Monday, September 1, 2014

The seven(ish) kinds of IT folks

Some IT people are really simple. You can pretty much treat them like vending machines: insert coins, select the flavour of IT support you want and out it comes, hot and fresh. There are armies of these simple, happy IT drones out there, all cheerfully answering your desperate self-righteous calls for 'customer service' by telling you to try a reboot then click on the Start button no ma'am the START button that's right the one with 'Start' written on it well done. They're friendly and easy to deal with, and the only catch is that your idiot questions will end up on their Christmas party blooper reel. A fair percentage of them are also actively working to bring about the robot apocalypse, but there's no need to worry; that's a good three years off yet.

But that's not all of them. What about the rest? Like the ones who keep the wheels turning where you work? The ones who bleat on about 'policy' and 'security' and 'not writing your password on the lunchroom whiteboard'? Those guys are a LOT trickier to deal with. Telling them apart can be the difference between safe, secure, Internetty happiness, and your desktop wallpaper being replaced with a montage of Twilight characters for a year. So it pays to know your dev from your sysop from your dba. Ready? Let's begin...

(And a pre-emptive caveat: the gender bias is pretty much how things are. Seriously, the last Microsoft conference had a delegate-to-goatee ratio very close to 1)

This is the bloke who turns up when you call up to ask why your password's stopped working since you changed it ("Of COURSE I haven't forgotten the new one! It...oh wait."), to demand extra RAM to make your Excels work faster, or to lie to about dropping your phone in the toilet. He's the backbone of every IT department, the butt of every tedious 'nerd' joke, and the one who'll save your career when you accidentally email your, ah, candid Bali holiday snaps to the CEO instead of your spouse.  He comes in a variety of flavours:

-the Ageing Gamer:
With a five-figure college debt racked up while playing Civilization Online, he now runs his own game servers, and makes enough doing it to pay his World of Warcraft subscription fees. He can get you online playing WoW against Russian gangsters, Call of Duty against American soldiers in Iraq, or Candy Crush against Japanese schoolgirls, though various restraining orders sometimes make that one tricky. Years of keeping gamer/hacker wannabees honest means he knows networks, servers and customers, and can keep any company's infrastructure humming, so long as half the users are elves and NOBODY argues with the Dungeon Master.

-the Helpful Guy:
With an instinct for trouble and a desire to please, the Helpful Guy always seems to be online just as the servers crash and the core switch gets devoured by velociraptors. He's meant to be on leave, but insists there's just enough time to apply those patches before he has to fly out on his honeymoon. Colleagues smilingly tell him to take a break, but always in that weird 'just being polite' way; the whole office knows that the minute he takes long service, the company is doomed.

-the Enthusiastic Amateur
Utterly untrained yet genuinely brilliant, the Enthusiastic Amateur is somehow always about 31 years old, always has a goatee, has always had exactly three IT jobs, and will do anything you want, so long as he gets to poke something with a screwdriver. He lives for the new toy, the new system, the opportunity to look behind the door marked "Danger! Radiation!" Throw him in an empty room with a broken laptop and lock the door: he'll emerge a week later, the laptop fixed, the room networked and his beard somehow exactly the same length. The only down side of the Enthusiastic Amateur is that his enthusiasm cannot be focussed. You can send him on a server course, but the odds are he'll come back utterly uninterested in your new servers, but with a design for a coal-powered network switch.

-the Talented Slacker
Experienced. Capable. Intuitive. Lazy, lazy, lazy. The talented slacker knows the game, knows the language, and could do most jobs in the department. But doing them would mean getting off Reddit, missing a percentage point uptick in the price of Bitcoins, maybe even putting down the puzzle cube someone brought in and talking to <shudder> customers. Despite being paid to do so, he sees every password reset or is-the-Internet-down query as a deliberate insult to his considerable intelligence. More interesting problems occasionally catch his nanosecond attention span, leading to a flurry of uncharacteristically productive work, followed by an equal period of eye-rolling and sighing about how dire things would be if he wasn't around. Moody and unpredictable, the talented slacker is your best friend if you have an interesting problem for him, but a surly hate-filled cloud of resentment if it's a lost file or yet another blue screen on the ancient laptop you won't let go of because it's got all your shortcuts on it.

