Emerging Tech

Make or break: The IT professional's attitude


"The people in the IT department make me feel stupid."  As an IT leader, how many times have you heard similar phrases uttered by your end users?  Now, looking into your department, how many opportunites have you or your staff members given end users to formulate this opinion about your group?  Think about the following:

  •  In IT staff meetings, how often do you use the words "stupid" or "idiot" with regard to an end user who had a particular problem?
  • When sending out notices to your users, how often have you simply sent a message without translating it from technobabble to English (or your users' native language, of course)?
  • In meetings with people from outside the IT department, how often do you use technobabble rather than a language understandable to your audience?

Now, I'll be the first one to admit that I get frustrated sometimes by the things that people do.  And, I will also admit that, earlier on in my career, I didn't always make the right choice with regard to describing end-user situations.  But, it's IT's (along with the tech industry as a whole) general attitude regarding users that damages our reputation and makes us a group to be avoided, instead of invited to help make things better.

"Stupid" Users

Here's a timely example of what I'm talking about.  A message from a significant industry publication with the following subject line just hit my inbox 10 minutes ago:  "Dumb users strain security efforts."  In the linked article, there is the following text: "You're only as secure as your most idiotic end user."  In the article, a security industry analyst indicates that "people are just going to be stupid" in his explanation of why enhanced end-user security education is not worth the effort.

To be fair, I completely understand the point of the article and even agree with everything they're saying!  End users have been, and continue to be, the most significant weak link when it comes to security efforts.  However, in most cases, end-users are neither dumb nor are they stupid.  They may be misinformed.  They may not have an appreciation or understanding of the significant problems created by their actions.

Now, some of you may think I'm playing semantics here and, to a point, I am.  But, I believe that these kinds of descriptions of end users and their behaviors are extraordinarily detrimental to the overall operation of the IT organization.  Every time someone we support hears, either from us or one of our industry groups, that end users are stupid, dumb or idiotic, the perception of IT arrogance is perpetuated.

And, think about what you're saying.  Are your users really stupid?  Take your CFO, or the person that does accounts payable/payroll or, in the case of my organization, the people teaching physics, chemistry or biology.  If these people don't have a high level of technical ability, are they really stupid?  No... they simply have a different skill set.  It's extremely important to make that distinction.  Could you do their job?  No?  Does that make you stupid, too?

Of course, these days, almost everyone needs at least some level of proficiency with technology, but before you utter the word "stupid" or something similar, think about things from their perspective, too.

Technobabble

"Last night, we rerouted the IP network around the problem, resulting in an output increase of 14,700 millicochrans."  Ok... you wouldn't really say that since it makes no sense whatsoever, right?  But, does what you're saying to your users sound pretty much like gibberish?  If you're saying things like "SQL died" or "the WES module suffered a power hit" or "we had a routing loop because some idiot plugged in a Linksys" then you are spouting gibberish to most people!  And, of course, you used the word idiot.

I wrote in my previous posting about the great need for IT pros to learn to communicate effectively.  This doesn't just mean "send out more emails."  It means that IT pros, from the CIO to the student intern, need to learn to write and speak using language that makes sense to people without being condescending.  And, it is possible and really not that hard to do!  As you're sending a message out regarding an upgrade, look at it and ask yourself, "What is xxx going to think when he reads this message?"  If your answer is "he'll have no idea what this means" then it's time to rewrite either the whole mesage or portions thereof.

Failing in basic communication (remember, the word communication implies an understanding about the message) results in a failure for the whole group.  When reasonable people in your organization simply don't understand what's being said by the IT group, there is a lack of trust and alignment taking place, meaning that the IT group is not being used to its fullest.  And, it also helps to perpetuate the myth that the IT pro is some kind of arrogant, out of touch person.

