IT ought to be simple, says Dan Tienes, author of a book of the same name. Dan is fed up with the haughty attitude of IT workers. Something is wrong, argues Dan, when IT is the only field that can get away with insulting its clients.
Is there an attitude problem in IT? Do we IT workers view ourselves as demigogues, sneering from atop our technical towers at the ignorant sods in the wretched village below?
In some ways, IT workers are condescending. Now, a professional won't let his users or clients see his disdain, any more than a doctor would insult a patient to his face -- and yes, doctors do insult their patients behind their backs, despite that Tienes claims
there's only one other career I know of where blatantly insulting your customers is acceptable, and that's stand-up comic.
Regardless of Dan's delusions, IT workers do have a more visible attitude. But our jobs are also unique among most when it comes to how we are viewed and treated by the clients, and that's something that needs to be addressed equally.
Imagine going to a car dealership. The salesman gives you his pitch, you pick out a car, you ask a couple of questions, and in the end you sign the paperwork and hand over your down payment. "Congratulations," says the salesman, handing you the keys. "I know you'll enjoy this car very much."
"That's great," you tell him. "Now, can you teach me how to drive?"
Doesn't make much sense, does it? No matter your protestations of how you're "not really a car person", and how cars are such complicated machines, there is no way the salesman is going to teach you how to drive. Nor will the owner of the dealership pay attention to your angry letters about how you were sold something for which you need help and nobody is helping. Such an expectation would rightly be viewed as ridiculous.
Indeed, car ownership and operation is highly complex. There are thousands of little laws and rules you must know, paperwork and tags and licenses to maintain, and if you want the thing to actually run, you have to put gas in it, change the oil regularly, keep the tires inflated, wash the exterior to prevent rust, get scheduled maintanance, watch for road hazards, pay attention to what the other dozens of cars around you are doing...it never ends. It doesn't help that every car is a little bit different: some have the gearshift between the driver and passenger seat, while others place it on the steering column. The environmental controls are always in different places and some are operated by knobs, others by levers. Same goes for the windshield wipers, radio, seat adjustments, and so on.
Yet most people learn how to do all of this to the point where it is second nature. And they can even get into a car they've never driven before, and within only a few seconds, they can quickly determine how to put it into gear, turn on the AC, crank up the radio, and zoom away.
These same people, who took the time to learn about owning and operating a car, and would never think of asking their mechanic to teach them how to drive, pull a complete one-eighty when it comes to computers. Suddenly it's not worth their time to learn anything about the machine. It's too complicated. They're too important and busy to think about it or learn anything about it, and why should they, when IT is just a phone call away? After all, it's unimportant that computers are absolutely critical to the business world today, and those who can't use them aren't going to be able to do their job, right? It's okay that you're "not a computer person". Just let IT handle it.
And so the IT staff, the technicians, the help desk, all of them, regularly receive demands from users, patiently explaining simple concepts over and over (often to the same people), repairing problems the user caused themselves (often repeatedly), educating people on basic operation. Things that would never be expected from any other profession.
That's one reason IT workers are so disgruntled. After educating ourselves on highly technical and complicated operations of highly technical and complicated machines, we are like mechanics being asked to teach people how to drive.
In few other professional trades -- none that I can think of offhand, actually, but I'm making a concession for ones I haven't thought of -- is the customer base as openly hostile and dismissive of the people doing the work. A computer fails to connect to a file server. It worked yesterday, what's the problem? IT is always doing this. Word spreads that IT screwed up again. Someone else offers that Outlook isn't working, they've been waiting for an email for an hour and it hasn't come in yet. Don't any of these damn technicians know what they're doing? This is ridiculous, we can't work like this. On and on and on.
Most of the problems users experience are actually caused by users -- either failing to learn anything about these multi-thousand-dollar machines they've used eight hours a day, five days a week, for the past ten years. Or by deliberately fiddling with hardware or software settings they don't understand. Documentation was available but they didn't want to read it, it seemed faster to just scream for help. Something stopped working after they did X, but they never figure out that undoing X might make it right again. No. It's all IT's fault. Someone call technical support. Those damn snotty techs, why can't they make this simple?
Is there any other profession where highly-trained, knowledgable people, who have spent years on becoming educated in their field, are expected to do this sort of thing? Would you go to the doctor to put a band-aid on a paper cut, or ask why it hurts when you drop things on your foot?
And we, the IT workers, dutifully fix the problem. To figure out what happened we sometimes have to ask what the user did.
We're lied to: "I didn't touch it, it just stopped working," despite that log files say otherwise. If the problem was caused by the user, we try to educate, explain what happened, and how to avoid having it happen again. "I don't care," we're told, "I just want it to work, can you fix it or what?"
Shortly thereafter the user breaks something else, or complains about the same problem after being told why it's happening. Dammit all, those stupid techs can't just fix it the first time!