Speaks five languages. Programs in seven, Can swear in nine. None of them are English.
Network Guy is the Propellerhead among propellerheads. He gets sent to IT conferences and spends every hour of every day actually attending the sessions, only visiting the bar to corner one of the speakers about a syntax error in one of his slides. His descent into social oblivion began the day he first logged on to a network switch, and saw the exposed, pulsing arteries of the Internet laid bare. Soon afterwards he was on his first Cisco course. Within weeks he was at his third, and was correcting the lecturer in the aggrieved tones of a disappointed parent. Family were abandoned soon after; friends were kept only if they lived somewhere he might want to put in a wifi repeater some day.
Always be nice to this guy. He owns your browser history, and you better believe he's saving it for the day you try to download Game of Thrones using HIS network.

A stickler for procedure. Unless it's not one of HIS procedures, in which case it's 'unnecessary red tape'. Brilliant, but routinely forgets his wife's birthday, forget's his wife's anniversary, forgets his wife's name if there's something interesting going on at work. He could rebuild the financial database using ten years of transaction logs and one of those stupid backwards calculators if you asked him to. But every pub night thereafter, you'd have to listen to him tell the story of the time he rebuilt the entire financial database using ten years of transaction logs and one of those awesome backwards calculators. The database guy is usually the one with the best social skills: he's the one who brings Tequila and a Playstation to server maintenance night, and keeps trying to get everyone to come indoor rock climbing with him. He'll also have something quirky in his background, like a licence to export rare lizards, a brief career fronting a Nirvana cover band, or a long-standing world record for the most vegan samosas consumed in one sitting. Despite all this, he's like a technical Jehovah's Witness: he loves what he does, and wants everyone else to share that love. He'll constantly try to get everyone onto dba courses, and can't understand why anyone would want to fiddle about with pointless distractions like network gear, servers, food and families.
It's a mistake to get too comfy around Database Guy; he won't be around long. He's already registered his own company name, and is quietly using his regular employer as a guinea pig, server farm, software provider and prospective customer. The moment he perfects the Wonderful New Thing everyone keeps praising him for, he'll quietly take it off the servers, slip out the door and leave nothing but a pile of pistachio shells and cold vegan samosas. The next day, every database will lock up, and refuse to display any data except the phone number of a fresh new Database Support company that's just opened its doors in town.

Smiles prettily and apologises for being the office bitch. But don't you call her the office bitch. Not if you ever, EVER want to receive stationery again.
The power behind the power. She has the cabcharges, the credit cards, the phone bill audit, the flight bookings access, the personnel details; in short, she is armed to the teeth and enthused by the prospect of meting out a little bottom-up justice. She doesn't understand the technology, the language or anything else about the trade she is exposed to every day; not because she is stupid, but because she is afraid of becoming 'one of them.' Nonetheless, the Infinite Monkeys principle means she will one day use a phrase like 'The proxy is caching' in the right context. The seismic shock this will produce through the department will leave everyone wondering if she's reaching for a technical job; specifically their technical job. She's not (seriously, she still thinks a mac address is a place to get a burger), but it's a good time to ask for volunteers for the server room relocation.

He started as a helpdesk guy, then moved to sys admin (which is the same thing, but he can be ruder to customers). Then he discovered the server room, and was instantly enraptured by its pristine beauty, its ordered symmetry, its complete lack of contact with actual humans. Now he won't talk to anyone about anything unless they've talked to a helpdesk drone first. He still has the skills to reset a password, but he believes that doing so would be like asking Michaelangelo to draw a stick figure comic.
Of course, server guy has a problem: every helpdesker in the department wants his better-paid, more interesting and customer-free job. So his first priority is to ensure NOBODY understands the contents of the server room. Server guys have a variety of techniques to achieve this end, such as a) leaving old equipment in there as decoys, b) locking cabinets and hiding the keys under the admin assistant's spare shoe pile, and c) destroying any and all documentation that might give anyone a clue what is making that beeping noise, or where the smoke is coming from on Backup Tuesday.

