Communications – I’m talking to you, IT guy!

Let’s face it… most technical people did not get into their fields because of their love of communicating.  It is not uncommon to see IT pros (and developers) avoid communications with non-technical people, often shying away from any human contact whatsoever.  The ultimate portrayal of this was Sandra Bullock’s character in the 1995 movie The Net.  Angela Bennett went away on vacation, then came home to an extreme case of identity theft… and nobody could vouch for her because as a shut-in nobody could really identify her.

Of course, that is an extreme case, and most of us are not like that.  However if you were to ask one hundred IT professionals to list the three most important skills they need in their jobs, communications would likely not rank in the top ten.  The problem is, most of them would be wrong.

We communicate with others in myriad ways, and in a lot of jobs where good communications may not seem important they really could make our jobs easier.  Imagine the following scenario:

You are the systems administrator for a small company with 30 users.  You have to apply a server patch that will bring the company’s primary systems down for twenty minutes, and it cannot be done outside of business hours.  It can go two ways:

1) You say nothing.  When the systems go down people start complaining, and you tell them that the systems will go back up in twenty minutes.  You spend the entire twenty minutes fielding these calls, getting yelled at, and being told that you are preventing important work from getting done.  It reflects poorly on your co-workers’ impressions of you… and on your job performance.

2) In preparation for the outage you send a company-wide e-mail apologizing for the predicted downtime, and tell your co-workers that between the hours of 12:00 and 12:20 the systems will be down, and if there is any critical reason that this time slot needs to be changed, please reply.  As it happens the Sales Manager is hosting a group of potential customers for a lunch, and will need to demonstrate the company’s abilities during that time frame, so you reschedule it (communicated) to 3:00 to 3:20.  At 2:45 you send out another e-mail reminded.  At 3:00 the entire company seems to be congregating in the cafeteria for their snack break, and are chatting about… anything, but not about you.

Do you see the difference?  The quick e-mail prevented you from looking like a bum.  Don’t get me wrong, nobody is going to see you as a hero – that is seldom how sysadmins are seen – but it is better that they don’t see you as the enemy.

In the first scenario you are at risk of losing your job.  Imagine if the company brought in those clients, and because of you the Sales Manager only had ‘Server Not Available’ to show?  Imagine the Sales Manager then going to the president of the company and telling him that the company lost a major sale because of you.  If you don’t think that is going to reflect poorly on you then you are just wrong.  And by the way, this is when the Sales Manager says to the president something like ‘You know, I have a cousin who graduated from ITT Technical Institute, and just finished an internship at a company a lot like ours… He would be a great replacement for your current guy.’

If you think those conversations don’t happen then you are fooling yourself.  We live in a cutthroat world and everyone is trying to get ahead.  Sending that e-mail could in some cases save your bacon… even though you don’t think communications are important.

There was a time when we were seen as wizards, and everything we did behind the curtains was secretive and magical.  Guess what: our profession has become demystified, and nobody thinks we are irreplaceable and nobody thinks that we are magical.  Smart? Yes, we still have that going for us.  But everyone knows someone smarter… or smart enough.

I have been blogging for a decade and was a writer for a decade before that… but I still used to belong to the ‘let them eat cake’ school of IT administration.  And then I got wise… the five minutes it takes to send that e-mail – at the possible cost of having to reschedule whatever it is that I am doing – has probably saved my job or contract on several occasions.  Remember it… because e-mails are easy and job hunting sucks.

Sad Times for an Industry

I used to say to my audiences that while the number of jobs in IT will go down, the best will always be in demand.  I then spent several months essentially unemployed.

The IT field has changed dramatically over the course of the last few years.  I suppose it is natural for an industry as young as ours to evolve drastically and violently… but I didn’t expect it would happen to me.  When I did find a job I was relieved to say the least.

During the time when I was looking I noticed that a lot of people turned their backs on me.  I thought for a while it was personal, but I have realized that people in our field are becoming a lot less secure than they were even a year or two ago… yes, some of the people who disappointed me did it out of malice or jealousy, but I have realized that there are also a lot of people who have realized that if they are not protective of what they have, someone else might get it.

I am not naming names… but one of the people who didn’t turn his back on me – someone who commiserated, and did everything that he could to help me – pinged me this morning telling me that he had been let go.  I know that a few months ago I had counselled him on a position at Microsoft, but realized before I even replied (because of time zones it was the first message I saw this morning) I realized that while I remembered him telling me that he found something, I had no idea where it was.  I suppose now it doesn’t matter… he’s not there anymore, and through no fault of his own.

There are a lot of reasons for someone to leave their company… often they will leave because of a better job offer elsewhere (I e-mailed a friend at VMware Canada last week and the message bounced… he turned up at Microsoft Canada this Monday).  Sometimes we are just fed up, and we leave of our own accord.  Of course there is also the termination for cause, and we all hope to avoid that.

