I made what I thought was a reasonably innocuous statement in front of an audience a few months ago, and couldn’t believe the pushback I got.
Our job as the IT providers – whether as in-house providers or as contractors – is not to make decisions. In fact, people are often amazed by how few decisions we have to make.
There was a chorus of objections from this group of high-level systems administrators who protested that they made decisions all of the time, with regard to licenses, solutions, whose hardware to buy, what password policies to implement, and so much more. They wanted to assure me that they made important decisions all of the time that would affect the user experience of everyone in their organizations.
As a service provider, and I hope that by now we can all agree that in most organizations IT is indeed a service provider, it is not our job to make decisions, it is our job to implement the decisions of others. Our job is not to be decision makers, it is to be trusted business advisors. That is an important distinction that we can never forget.
We don’t tell our clients what they need to do; they know what they need to do. We simply advise them how they can use different technologies to do it, and then they make the decision. It is our job to let them know what tools we can make available to them to facilitate their jobs.
Electronic communications is a great example of this. A few short years ago it was our job to tell our organizations that they could better communicate with their customers, suppliers, and everyone if they would start using e-mail. Then we often had to make a business case for using our own domain name – firstname.lastname@example.org – rather than a public cloud (although we didn’t call them that) free address such as email@example.com. Of course it usually made business sense, but we so often had to make the case anyways. From there it was servers – should our mail servers be in-house, or should we rely on our ISP (or another third party) for that service. I even remember having to convince one boss that his e-mail address should be printed on his business card.
In the entire process above, I didn’t make a single decision. I made recommendations, but it was the boss, the board, the committee that made the decisions.
So when this decision was made – our company will host our own mail servers – at least I could make the decision as to what mail servers to buy, right?
If I was an honest and trusted business advisor I would research what was available, cost out different solutions weighing in such factors as cost, reliability, features, and ease of use. I would then present a number of options to the board (often at this point an IT Committee), and they would make the ultimate decision. Again, I would make my recommendations, but the decisions were someone else’s.
Fast forward to 2012, the world is moving into the cloud. Private Cloud or Public Cloud? Whose solution? I present my customers with recommendations. I make my recommendations based on several factors, including operational expenses versus capital expenses, bandwidth requirements, service level agreements (SLAs), and so many other factors. Most of the time, because of my reputation as a trusted business advisor, my clients (and students) follow my advice. However in the end they are free to make their own decisions.
I was in an interview with a potential client recently who came to me because they need to replace their current service provider, and we sat down for a great conversation. Near the end of the chat he said to me:
Mitch, you obviously have the requisite skills and staff to do what we need, and I hope we can continue to work together going forward. But you have a lot of very strong opinions. What would you do if we disagree? You tell me we should do <A>, I say that I want to do <B>. What do you do then?
It was an almost obvious question that I had never been asked before. I told him honestly ‘Mark, if we disagree on what to do then I am going to do my best to convince you that I am right. I will make every proposal and reasonable argument, and will do everything I can to sway you to my side. If I cannot do that, then the simple answer is that you are paying the bills, and that makes the decision yours. In almost every case I will do what you ask me to do, because they are your servers and your infrastructure.’
Wait a minute… you said ‘almost’? Why the qualifier?
‘Very simple. If you ask me to do something that will compromise the security of your organization’s systems then you will have to ask someone else to do it. I compromise on everything else, but not on security.’
That, really, is the only major decision we can make… the decision to walk away when our customer (or boss) won’t take our advice. Sure, others can delegate the details to us – what version of what server to use on what hardware – but the real decisions belong to others.
While this may be (to some) a bruise to our egos, the reality is we should be relieved; we have enough as IT administrators on us without having to shoulder the burden of those major decisions. We are responsible for so much – and seldom get the credit we deserve for the jobs we do. We are responsible not only for keeping our systems working, but also for giving the people who do make the decisions the best advice and suggestions.
Let someone else make the decisions