Can you imagine taking your car to the mechanic and telling him "It's broken"? The mechanic asks for specifics: What's broken? It won't start at all, the steering is loose, the brakes make noise, the windows won't roll down, the engine stalls, what? When did it start? How often does it happen, and under what conditions? You shrug and say you don't know, you're not a car person, just fix it, please. And despite the very obvious body damage indicating you recently rammed into something, you stand in front of the mechanic and insist that you didn't do anything. The car just "broke" by itself.
How long do you think the mechanic would put up with this? A few minutes at the outside, I'd wager, until he asked you to leave the shop at best, or agreed to fix your car and charged you $900 for a new "johnson rod" at worst.
And when the mechanic explains that he'll need to disassemble the exhaust manifold and install a new gasket which has to be ordered from the warehouse because none are in stock, and it'll take two days -- do you accuse him of being an idiot, or repeat seven times that you really, really need your car? Maybe if he knows it's really, really important to you, he can wave his secret Mechanic Magic Wand and fix it in an hour, eh?
All the insults, blaming, finger-pointing, and eye-rolling I've just discussed would never be tolerated by any other professional. Yet IT workers are expected to be patient with this exact same behavior from users. And to be honest, it wears thin very quickly, and gets expressed in our attitudes. We are, after all, only human.
When a user calls me for the fifth time in a week to complain about a problem I've already fixed five times, I don't email him to explain what a nuisance he is, how he's keeping me from more important work, and CC his boss and the VP of his department while I'm at it. But if I don't leap the second a user gripes about the problem, there's a good chance I can expect an obnoxious, insulting email...and a CC to my boss and the VP of my company. Thanks for that. Is it any wonder I'm a bit snarky after that?
No, I'm just another damn IT worker who can't fix the problem, right?
Not to say that other jobs aren't thankless. But computers are unique among most things, especially in the business world, insofar as virtually everyone has to use one in order to do their job. In today's workplace, not knowing how to use computers is akin to not knowing how to make a photocopy, or use a phone.
If you're a business owner and you want your your technicians, your help desk minions, your network admins, your technical support guys, and all your other IT staff, to work well with your employees, and vice versa, then I have some questions for you.
- Why, in the twenty first century, do you continue to hire people who are incapable of using the very standard, basic tools upon which your business relies -- tools which have been a part of the workplace for a decade or more?
- Why do you continue to pay people who are unwilling or unable to expand their skillset just a little bit? Why do you think IT should pick up their slack? Would you tolerate an employee who refuses to, or can't, learn how to use the new photocopy machine because it's not like the old one they're used to?
- Why do you think an employee who still can't find a file on their own hard drive is worth the cost in time and money of an IT worker to provide free education and tutoring?
- Why do you think an employee who can't plug their computer into the network deserves an hour of time from a highly-trained professional to explain to them that a network cable plugs into a network jack?
- Why do you tolerate employees who continue to endanger the company's data by downloading random crap which gives them viruses, system-slowing malware, or trojans that compromise security? Would you put up with an accountant who routinely leaves important financial papers lying around on restaurant tables for anyone to pick up? An HR person who, because of forgetfulness, repeatedly leaves reports on employee salaries on the wrong person's desk?
I can already predict the response to many of these questions: No, of course we wouldn't put up with such nonsense from employees, but it's the job
of the tech guys to do this stuff! That's what they're paid for!
And it's this attitude, perhaps more than any other, which fuels the bad attitude manifested by many an IT worker. No other department is expected to provide this level of support. We're required to spend an hour teaching someone how to search their own email box, but Accounting isn't expected to teach the sales managers, over and over, how to read sales reports. The Legal department isn't expected to immediately drop what they're doing to visit someone's desk and explain that disclosing confidential information is not allowed. You would never hire a salesperson who can barely read and then get the HR department to teach them -- you'd hire someone who already possessed this basic skill.
Most IT workers spend years honing their trade, learning everything they can about computers, operating systems, programming languages, networking, and all the other trappings of information technology. We go to school for specialty degrees, obtain vendor-specific certifications and training at considerable expense of time and money. In short, we make an effort to be on top of our field and stay on the edge of a rapidly changing environment, out of a passion for technology.
We are competent, qualified professionals, highly educated in our industry.
And we're asked to babysit and hand-hold people who are supposed to be educated professionals themselves. To be honest, it is insulting, as an MBA would find it insulting to have to teach remedial arithmetic to his coworkers.
Yes, some of us "computer guys" are a bit more grouchy than you think we should be. IT is a tough field, especially when you deal with end users. I think we get jaded and snotty because really, we can only listen to the whines and insults of the users for so long before it affects us -- and make no mistake, users are every bit as insulting as they think we are. The road to a harmonious tech-user relationship goes both ways, and it's time someone realized this.