Spend a few minutes with an IT wonk, from the CIO down to the most junior programmer, and you will find a common and unfortunate fault: excessive whining. Your average IT worker can regale you with endless tales of woe: from lack of funding and the evils of outsourcing, to a dearth of acknowledgement for years of applying patches, caring for backups and fending off hordes of hackers and crackers bent on ransacking corporate infrastructure. In this sorry state of affairs, save for an occasional Dilbert cartoon, the world fails to acknowledge the trials and tribulations of the lone IT soldier.
Imagine the shoe on the other foot for a moment if you will. Let’s say your next paycheck fails to miraculously appear in your bank account on payday. A call to payroll connects you with an apologetic soul who spins a sorrowful tale of the difficulties of balancing the debits and the credits, the trials and tribulations of FICA, UCI, Medicare and Medicaid deductions, the myriad nuances of NSS versus SWIFT standards for funds transfers and the damnable misery of dealing with those outsourced bastards at ADP. Would you share a sympathetic sigh, thank the person for their years of trouble-free payroll processing, and tell them to they can pay you whenever they can get around to it? Similarly, if your car disappears from the company parking lot would you lend a sympathetic ear to the security guard who rails on about a lack of staff, and blames the problem on those fat cats in the C-suite that wouldn’t pony up the money for the laser-guided robotic guard dogs that clearly would have prevented the theft, or would you demand answers as to why your car is gone?
Like it or not, a good portion of IT’s responsibilities are unglamorous tasks related to maintaining infrastructure. This is detailed, difficult and thankless work that goes largely unrecognized. Like the trash pickup each evening or the accountant who pores over Sarbanes-Oxley rules until tears fall from her tired eyes, this is noble and necessary work, but work that will never earn you a high-five from the CEO or trip to Vegas with the top salesperson.
This low signal-to-noise ratio coming from IT gives us an organizational “scarlet letter.” Executives brace themselves when they see an IT wonk coming down the hall, expecting to hear the latest litany of complaints and thinly veiled demands for praise. Wondering why your greatest idea ever was passed over for funding? Did the pitch include a long-winded description of all the technical wizardry that would be deployed, and breathless commentary about long hours and complex interfaces? No one wants to hear about the nuances of refining uranium isotopes to power the local nuclear plant when the lights don’t work. What they want is someone who understands and articulates your problem, shows some sympathy, and delivers an improved end state without dragging you through the details. Try listening to your peers outside of IT, and understanding and articulating their business problems devoid of any whining about the technical complexities. If you can articulate the problem, and reliably show up with a cost-effective solution, then the high-fives start rolling in.
The sad fact of the matter is that every department in the company has a thankless infrastructure element that no one acknowledges until it breaks. Just as you expect to be promptly paid each month without whining from payroll, that so-and-so over in marketing expects his database to be patched and maintained without asking, and without ever stopping by to say thanks. Frankly, these tasks are called “work” because that’s what they are. If you want undying admiration, get a dog.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.