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The IT crowd: Fiercely loyal geeks or 'inflexible, budget-padding' creeps?

Do you REALLY want a bunch of risk-taking mavericks running your kit...

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Sysadmin blog The comment thread on my recently posted digital divide article seems to be going strong, several days later. One recent post by an anonymous coward sticks out to me.

I can't help but hear it read out in the sarcastic voice of the PHB of one of my clients - filled with outdated prejudices that have proven so counterproductive over the years.

You seem to be thinking that the modern corporate IT department exists to provide a cost-effective service to the rest of the organisation.

Not sure that idea has been correct in recent years. My experience says it exists to maximise the IT department's budget (buying all the shiny you mention and more) while minimising the positive impact on the business e.g. by operating as inflexibly as they can get away with without terminally upsetting those outside IT, in particular those organisationally above IT who should be supervising the input to, and effects of, IT's activities.

The idea of a rollout of tiny laptops with tiny keyboards and tiny screens is indeed ridiculous, but when the IT department has decided that is the "new policy", who is going to reconnect IT with the need for cost-effective productivity outside their organisation?

I certainly agree that there is a *need* to "think different" than many IT departments (and suppliers) have been used to. Whether the technical details you mention briefly are the right answers is another discussion for another day.

I am certain that the comment is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, but the sentiment expressed is real. There is no doubt in my mind that some sysadmins exist that do fit this bill - just as there is also no doubt in my mind that these individuals are a small minority.

We're not that bad, really

But the IT department does not exist in isolation. Nor does it always, or even often, have the power to set policy on its own. IT has to beg, plead, fight, threaten, cajole, and outright blackmail to get anything done, ever...from new computers to policy changes to even getting a user to tell you what their job is so that you can design a system that helps them.

Then there are the users who lie to your face about what they did or did not do to cause whatever it is that is currently making your life miserable. In this environment you also have to consider that IT staff are – on the whole – completely ignored whenever things run well. Requests for budget, raises or even a wave "hello" when someone walks past the door are all summarily denied.

When things go wrong – and, without the budget to replace widgets, they inevitably do – IT personnel are first against the wall. IT is a thankless, miserable job for most of us and stereotypes such as the one above harm to corporate moral and staff cohesion.

In my experience – and I've take the time over the years to do a fairly detailed study of the topic – IT types actually want to be helpful. It is true that in some cases the IT folks in question may be individuals whose human interfaces requires some bug fixing. Despite this, they are in most circumstances eager to help, when they know that there is help they can offer.

Where do you fit in the puzzle?

IT types are trained to be paranoid. Sanitise your inputs, back everything up, build redundant arrays of everything and cover the data centre in multiple power and cooling sources. Our professional lives are based around risk management. Yet for many of us, our personal income is a single point of failure in our lives.

One very specific kind of social awkwardness comes from an inability to determine where we fit in the social hierarchy. A lot of businesses are trying on non-traditional management structures that involve people belonging to multiple "teams" simultaneously, often without defined leaders or a defined order of precedence should requirements or deadlines conflict.

If, for whatever reason, it looks like that income source is anything less than absolutely rock-solid, expect your professionally paranoid IT staff to start getting distracted, edgy and ultimately stampeding for the exits.

Help us help you

Another common trait of IT practitioners is that many of us are conflict-averse. We want you to be happy because if you're happy then you aren't screaming at us. We try to balance this against risk management and security concerns, but the end result is typically determined by budget and user/management cooperation.

If the stereotypes raised by our trusty anonymous coward are true in your business then you've got some very real morale problems to deal with - ones you cannot simply pin on: "nerds are inflexible." When an "us versus them" mentality shows up in one place within a company, there's a decent chance it exists elsewhere too.

I've lived this. The cop-out phrase is to claim that "IT needs to get better at business." What this means is "IT needs to think and behave more like the dominant department/social clique in the business."

That is an insane approach. Each department attracts different personality types for a good reason. You don't want a bunch of risk-taking mavericks running your data centre, no matter how much easier they might be to relate to. Similarly, you don't want the hyper-conservative OCD types doing sales; not if you actually want sales to occur.

What needs to happen is training across the board. It's easy to say that IT needs to be taught to speak to end users. But you almost never see someone admit that management needs to learn how to talk to IT. When you learn what makes your people tick – in the case of IT types, that they are professionally trained catastrophists – I think you'll find that the old stereotypes are wrong.

Loyalty

You may think the original AC is right and that I'm completely off-base. But I want to leave you with one final thought: in our personal lives, geeks are traditionally regarded as fiercely loyal. "Fickle" is not a term I have typically heard applied to systems administrators, developers or any who choose IT as a career.

IT folks simultaneously have a reputation for job-hopping - something about the two stereotypes just doesn't parse. If my views above are something you cannot agree with then to what do you attribute this difference? The Register readers' guide to the care and feeding of nerds, naturally, will be hashed out in the comments. ®

Remote control for virtualized desktops

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