What to do

Here are some steps I recommend for every IT leader:

  • Ban the use of negative words and phrases regarding end users, at least in a public forum such as a staff meeting.  In private, you sometimes have to let people vent, but in private, someone's emotions aren't necessarily poisioning the rest of the group.
  • If you aren't a good writer or speaker, become one!  Get a book on the subject, take a class, get a coach, join ToastMasters, whatever it takes for you, the IT leader, to be able to effectively communicate complex problems and solutions to the rest of the organization.
  • Insist that your staff treat end-users with respect, not condescendence.  I didn't talk a lot about mistreatment of end users, but I do, from time to time, get complaints from end users indicating that they might have had a negative encounter with one of my staff.  Get both sides of the story, of course, but don't tolerate an attitude of condescendence toward end users.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

35 comments
cquirke
cquirke

When users are "stupid", the underlying cause is usually an OS design that suffers a wide safety gap, i.e. the distance from what you need to know to use the system, to what you need to know to use the system safely. For example: Users may easily grasp the difference between "run a program" and "read a data file", and that difference is crucial if one is to safely interact with strangers, as is typical of Internet usage. So the safety gap is between knowing how to use a file and knowing whether the file is "safe data" or "dangerous program code". Windows dumbs down the process to "open", which totally obscures the difference between "reading data" and "running code". At the other end of the safety gap is the knowledge required to interpret the UI cues that indicate whether a file is "data" or "code"; icons that are content-spoofable, file name extensions that are hidden by duhfault, the long list of different extensions, and an OS that may disregard the type info presented to you via the UI, "opening" the file based on hidden embedded info instead. Yes, I know code bugs allow data types to be exploited to run raw code, but it would be nice if the system wasn't brain-dead at the design stage! On "technobabble": jargon is either reductive or puffary. An example of "puffery" from a community medicine lecture is "multiple causation factors" vs. "many causes". An example of reductive jargon is SMTP for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. Most IT jargon is reductive, as expanding a typical technical text will illustrate. Terms are often used to identify specific things that are not easily reduced to "normal" language; e.g. "incoming mail server" isn't an acceptable substitute for "POP3 server" if what you are saying is specific to POP3 and does not apply to IMAP, etc. My own approach is to give full info concisely, with links that go to sidebars etc. that expand to the detail the user may require. Real-world analogies help, too; some are already built in to technobabble, such as "file", "folder" and "desktop" metaphors, and it may be helpful to add your own.

nmprodan
nmprodan

This is part rant, but actually has a point. I've never had a problem with people not knowing something, or doing something wrong due to ignorance. What bothers me is when users persistently call because they continue to make the same mistake. Using a computer is part of their job and they should be proficient at it in regard to their jobs. These users use technology as a scapegoat for their own stupidity. I use stupidity in the proper context, because the user has been repeatedly informed as to how to use a program, etc. Ignorance is excusable in most cases, as stupidity is not. However, the people that refuse to learn how to do their jobs with computers don't get fired. That is one reason America is falling behind the rest of the world. The rest of the world continues to employ advances in technology into their "skill set" while America continues to use technology as a scapegoat to keep sub-par employees who refuse to keep up with advancing production through technological advances.

Andrew.Hall
Andrew.Hall

It's not the end-users in general that I think are completly stupid, there are just a hand full of end-users that constantly bug me. "I need this" "I need that" "This doesn't work" "It was working a minute ago before I clicked on this link in my email"

waite.alexander
waite.alexander

The way I've always looked at it where I work is that a user, for example, can take one look at a part for a jet engine and tell you the flaw in it, while I can take one look at your computer and tell you its needs to be restarted. This mindset seems to work very well, all I know about a jet engine is that it moves. fast. :)

jedmundson
jedmundson

Absolutely! I got into the IT field many years ago while I was a Navy Dental Corpsman. My Dental training stressed that 50% of one's quality of treatment was done in the initial contact. If you answer the phone with "Yea, what-d-ya want?" you'll have an dissatisfied customer, no matter how good the care is. Take the one second to smile before you pick up the receiver and your customer will submit your name for sainthood, no matter how bad your work is.

