% fortune -ae paul murphy

Report on Christmas

Christmas at home: minus 30 outside, wind chills pushing things into the minus forties, a little bit of snow almost every day - and our beautiful house filled with the warm glow from family and fireplace.

And not a single thought about IT.

Or, at least, almost none - on the day before Christmas my network connection via Shaw cable slowed to the point that it took eight minutes to the load the google home page and the idiot I spoke to at Shaw's support center kept insisting the PC had to be directly connected to the modem even after being repeatedly told we don't have one.

In contrast my faith in technology got boosted when the 80+ ancient Scottish lady I'm marginally related to wanted to visit little sister in Portland and had me drive her to Shelby (Montana) to catch the Amtrak "Empirebuilder". On that particular day it ran around minus 26 here, the wind was gusting into the low twenties, we were getting mountain style snow showers, and the train left Chicago a couple of hours late.

Sounds horrible doesn't it? but in the end none of it really mattered: Amtrak's web based train tracking allowed us to leave here in time to be only a bit early to meet the train in Shelby (it left there about nine hours late) and the combination of ice extreme tires with all wheel drive, fancy headlights, and Volvo reliability meant that road conditions I'd have refused to attempt in the 1990s weren't even a challenge - cruise control at the posted limit in both directions.

What was instructive about that, however, was that it took a couple of days before I realized just how big the IT role was in making that drive seem simple and unthreatening - everything from tread design worked out on computers somewhere long ago and far from here to the couple of lineal feet it took the car's embedded processors (at about 65MPH) to compute and apply corrections for events like hitting drifted snow that's seriously deeper at the left front than the right, worked exactly as planned.

Many years ago I drove a 1981 GLT down a long, steep, decline onto a narrow bridge under broadly similar snow, wind, light, and temperature conditions not knowing that a previous accident had left plywood where bridge railing should be and a large snow drift had formed in its lee. That car had Volvo's "snow handling package" - aka a large skid plate- and because I didn't see the drift (and couldn't have braked going down the hill anyway) we enjoyed the "vomit comet" experience without the benefit of an airplane before getting to dig our way out.

Today, braking on the downhill wouldn't even be risky, the drift would show up clearly in the headlights, and the car would just power right on through it.

As I've said a few times before: when IT frustrates -when you have to deal with "support"- it fails; but when IT succeeds it becomes invisible, just part of something bigger that works.

And so here's my Christmas thought for 2008: if we want to be happier at our jobs, maybe we ought to first get better at them, and then work to redesign our role in organizations to be more like the IT embedded in a car: invisible, effective, and integral to the whole.

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.