% fortune -ae paul murphy

Drones, arrogance, and fate

One of the key problems management in the organization I've been looking at faces is that IT has retained much of the insular arrogance it inherited from its original role in Finance and is externally protected by the free movement of senior IT people between the buyer and seller communities - meaning that departmental managers seeking outside expertise get insiders because only those who have pledged unconditional allegiance to the people, technologies, and processes in place make it through the qualification screens.

One consequence of this is that the wintel youth cult is not in evidence - most of those with more than personal responsibilities along with the outsourcer's on site staff are in their forties or fifties, and even the on site juniors pretending to the help desk probably average out in the high thirties.

Another is that the people involved know that their jobs depend on community approval - meaning approval among their IT peers and seniors, not their users or departmental management. As a result the generic Wintel cultural tendency to see users as lusers gets exaggerated with many users complaining that IT people patronize them - and, in particular, that IT's tendency to do things either not at all or without explanation both expresses their contempt for users and is intended to keep those users dependent.

Sometimes the situation throws up results that almost make me feel sympathetic: for example a senior official's request for help using old Norse in his password apparently caused a major panic in IT before it was realized that a government-wide Peoplesoft standards committee could be invoked to deny the request. (In reality, they use something derived from Peoplesoft's 1998 core financials but have put so much money into customization that "recent" client-server environment updates like AL32UTF8 absolutely have to be kept outside the bubble.)

Less amusingly, ordinary users asking ordinary kinds of things face significant organizational and personal barriers to resolution. Thus a user asking for an aphabetization change on a report was directed to an authorization and approval process worthy of a decision to invade Saskatchewan; while another, who asked for connection help with the client on a Windows 7 laptop with a misconfigured firewall, was treated to visible disbelief and public contempt before repetition coupled with repeated appeals to higher authority led IT to re-install the core Windows OS and authorized applications.

Now, it's pretty obvious what this organization has to do - but because I don't believe it will happen any time soon, and certainly not with the current players in place, my view is that the top people should just out-source the whole mess and then start rebuilding internal IT on a more user oriented basis as opportunities to do that come up.

But the experience raises, I think a more general question: since people who really are competent and enthused about their jobs tend not to be arrogant about it, and yet Wintel help desk people generally look down on "lusers", it follows that there's something about the job that either selects for pretenders or imposes a significant moral hazard on otherwise decent people.

I don't know what that is, and certainly the DP influence on Wintel management has a significant role here; but in watching some of these guys do help demonstrations by clicking through screens like a ten year old setting up to play Raymond's Raving Rabbits - thus leaving users no opportunity to orient themselves to any of it - I begin to wonder: is it possible that Wintel technology itself has evolved to be far too much like a poorly thought through video game and not enough like a knowledge based enterprise?

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.