nmaze
nmaze

I absolutely agree! I'm a teacher/trainer and when IT talks condescendingly about users, I cringe. When you think a person is "stupid," "dumb," etc., you may not say it aloud but it comes out in your attitude toward the person. Recently, our IT group went around with brown bag presentations telling people they were going to "lock down" our PCs and they said it with glee in their voices. "Lock down" to most people connotes punishment of some kind. When I tried to bring that to their attention, I just got "pooh poohed." If you think about other people with respect, it will show up in your treatment and attitude toward them. Yes, I have funny stories about learners too but the bottom line is we are all learning.

mario_silvio_hotmail.com
mario_silvio_hotmail.com

The guy gets into the brain shop and see a poster: pound of brain programmer's $1000 DBA's $1200 sw analyst's $1500 end user's $10000 Finding it strange he address the attendant: Why is it that the end user's brain cost so much more? The reply was: - Do you have any idea on how many end users do we have to collect in order to get a pound of brain?

Fatboy0341
Fatboy0341

I agree on the general basis of the article...but it's not that black and white. Sure - some users are misinformed - but many of them are lazy and regardless of how many times you try to share information or educate them on the BASICS - they ignore you. They would rather pick up the phone and just "let IT deal with it". I agree that we should never publicly use negative words to describe any of the people we support. But behind closed doors? I'm going to be as honest and realistic as I possibly can as far as the community I support. If I have a user who repeatedly exhibits the same behaviour even after having things explained to them or repeatedly violates policies and procedures put in place - then they ARE stupid, idiotic and a menace to the network. The repeated time spent by my staff to fix the same or easily avoided problems takes their time away from more impoirtant tasks and if you want to crunch the numbers - that costs the company in the end. I'm all for making sure we act professionally and treat everyone with respect but will never sugar-coat the truth when dealing with lazy people who in the year 2008 can't grasp the most basic and fundamental aspects of their job responsibilities and standard corporate policies and procedures. That's my 2 cents...flame away.

steve
steve

I agree. To many IT people are way to arrogent for their own good.

eM DuBYaH
eM DuBYaH

It's just me, I don't see the point of name calling or belittling anyone be it on the job or anywhere else for that matter. I've learned that it is wise to develop relationships, make allies. Just a little oil in the gears makes the machine run better. Just yesterday I had an enduser known to have an attitude. I quickly & professionally solved their problem, and today, I get the kudos of an attaboy email sent off to the bigwigs in the building. No name calling, no belittling, just do my job, get it done and move on. The difficult enduser is now cordial / friendly towards me. Had I taken a differnt approach, things would be different.

Canuckster
Canuckster

It may not even be an end user's lack of knowledge that causes this. The problem may have a simple fix but the user knows that its IT's job to fix system issues. Even if they can fix it, they may not want to or the corporate culture may discourage them trying to repair it. Frankly, an easy fix is nicer for me then a serious issue that threatens the whole system. I would never call someone stupid because they want me to turn off the overwrite in Word. But after I help them, I just might stop and have a coffee with them to catch up on news and find out how else I can help them.

Jaqui
Jaqui

If the end users refuse to work within set policy / procedure it is partially their fault that they get negative reactions from the IT department. The policies and procedures may need to be rewritten to make them clearer for the end users, if that is the case, the end user is at fault for not ASKING about them to make sure they understand. [ Whomever wrote them is at fault for not being clear as well. ] The issues are a two way street, and both sides have blame on the bad feelings / attitudes / opinions that exist.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

We have 2 types of IT personnel where I work. The condescending buttheads and the people who make significant attempt to speak to 'non-techies' about network issues, user issues, software issues in plain English that the 'non-techies' understand. Guess who is avoided like the plague?

tomscalici
tomscalici

As an IT professional myself, I agree with what you are saying about people in the IT department calling end-users all kinds of name. It makes use (IT Pro's) look like a bunch of uneducated geeks! With respect to my clients, I get to know their computer literacy and communicate problems and solutions on a level they can understand. Using analogies usually work well. Also, some people are not as dumb as you think. This is when we become totally unprofessional. I always steer clear of making condescending comments about end-user. It's just not good for business and it make you look like an idiot.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]..."incoming mail server" isn't an acceptable substitute for "POP3 server" if what you are saying is specific to POP3 and does not apply to IMAP, etc.[/i] If you are explaining the issue to another tech, then by all means differentiate between POP3 and IMAP, but in most cases, you [u]can[/u] safely explain an email problem to the user as "there was a problem with the mail server." I use the simplest non-technical words I can when trying to explain something to users, so much so that I've seen "real" IT people cringe at my explanations. I've described a network switch as "the box that connects the network together," a router as "the box that connects you to the world," a URL as the "web page address," and the IP address as "your computer's network address." Watch the user's eyes. If they start to glaze over, reduce the terminology as much as possible to make your point.

