks you to help them without putting in a ticket, there is not only zero ways to keep track of their request to make sure it isn’t forgotten, you have no way of measuring how much effort it took you, let alone if it was completed. But perhaps most important: without tickets you also have no way of prioritizing work.

It may feel simple enough to the person having an issue. It’s affecting them and so they get up to find the IT guy to help them. They aren’t aware of anyone else’s problems, only their own. Responding to a request for help with “put in a ticket” might sound cold and bureaucratic, but it’s the only way to protect the person trying to help you. The IT guy that goes down this path of taking requests from users without having them log tickets first is fucked. He’ll be torn apart by requests for help like lions tearing apart a gazelle.

Imagine it for a moment: You’re at your desk working on something, then someone comes in and asks you for help. You follow them back to their desk and begin to help them. Other people see you and use this opportunity to try and get you to fix any issues they’re having too. Before you know what happened, you have 4 or 5 people all pulling your attention in different directions, all with requests that they view as simple but important. You spend all day running back and forth, exhausting yourself, being inefficient, and never have any proof past a few eye witnesses that you were working that day. You can’t prioritize work and you can’t document it to make troubleshooting future problems more simple.

Closely related to the issue of users coming up to you and asking for help without a ticket is the issue of people expecting you to be a wizard. It’s often that people will say things like “Oh my god you’re magic!” or “You’re a wizard!” As flattering as that might be at times, it contributes to a very unhealthy view of technology related issues and the people who work on them.

It’s not magic, it’s science. As much of an art as it might seem to lay people, the computer does exactly what you tell it to do. If something doesn’t work it is because a very specific step failed along the process of doing what you asked it to do. There is very much this attitude that the computer is magic and the IT guy is a magician who should know everything about magic. The quicker the IT guy can work his magic, the better a magician he is!

This attitude is both extremely ignorant and infuriating. It perpetuates this idea that all things technology are outside the realm of normal people, which is dangerous in a society increasingly dependent on that technology. It also belittles all the hard work and effort that went into obtaining that IT skill-set. The idea of being a powerful technological gatekeeper might sound fun, and is in fact why a lot of people gravitate towards working in technology, but it quickly becomes tiring when people who have no idea how something works (nor care to know) expect you to just “fix it.” They’re the sheep and are helpless the first time something goes wrong. It’s funny how they look down upon you when they depend on you for their survival.

IT is also an extremely varied field. The analogy I always use is medicine because people seem to understand that different specialities exist within medicine in a way they don’t seem to grasp with IT. Within IT there is desktop support (with Linux, Mac, and PC branches within that), Network Engineering (with Cisco, Juniper, Avaya, etc… branches within that), Security (Network security, software security, etc…), Databases, Virtualization, Programming, QAing, Web development, VoIP, Wireless,  and so on and so on. Every one of these branches has even more branches beyond that. It is possible to become very specialized in a specific field and not know anything else about another field. That’s the side effect of expertise: specialization to the point of exclusion of other knowledge. To the lay person, however, it’s all magic and so there is no differentiating between one field of technology and another.

A lot of people I’ve come across in my still relatively young career as an IT guy have shown this attitude of wanting a “guru” and not a troubleshooter. A “guru” just seems to “know” the answer to the problem and effortlessly fix it. This sounds great in the short term, but realistically you can’t expect gurus to know much outside of the very specific thing they’re gurus at. Troubleshooters make much better IT people. They might not know the answer immediately, but they have the tools and the ability to figure it out. What makes them superior to gurus is that they can apply these skills to a much wider variety of issues. (But again, here the troubleshooter falls prey to the normal user’s expectations of gurus and wizardry and thus an efficient troubleshooter can be underrated by a user who has unrealistic expectations)

I once read the book “The phoenix project“. It’s a novel about IT and running a struggling IT department in a company dependent on IT. It might sound boring, but it’s really fascinating. At one point in the book there is a crisis. Something’s broken with the company’s website and cash registers on a big day of a product release and pandemonium breaks lose among the company executives. The CIO (Chief Information Officer) was managing the situation until the CEO came in and took over. The CEO’s expectations of what IT work was were completely wrong. To him, IT work being done should look like a lot of very stressed people in a room quickly mashing on keyboards. He didn’t see that with what the CIO was doing and so he ordered every IT person in the company in to start working on the problem. The result was a disaster. There was no coordination, an immense amount of wasted effort, and the issue took a lot longer to resolve than it would have if the CEO let the CIO work.

I think a lot of the problems IT has are related to expectation management with the users. People who know nothing about technology have the wrong expectations of what IT work looks like, how long it takes, and what is actually the best way to go about it. These same people often have an apathy bordering on disdain for IT. I could try to explain all this to them, but by the time I’ve started talking, they’ve already made up their minds about me and tuned me out. It’s infuriating and I hope they die first in the coming robot apocalypse.

(That was a joke…kind of.)

Though seriously, I think dealing with people like that are perhaps the one thing that will cause me to burn out faster than anything. I’m hoping to further specialize to the point where the systems I manage don’t require me to interact with non-technical people with that attitude.

(On the flip side, if you’re nice and courteous to me, and don’t treat me as a janitor, I will happily go the extra mile and stay late just to make your life a little easier.)