All of those are reasons we could have done something about… but when the company simply cannot afford to pay us anymore – they don’t need five IT guys and are downsizing to three, or the project we were hired for was cancelled – it can come as a shock… we did nothing wrong, and there was nothing we could have done to prevent it.  We’re just… gone.  This is a lousy situation.

A few years ago when I went to the US border to apply for my TN visa so that I could work in that country.  Please remember that US border agents are quite loyal, and very protective of their country.  I was trying to explain to the agent what I did as an IT Pro helping companies to virtualize did.  After a few minutes he said to me ‘Let me get this straight: you want me to let you come into my country to teach companies how they can become more efficient and need fewer American workers.’  I could feel his eyes boring into me like lasers.  But the truth is I always felt that the students who learned from me would always be safe, because I was helping to prepare them for the inevitable shift in the industry.  And yet there I was, looking for work… for a long time.

The friend who pinged me this morning was one of those students… I taught him virtualization and System Center, and those are two very important skills to know.  But how do you prepare yourself for the company canceling the project?  It’s not easy.

I have said for years that one of the worst advancements in IT with regard to the IT Pro field was the advent of Microsoft Windows.  In the days of DOS, Novell, and AccPac computers were a mystery to most people, and it was only the real IT Pros who could make sense of everything for the masses.  With Windows `Press Here, Dummy!’ interface myriad people figured it out, and started calling themselves IT Pros.  Some of those people would eventually learn what was really under the hood, get certified, and thrive… but a lot of them did a lot of our customers a disservice and made those people and companies distrust the entire profession.  I see that coming back to haunt us even worse, in a time when automation and virtualization are making thing easier for the fewer IT Pros needed, we are living through the worst of times for the profession.

What is the solution?  I don’t know… but I do know that we can’t put the genie back into the bottle, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.  I hope we are all able to weather the storm.

Transitions & Changes

I received an e-mail this week from the Montreal IT Professionals Community (MITPro) inviting me to the 2014 Annual General Meeting.

I remembered a day nine years ago in January, 2005.  Later in the day I would be heading to the first meeting of the group who had been brought together to build a user group for Montreal IT Professionals.  As I sat in a client’s office applying patches I quickly jotted down a list of topics I felt that we should discuss, which turned into the agenda for that first meeting.

Around the table were Daniel Nerenberg, Maxime Viel, Thomas Kroll, Randy Knobloch, and a couple of other people I am sure I am forgetting. 

Two months later we held our first official meeting, attended by some thirty people from all walks of the IT Pro spectrum.  It was amazing that we had brought it together… but how long would it last?

The first real test of that was not when I stepped down as president, but when the leadership team clashed with my successor.  The heated battle took its toll, some people left, others joined, and in the end the organization continued.

It had been written into the organization’s charter that I would always have a vote as the Founding President, and for the first few years I used it.  However as I became more distanced from the organization (both in time and geography, having established myself in Southwest Ontario) I used it less and less, having decided that might no longer always know what is best for the organization that I was once the public face of.  In September of 2012 when I joined the DPE team at Microsoft Canada I officially resigned my position with MITPro (along with ITPro Toronto, the group I went on to start and lead after leaving Montreal).

It is funny, looking at the Board of Directors from MITPro as it stands today I know… some of them.  None of them were at that first meeting, and only two of them (out of eight) sat on the Board when I led it.  Far from complaining, I am thrilled that the group is not only surviving but thriving… Dan and Majida and I are all gone, and yet the group is going strong.  That tells me that it is one of the true Canadian IT Pro community success stories… because a few of us raised our hands and wanted to get involved a little under a decade ago.

So my question to you is this… are you a member of your local IT Pro user group?  If so, do you participate?  Do you attend events?  Would you be willing to speak at one?  It takes people like you raising your hands and volunteering to make these groups work.  If you are not a member, why not?  Look up your local group and get involved… attend, learn, and when you feel comfortable enough see what else you can do.  Believe me, there are a lot of people out there who will benefit from your participation… starting with you!

Happy 30th Birthday PC!

The official birthday of the IBM PC is August 12, 1981. Today, on the 30th birthday of that (at the time less than auspicious) event, there are some who believe the era of the personal computer is behind us, with the advent of tablets and smartphones.

I disagree… that may be true for a segment of the population, but the majority of computer workers – the Information Workers – will be working with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor for years to come. Sure, those computers may become more portable (how many of you remember how heavy the first PCs were?), but they are still PCs… including the three very different ones I have here – my 9″ netbook, my 12″ convertible Tablet, and my 15″ laptop.

The PC era has seen a lot of big moves in the world of IT… starting with the rise of Microsoft, the death and then rebirth of IBM, the cloud (including you too, Google!), the death and rebirth of Apple (although chiefly not a PC company, they once were!).

Thirty years in our industry is a hundred lifetimes. I look forward to witnessing, participating in, and in a very small way helping to shape the next 30 years of the IT world.

Thanks IBM! You may not have done it by yourself (and you certainly suffered from it), but none of this would have happenned without you!