kenm
kenm

I imagine it's time for me to move on. I have no more tolerance for users who DON'T READ instructions, who don't even TRY to solve an issue, who tell me their files JUST DISSAPEARED. If you use a computer all day, every day at work, then anyone with at least some intelligence would have at least some interest in how it works, even just a little bit. You eat every day, you learn something about cooking! I need to go sailing!

ckasper
ckasper

Years ago I once managed a developer who put an "are you sure" popup on every single text box a user was forced to enter. I asked him to put a "turn off the nag" button on the form. He wet himself with rage that I dare suggest a stupid user be allowed to do data entry without his "protection". Sure enough, the day we rolled out the new system, the phones rang. They all hated the "are you sure" nag. I had the help desk forward all requests for turning off the "nag" to his desk. I taught him a valuable lesson about "eating your own dog food" that day.

AlphaW
AlphaW

It all comes out in the attitude, so if you feel the person is stupid or difficult to work with suddenly they are! Self fulfilling prophesy. The good IT people approach every situation as a new one and do not write people off because they were difficult or "dumb" last time they had to interact with them.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I was expecting the punch line to be "Because it's never been used."

Quasar Kid
Quasar Kid

I couldn't agree more. 90% of our network problems are caused by 10% of the people. The same people call time and time again with the same "problem". Do you remember the recent Wall Street Journal article that instructed employees as to how to "get around" IT rules in the workplace? Many users may not be very technical but many will outright lie about what they did or were trying to do.

rkavanaugh
rkavanaugh

A true aspect of our industry is the relationship with users. Another recent read drew a parallel to a doctor's bedside manner. Doctors are educated in Latin and Chemical terms that can easily baffle patients. Haven't all of us encountered a doctor with knowledge but the bedside manner of a TRS80? I have family and friends in the medical field with horror stories to amuse and scare the patients of the world. Doesn't the same situation occur in IT? I have been trying - though not always with success - to remember this point.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

"You're gonna hate me" or "I did something stupid" or "It must have been my stupidity" all of the time. Normally I tell try to get at the problem regardless of any wrongdoing. And more often than not it is crappy documentation or buggy features, or just plain not intuitive. If they did something wrong (knowingly or not) I try to educate them. If it was not their 'fault' then I quickly bring it up. If it is their 'fault' I will often joke about it, and tell them not to worry (unless it was really, really bad).

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

users at my place of employment are not allowed by policy to even add their own printers to their local machine account (which oddly enough is an administrator account). We can often go for weeks unable to print in office, therefore having to bring things home to print. Not only is this personally expensive after awhile, it has the potential to cause employees to step outside of HIPAA, as we are an educational institution.

Larry the Security Guy
Larry the Security Guy

If IT is publicly calling end users names then IT is at fault for painting their own bad reputation. Users who refuse to work within policy can be dealt with individually. Policies that don't work need to be rewritten. Users who need help deserve that help without being called names. If it's too difficult for someone to deal with users who need more handholding than others, perhaps a new career is in order.

Prefbid II
Prefbid II

I've yet to see a well written policy that incorporated enough flexibility to actually get real work done. If you keep getting calls that you believe are all just a "violation of policy", then there is something wrong with the policy. It may just be unclear, but more likely it will be because the policy is getting in the way of productivity. For example. I know a lot of places that require 8 or more character passwords that must contain at least a capital and a special character and can not look even roughly like a word. Then we require them to be changed every 60 days. AND we don't maintain quite universal passwords, so the user has to change their passwords on 6 systems -- 3 of which they only log on to once a month. That is great technical policy. The fallout from it is that everyone is scared to forget their passwords -- so they write them down. Where does the real fault lie? Should we maintain a high threshold password or should we make it easier for people to remember them. Or should we put our efforts into a universal password system? Notice that none of the real solutions include "training the user" or have the user meet unrealistic password goals. The policy is not always right.

