"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-- Arthur C. Clarke
I recently discovered this quote from Clarke, and it has been haunting my thoughts ever since. It reminded me of a time a couple years ago when I took my son to the bathroom at a brand new Home Depot. The lights turned on automatically when we entered, the water automatically poured out when he put his hands under the faucet, and when he reached up toward the paper towel dispenser, it quickly spit a towel at him, which made his eyebrows shoot up and his mouth drop open. When we walked out, he told my wife, "Mom! They've got a magic bathroom!"
Of course, I wasn't quite as impressed. I knew that the bathroom was powered by some cheap and simple motion-sensing technologies and that Home Depot used them to save money by cutting down on wasted resources. The bathroom was magical to my son because he didn't understand why these things worked the way they did or the behind-the-scenes technologies that made it happen. To me, it drove home the point that what we view as "magic" almost always involves mystery. Once you understand how something works, you take away the mystery, and usually the sense of magic as well.
As a result, those of us who understand the hows, the whys, and the science behind technology can lose our sense of wonder and magic. That's especially true for IT pros, who have to make the magic work -- and keep it working -- every day. However, most of the end users that IT pros support still occasionally have a sense of magic about technology, especially when it involves making their jobs easier, faster, or better.
I can think of several times when I implemented solutions for users that felt like magic to them:
- The first time I set up a VPN connection for a user that needed to work remotely, the user was slack-jawed. She had just gotten a cable Internet connection at home. I had already set up a VPN server at the main office, so I simply put a shortcut on the user's home desktop for the VPN client connection. The user double-clicked, authenticated, and then was able to browse the company's file shares, access her e-mail via Outlook, and connect to line-of-business apps. "It's just like being in the office!" she exclaimed.
- Similarly, when I first demonstrated a Remote Desktop connection for someone running Windows XP, it drew excitement and wonder. The person had already been using a VPN connection on his laptop for a couple years but had some latency issues when connecting to some of the resources at the main office. Since both his office PC and his laptop were running XP, I suggested that he just use his laptop and VPN to make a Remote Desktop connection to his office PC. I set up a Remote Desktop shortcut on his desktop. He double-clicked, authenticated, and maximized the screen on the remote connection. "This looks just like sitting at my desk!" he said.
More recently, there have been a few times when software engineers here at CNET Networks have used some new techniques and technologies to overcome some long-standing problems with backend tools and user interfaces. I won't bore you with the details, but the bottom line is that they have significantly reduced the production time of some important tasks and enabled us to finally have the ability to implement some good ideas that we've wanted to try for years. In retrospect, it's pretty magical stuff.
I think what Clarke is saying in his quote is that even if you understand how it works, that doesn't mean that it's not magic. Thus, when you work in IT, you shouldn't forget that in your daily work you are not always just a technologist. You are not always an IT professional. Sometimes you are a wizard. Sometimes you are a magician. I'd like to tip my hat to all the wizards and magicians out there. Of course, there are times when end users have other names for you, especially when the magic isn't working for them, but don't let that obscure the times when you do make the magic happen. That's one of the things that makes the job great.
Share your magic
Can you think of times when you've designed, deployed, or implemented something that has astonished your users and made you look like a magician? Share your story in discussion below.
Also, take a look at this three-part series that our sister site News.com is doing about a few IT pros who are trying to make some magic by using technology to help people in other parts of the world that haven't yet been as influenced by the tech revolution.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.