% fortune -ae paul murphy

I can do it, by myself

Our little boy, now four, has a sentence he's been using quite often for about a year: "I can do it, by myself." People are like that, if you want to make a product that sells, invent a tool or a method that lets people do something by themselves that they previously couldn't.

Look through websites offering information about things like hardwood flooring and you'll see that many offer a DIY friendliness rating - that stands for Do It Yourself; a phrase and acronym nicely capturing the real appeal behind self denigrating titles like those in the Dummy's Guide series.

It also captures the appeal behind a lot of the emotional support many people still feel for the business PC. I've heard variations on this hundreds of times from department heads and others who should know better: "just give me a PC and I can do it myself" they say, desperate to set off down the path to yet another unsupported, undocumented, unuditable, cost sink that will eventually absorb some non IT, IT staffer's near full time attention.

In the long run, of course, they can't do it by themselves without first learning how - and if, or when, they eventually do that, they'll find themselves working with IT instead of trying to reinvent their own infrastructure.

In many ways, however, the power behind the cry "I can do it, by myself" both contradicts and complements the most basic of all human drives: the drive to form an "us" - to band together, enrol in a group, form a community, create or join a team. My little boy can do many things by himself, but only because his mother and I, along with, ultimately, the whole of western civilisation, make it possible.

Look at what people want to do with PCs and you'll see that same dichotomy at work: a balance between mutual dependence and stand alone action - the PC is sold as a DIY tool, but its use in business is almost always dependent on other people's software, other people's networks, other people's rules, and other people's data.

It's the same everywhere in IT: for every "army of one," there's nine or more people holding his supply line open and another four or five staffing the organization that put him in place.

Indeed it makes sense to see the business of maintaining the DIY illusion as defining the IT management job: make that service available, keep the shared nature of the resource out of user minds, and let people build shared, collaborative, communities by doing whatever their IT "it" is, "by themselves."

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.