Rob M.
Rob M.

Without a doubt, treating your internal or external clients with respect is important, and I will personally bend over backwards to help a user who did, or perceives that they did, something stupid feel a little less embarrassed about a mistake. This helps ensure that they aren't going to be scared to come to you the next time something goes wrong. The next mistake may have dire business consequences if not caught early so I consider this important. Yet I still have trouble seeing some clients as anything more than idiots or morons, even if I try not to share this opinion with them. These are the individuals who go through life refusing to learn, and who furthermore will 'unlearn' anything that you ever help them with. In their mind as soon as you provide any assistance they are free to flush any knowledge and responsibility for that task.

MikeGall
MikeGall

I work at a hospital. I have not just GP's but specialists that don't know how to turn a computer on. Does that make them stupid? No, it does make my job very difficult though in the sense that some of them don't have the ability or the desire to learn computer stuff. They are busy professionals and if they require help they are quite prepared to get the services of someone else to help with what they don't know. It makes sense economically, if they are making $200/hr it really does make better sense for me to figure out the spreadsheet for them at $40/hr. Would it be nice if everyone had a passion and a knac for technology so you could show them something once and they would fix it themselves if it happens again? Sure. But then we wouldn't be professionals in demand, but easily replacable. Besides, if keeping current with tech was easy I'd be doing something else because I want a challenge.

nmaze
nmaze

Ken, LOL! Yes, I think you need to get away from that cold Vermont winter and go sailing somewhere warm. When you come back, what the users don't do won't seem so important.

nmaze
nmaze

Ken, LOL! Yes, I think you need to get away from that cold Vermont winter and go sailing somewhere warm. When you come back, what the users don't do won't seem so important.

Jaqui
Jaqui

but it is more likely that those who are getting name-called are having problems due to badly written policies, or badly explained policies, or poor training on working with the company policies and procedures. No one in todays workforce is a complete idiot about technology, those not in IT don't have the same depth on knowledge, but they'll understand more than they are often credited for. I'm not condoning the name calling, just pointing out that it isn't one sided for the causes.

Tanya Mikhno
Tanya Mikhno

For the user, it's possible to have a "unified" password like: Mother's maiden name + a number, where the number could be incremented each time when the password is updated. I always use passwords like this and rarely forget my passwords. If the user forgets the password, it's always possible to restore/recreate it. But if the system is hacked using a bruteforse algorithm, it's YOU who is responsible for the loss of user's data.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

Where I work it is 12 characters... If you forget it, you got to call the helpdesk, which takes a minimum of 40 minutes for them to answer, but that minimum is maybe during a few hours on a wed. afternoon or something cause I always get the 'high call volume' message and 1.5 hour waits. And we all took training on "protecting your password" and signed off on it. It is rare to have someone put one in an easily found place.

nwoodson
nwoodson

I work in a civil service environment....that's a state-run mental health facility to boot. You nailed our password "policy" on the head. The worst thing though is still the non-technical leaders with irrational wants and demands. "It" may not enhance anything, but boy does "it" look good on paper....and it makes people think that we're doing something busily using activity as a substitute for achievement. One thing about that issue that is the policy makers tend to be bureaucrats rather than trained, current IT pros. Not that technocrats are that great, but a little common sense driven dialog would go a long way to getting something productive accomplished.

nmprodan
nmprodan

I posted further down, but you have summed up half of my argument, this is the other half... The people that refuse to learn how to do their jobs with computers don't get fired. That is one reason America is falling behind the rest of the world. The rest of the world continues to employ advances in technology into their "skill set" while America continues to use technology as a scapegoat to keep sub-par employees who refuse to keep up with advancing production through technological advances.

Quasar Kid
Quasar Kid

Why is your helpdesk response time so slow? Is it due to incompetent users or short staffing the helpdesk?