% fortune -ae paul murphy

User perceptions and student jobs

If you're a manager in a mid sized or larger IT operation I have a suggestion for you: hire at least one pair of second year science or engineering students this summer whose entire job consists of going around asking users what they really want IT to do for them.

Set things up with user management so each pair spends at least three or four weeks working as, with, and for users in each area - and instead of ID cards get some smiley face campaign style buttons that say "I'm an IT Spy" (and I'm here to help) made up for them.

You'll be astonished at the results you get: viewpoints you'll never hear expressed through any formal channel, and probably a new service idea or two that you can massage a bit and act on.

I'll even venture a prediction: number one on every user wish list for data processing and/or Wintel shops is reliability - but not necessarily in the sense you and I use that term. What you'll see happen is that these kids will to be told again and again that the users just want the stuff to work - and because it seems to, they'll start out very confused about this. After a few weeks, however, most of them will redefine "works" as "works when and how we want it to" - and that's where the process starts to bypass the usual requirements and budgeting process limitations to give you clearer insights into how users see IT and what "works" really means from their perspective.

Number two will revolve on support - and, trust me, that won't mean what you think it does either - the kids will tell you what no one else will: for most users support isn't about support, it's about face time, about listening - and more often than not about IT's failure to share user business values.

Try it: it won't cost much and you'll find it worth the effort - and so will user management because nothing sharpens a user's sense of procedure more than having to explain it to a couple of smart kids.

Be aware, of course, that sometimes the magic doesn't work: value depends on your organization, on the kids, on how you handle them, and ultimately therefore on a whole bunch of touchy-feely people stuff that ends up different for everybody. For most people most of the time, however, what your organization gets out of this is worthwhile: new insights in IT, stronger bridges between communities - and better communications all round.

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