Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Pitfalls of IT: This Job Would Be Great if It Weren't for the Customers

The trend that most worries me as I go through school isn’t technical: it’s social and cultural. That trend is contempt for the users.

The school environment that produces IT professionals is like the farm-league system in professional sports: it mimics the environment that the participants, ideally, grow into. The way that IT is taught and learned closely mirrors the way that it’s practiced. That’s why it worries me so much that there is a tolerance for a culture of IT that’s predicated on contempt for ordinary users. That contempt is absolutely toxic to the relationship between IT professionals - a service profession! - and the users being served. Even if you’re someone like a data-center technician or a high-level system administrator, you and the phone support technicians need to keep in mind that you are dealing with actual people and their actual problems. Compassion is a requirement of the job. I believe that if you don’t want to actually help people, you shouldn’t be in IT.

My biggest source of satisfaction, when I’m wearing my IT hat, is making a difference in someone’s day. I feel good about my profession and my work when I help people overcome their problems, and when I can share the joy that I feel over having wonderful tools available to me through computers. Of course I have to keep in mind the inherent trade-off in specializing in IT. It’s a specialization, which means that not everyone knows what I do. I do know more about computers. I am, in fact, an expert. But that’s not the whole picture. I am also a teacher: my expertise is no good if I’m not sharing it and helping people thereby. It is not a scarce thing that I have to hoard and protect from the barbarians. It must be put to use in helping people - that’s when it becomes valuable. Like nearly any other feature a human can have, expertise becomes toxic when it is not an end in itself, but a means to playing tribal power games and to vanity.

Steve Yegge, a coder I admire, has a great story from his father about how service professionals affect the lives of those around them. His father wrote about his experiences in the hospital, and concluded with words that I believe in IT can learn from:

Within each step of these medical processes and procedures, the medical personnel that touch the lives of the patients, do so for only very brief periods of time - sometimes as little as a few minutes. But, these patients are not simply cogs in the machinery of this well-oiled machine. They hurt and are tired and are very often frightened. Take care that you treat them with dignity and respect for their condition. Because, this really is a big deal.

I think that we can definitely learn from that - and that learning must be a holistic part of our learning, our teaching, and our practice as IT professionals. Making jokes that are only funny if you assume that users are deaf, mute, and stupid isn’t any more acceptable than sexist, racist, or other humor that’s predicated on some other group’s inferiority. We must retain the humility to anticipate that users come to our IT structures not with our priorities, but with their own, and be willing to meet them halfway, not to dismiss them or to think that they only cause trouble. Creating and running an IT infrastructure is a vast collaboration with users, and poisoning the well of that relationship not only damages your personal career in IT, it damages the prestige and the ability to do good works of the entire field