CXO

Some questions about motivation and imagination in IT

  This week my team changed directions a bit; we will now work much more closely with our two counterpart teams in our efforts to get things done. That is, frankly, for the best. Although I'm proud of the team's activity and professionalism we really will function better as part of a greater, more stable group. The process shouldn't take long either.

This weekend, though, I spent some time thinking about the topic of romance in IT work. No, not romance in the sense of windswept heather moors or dewy-eyed glances at members of the opposite sex, though I'm sure that's a popular topic too. Rather, I'm thinking of romance in its older definition, as in the romance of flight or the romance of travel. The idea that something can have a mysterious fascination or appeal, something strangely beautiful about it and that could well be a good thing.

We don't talk much about it, but it's always there, just at the edge of what we think about. It's easy to get bogged down in the frustrations of everyday work, in the long painful hours and the agony we inflict on one another in our attempts to prove whatever. It's elusive, sometimes, especially when we have systems crashing around us and no way to bring them back to life save shear force of will.

You can hear it, a little bit, in the conversations we have when things quiet down. In those rare moments when we share what's really going on in our heads or share the stories which really stuck with us. You can see it in the eyes of those who have gone though the tunnel and into the whatever which lies beyond, the place where they see the systems in their mind's eye and know with bone deep certainty born of wisdom rather than knowledge what must be done.

IT people, at least those of us in infrastructure, don't talk about it much. We don't talk about how much joy we feel in solving the problems, in the slow migration from instability to invisibility, in the exploration and optimization of an existing system or the installation of a new one. On the rare occasions we broach it at all, it's to claim we are simply too hard headed and pragmatic for such drivel. What really matters, we say, is what we do now to solve a problem placed before us.

We laugh at leaders who try to kindle the romance for us again. At least, we laugh in their faces. In my own heart, though, I rejoice when I work with a leader who realizes what we do matters. I may pull up my technician's mask, but in truth I'm glad someone, somewhere, has a clue. I know from talking to others they feel the same way, though sometimes it takes pulling fingernails to get them to admit it.

Unfortunately there's a problem with romance. It's a quality which occurs naturally, an intersection of experience and participant we as leaders cannot create. It occurs spontaneously when we both open ourselves to it and the circumstances occur in which it can flower. The emotion, the experience may last for only a few moments then vanish again until the next intersection occurs.

Naturally occurring emotions arising spontaneously out of circumstances and a particular mindset seem like a pretty unstable leadership tool. How can we, as leaders, “make” someone feel something? How can we show our followers the romance of what we do or let them know we understand when they do not? Should we even try, especially in today's management heavy environment? Do we have any hope of recalling what it means to have a vocation, to believe in what we do, in a world where people think fear makes a better motivator than hope? One where management textbooks tell you such pearls of wisdom as “time is a commodity” and “the decision to hire or train is a buy or build decision”.

I'll write something more practical next time, I swear.

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