In the years before the tech bubble burst, IT was king: there was a huge demand for professionals with technical prowess and an overwhelming shortage of able bodies.
Techies could pick their job and name their salary. They could wear jeans and t-shirts to meetings and nobody would raise an eyebrow. They could roll their eyes when an employee had the gauche to not know where to put their Ethernet card.
This was no more amply personified than in the “Saturday Night Live” skit from those years: Nick Burns, Your Companys Computer Guy. The arrogant, sarcastic and unapproachable IT professional was prevalent enough in corporate culture that it became a running joke in popular reference.
Yet years later, the “stupid users” attitude among tech professionals still exists, but its a lot less funny. In todays business environment, the sneering and condescending approach is increasingly intolerable, and where it has not happened already, it will soon be met with a slew of ill-effects, from outsourcing to bad end-products and compromised careers.
eWEEK spoke to three IT professionals about why expectations of IT professionals are changing and what will happen if the stereotypes dont change with it.
You dont want your users to hate you
Tempting as it may be when you get your nth call of the day from an employee who “cant get their password to work” but really forgot it, responding by rolling your eyes and audibly groaning doesnt resolve the problem.
“Ill often warn IT guys that Im technically challenged to bear with me, and they usually respond more patiently, but why should I have to explain or give a disclaimer to get good service?” said Elaine Berke, founder and president of EBI Consulting, in Westport, Mass., which specializes in customer service improvement.
Berke asserts that no place is this attitude worse personified than with the term RTFM (read the [expletive] manual).
“It taps into a very old mentality. Fifteen to 20 years ago there were these giant manuals and the term RTFM emerged by techies without the patience to explain what they were doing. That F doesnt stand for fine. Part of this mentality is still around and its been passed down to the younger guys,” said Berke.
Even the word “users,” many argue, sets up an us/them relationship that, from the get-go, is set off on the wrong foot.
“Users is an easy way to dehumanize the people who are using your project. They become these mindless, faceless people at the end of a network ant not individuals youve gotten to know,” Matthew Moran, an IT consultant with Kreative Knowledge, in Cave Creek, Ariz., and author of “The IT Career Builders Toolkit,” told eWEEK.
“Some companies try to combat this by using the term clients but if the attitude behind it isnt adjusted, its just semantics.”
Berke argues that IT professionals, especially those who man help desk phones, have forgotten that its their job to be approachable and responsive.
“Its their job to be friendly. … And yet, there is an element of not just frustrated artists but entitlement—a really imperious attitude,” said Berke.
If users arent happy with the support they receive, they will eventually complain to those higher up, which doesnt help make a good argument against outsourcing.
“Outsourced providers wont insult users and will value both customer and business,” said Berke.
“Technology wont survive with its thinly disguised contempt for users, aka customers. With enough complaints from customers, IT departments will either change or be outsourced.”
Its bad for business
Its hard to turn a page in an IT magazine these days without finding someone pleading for more business-savviness among IT workers.
The mood has changed drastically from the days when IT workers were expected to stay tucked in a dark room at the end of the hall, a place where, in the opinion of Paul Davis, a Boston-based IT Security strategist, many of the boundaries between IT and the rest of the business were born.
“This attitude comes from the fact that it was once an elite, complicated thing to work day in and day out with computers. Whats simple for [IT people] may not be simple for others, so a boundary, a gap, exists,” Davis told eWEEK.
Davis applies the blame for the schism between IT and the rest of an organization on the fact that theyve been kept separate for so long.
“Weve never encouraged IT to be social—theyre trained on quick problem solving,” said Davis. “Theyve never been a part of business; theyve always been behind the scenes. Theyve never been seen as a business-enable, but this is changing. Now people are trying to leverage IT to do better business.”
IT consultant and author Moran argues that its imperative that IT understands that it is in a business-supporting role and should not separate themselves from the rest of an organization.
“The real trick is to put the IT role in the IT context. IT is about building tools to help people do their work together, its an arm of business,” said Moran.
Its More Important to
Be Effective Than to Be Good”>
“It not as much about your technical talents but what kind of measurable results you can deliver for the company and its customers.”
Moran notes that most people would have little patience for a mechanic who rolled his eyes because a customer didnt know where their carburetor was.
Furthermore, most people are not concerned about having the same knowledge base as the experts they hire—they just want them to do their job.
“IT people often feel that you should know a little of what they do, too and they might be right. Clients should know what outcome they want. When I hire someone, I just want outcome, and I could care less about what tools they use to achieve it,” said Moran.
It makes for compromised end-products
Being able to effectively communicate with customers is about more than being friendly or personable. Its about the exchange of ideas and technical goals needed to effectively get the job done.
“Its the elephant in the room. IT is more allowed to get away with [a bad attitude] in an internal corporate environment because there arent the checks and balances from customer feedback as internal IT departments rarely do customer feedback,” said Berke.
“Meanwhile, people worry that if they start complaining, theyll have even worse service from IT, in the way that inpatients are afraid to complain about a bad nurse.”
In environments where users cannot express their frustrations, the problem only worsens.
“Sometimes your product suffers in quality when you carry that attitude, because it might not meet users where they are,” said Moran.
Moran feels that one of the best ways to side-step these problems is what he calls “total immersion.” IT must constantly commingle with the people they build tools for, and not only when things go wrong.
“In fairness to IT pros, they are generally only called up when things are going wrong, but this is exacerbated by the fact that they are generally not visible to the people using their projects,” said Moran.
“It goes both ways: they dont hear when things are good and perceive a lack of appreciation, and then they have a bad attitude.”
Davis agrees that immersion is an excellent first step in making for better end-products, and believes that educating users is second.
“If you give someone a computer and tell them to go use it, theyre not going to fully understand what they are doing. Nobody is encouraging them to invest time in learning about securing this machine. Then, only when they get a virus does IT step in to fix it…Beyond IT becoming more business-savvy, they need to help create more technically-savvy users,” Davis said.
It could be career suicide
It doesnt take a room full of experts to explain that having a good attitude will get you further in your career than having a lousy one. However, within this, there is a shifting tide.
“The arrogant, unresponsive IT guy with the superiority complex stemmed from a time when there was a huge amount of need for IT but not enough people to do it. So in a way, they got away with everything. These people are a little lost right now,” Moran said.
A few years ago, Moran noted, the computer guy that people were afraid to talk to was better tolerated; now, this arrogance would likely cost the same person a promotion.
“They are greatly limiting their career opportunities,” Moran said. “Viewing their particular area of intelligence as more important that other peoples work is a definite career-limiting factor.”
This individual that does not fit becomes increasingly marginalized and less critical to the organization, and will often find themselves passed by for promotions.
“These people may not have the same level of technical skills, but they can get the job done without static,” Moran said.
Moving past this stereotypical attitude and its thinly veiled contempt for users can be the golden ticket, catapulting the IT career in any number of directions.
“Its more important to be effective than to be good. IT people are often consumed with how good they are, but there is a human element they may lack,” Moran said.
“If IT people get the technical and the personal skills down, they put themselves in the drivers seat in any company. To a degree, its almost like having that God-like status they believed they had in the late 90s.”