Commentary

IT People: A Call For Compassion

Imagine for a moment that you are a magician. You have worked hard to become an expert in your craft: making bunnies disappear, sawing ladies in half, reaching your hand through a glass display case to grab a watch.

People are awed by your performances. They have no idea how you do it. They want more. Thinking you are capable of anything, they start making unreasonable requests: Walk on water! Through a brick wall! Jump out of a plane with no parachute!

You begin to resist. Just because you can levitate a few inches doesn’t mean you can fly. But your fans don’t understand this. They start to become angry with you. They accuse you of intransigence, of unreasonableness, of saying no to every simple request. To them it seems obvious that you should be capable of these feats. After all, you work magic. That’s your job, right?

This is the challenge faced by IT people every day. We see them work magic: You completely changed the home page overnight! It only took you an hour to add a shopping cart! -- and we think that magic should extend to all technical requests.

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We clients aren’t generally skilled enough in the work done by tech professionals to be able to distinguish between the feasible and the unattainable. And that fact would be okay, if we recognized it. But we often don’t. When they push back, we think it’s because they don’t want to be helpful, rather than wondering about the reasonableness of the request in the first place. We think their refusal to be helpful is because IT people are generally ornery, without wondering how we would feel if people demanded the impossible from us every day and then became angry when we were unable to deliver.

This is why, as my friend Ben Kepes puts it, the IT department is often considered the “Department of No.” His take is consistent with my own: the problem is not technological in nature, but human: “[W]e need to find another way -- a way for IT to articulate its concerns and use its technical expertise while at the same time helping the business achieve its objectives. Despite popular opinion stating otherwise, IT doesn’t fundamentally seek to block every innovation. Similarly the business doesn’t fundamentally want to bypass IT and deploy unsafe and non-compliant solutions. But without a common lingua franca -- this is often the baseline for IT/business interactions.”

A common lingua franca -- this is the core of the issue. We need to stop thinking of IT people as magicians and start thinking of them as colleagues with a common objective who are conscious of limitations that the rest of us don’t see. We need to pull back the curtain and stop imagining that what happens in the black box is infinitely possible simply because we don’t understand it. We need to listen better, problem-solve better, seek greater understanding.

Every magic trick can be explained. It’s time to stop expecting our IT folks to perform miracles and instead appreciate the nature of their skills.

4 comments about "IT People: A Call For Compassion".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, November 1, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.
  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, November 1, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.

    More serious point: last time IT folks were being called "Magicians" was at the height of the dotCOM bubble, just before the crash. Happy days. If people you know are really thinking this, then it may be a good leading indicator.

  3. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, November 1, 2013 at 5:56 p.m.

    I've been following the IT world as a journalist & industry analyst since PCs were a renegade technology slipping in the back door disguised on the books as "office supplies." The big irony for IT pros is that their performance is directly correlated with their invisibility. When you can take technology for granted, that is when it is really working. You only notice the efforts of IT when things aren't working well. Perhaps a bigger challenge for IT pros today is the way technology is getting integrated into the fabric of business, and into our very environment (ambient tech). IT can no longer operate as a service to the enterprise, which it has traditionally been. IT pros need a different mindset and a whole dimension of business and people skills. Thanks for the post & comments!

  4. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, November 3, 2013 at 4:36 p.m.

    Thanks, guys! @Pete, I've never seen that show -- looks hilarious!

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