% fortune -ae paul murphy

Second guessing at 3AM

An imaginary, but very real, diary entry:

It's 2:52 AM - and I've been wide awake all night; tossing, turning, sweating. Why? because the decision I'm planning to announce tomorrow is the right one for the company and one we'll make work - and work well. But - it goes against popular wisdom, lots of senior people are going to be sure it's wrong, some of my own staff will express doubts when I'm not there, and when I leave the company, they'll hire someone who buys executive support by sneering at our work and getting funding to reverse it.

I've been in the diarist's position - and so has every IT manager who's decided not to "buy from IBM" - or, more recently, Microsoft.

At the immediate heart of this is a fundamental conflict: a decision made for the objective benefit of the employer can carry serious personal risks - and every decison maker has to balance risks to the employer against risks to himself.

At a deeper level this is really about balancing situational ethics against the real thing - and in that context you should remember that had a moral absolutist like Churchill or Truman been in place instead of either Chamberlain or Roosevelt in the 1930s, the holocaust would probably not have happened - and neither would seven million deaths in the Ukraine.

A few thousand years ago -more or less- Horatius (along with unheralded colleagues Laritus and Herminius) saved the city of Lars Porsena from sack and ruin by blocking a bridge needed by an army of 50,000 Tuscan looters long enough for it to be destroyed - but when it comes to your career in IT management which looks more attractive: playing Horatius every single day of your working life, or hanging around with the Tuscan quarter masters and camp followers?

The bottom line is that the fear of being seen as out of step with a majority is a very important decision influencer - because, at three AM, what really counts isn't whether a million blondes can be wrong, but how much you care.

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.