These aren't really IT guys. Moving on...

Used to be a sys admin. Used to know how to build a server. Used to recognise a hard drive fault just by the noise it made when it started up. Now he calls a switch a 'network thingy', and logs a service ticket when he needs to add a column of figures in a spreadsheet.
Two things terrify the manager: a) the prospect of someone calling his bluff and revealing his utter unsuitability for managing a technical department, and b) the prospect of actually having to do anything technical, ever again. Therefore the best way to keep this manager on side is to never ask him to make a technical decision, and to occasionally frighten him with a long-winded tale about a technological near-calamity that you averted because you spent all night on the VPN ensuring the VMDK backups were replicating to the Data Domain across the GAN. The temptation to overdo it is always there though, and many a helpdesker has gone too far with talk of topping up IP fluid, or rerouting the tachyon pulse array through the main deflector dish. This is a quick and easy way to ensure you're on monthly maintenance duty for the foreseeable.
IT managers leave eventually. This presents the CEO with the vexed problem or either a) hiring a new IT manager from outside, or b) promoting one of the pale, shuffling ghouls that appear when he asks for a dry keyboard. Since a) would require some effort and contact with non-CEO humans, and would reveal that most CEOs knows less about computers than their grandkids, they inevitably choose b).
The question of WHICH ghoul to promote is however no less challenging. The one who swears in Hungarian and gets the thousand-year stare when he talks about routers or light switches or whatever? The one who keeps telling that boring story about the financial database at the Christmas party? Or maybe the one who's built a cardboard box fort around his desk? The answer is of course 'whichever one doesn't look like he eats bugs and lives in a basement full of life-size cutouts of Doctor Who assistants'. And since the database guy is the only one with any semblance of social skills left, he usually gets the gig.
Surprisingly, this results in a DROP in the quality of database management; database-guy-now-manager-guy either hires a second-rate replacement for his old role to ensure his skeletons remain hidden, or he interferes in New Guy's work so much that nothing actually gets done. Given that the new guy is always suspiciously busy developing a Wonderful New Thing, it hardly matters.

Tired of thinking for a living? Sick of being held accountable for your actions? Like Facebook a LOT? If you answered yes to all three, you're well on the way to being the Project Guy.
In principle, Project Guy is someone who's been doing the techy thing for so long he knows the names of every Windows release better than his kids' names (and the really hard core ones have daughters called 'Vista'.) Able to fix a blue screen with nothing more than a withering glance, he's hungry for a bigger challenge, and takes on the tough gigs like deploying a thousand desktops, rebuilding the servers without turning them off and on again, and convincing the CEO to clear his Deleted Items folder every now and then. His technical instincts take care of most of the work, leaving him plenty of time to threaten suppliers, argue with consultants and deal with executives who would like their old computer back please especially the folder on the D drive marked 'private' oh no reason.
Tragically, this is not what usually happens. The moment Project Guy gets the title, the Promised Land beckons. Daily reporting requirements become monthly updates, delays can be blamed on 'unresponsive vendors' or 'lack of engagement from the business', and anything involving actual effort can immediately be delegated to Desktop Guy. Memories of poorly-delivered projects, of undocumented systems, of nights and days spent cursing the previous Project Guy who never documented, mapped, discussed or, well, did anything are immediately forgotten. Desktop Guy instantly becomes the enemy, with his constant demands to know where the maps are, what the support arrangement is, why the new switches have instructions written in Spanish, and how does Project Guy post so much on Facebook if he's always too busy to answer his phone when his new servers catch fire again? Project Guy is above such petty concerns as 'Documentation' and 'Specifications' and 'Servers that aren't on fire' though; he's busy with the Latest Project, the one he's just told the manager will require rerouting the tachyon pulse array through the main deflector dish.

Don't worry. Just treat all IT people the same. Even though you might occasionally suffer slow service, or have your bank details handed to Rumanian fraudsters, these are just reflex retaliations. The simple truth is that IT folks really don't give a damn what you think, what you call them, or who you are. Servers and networks and cool new toys are what got them into the trade, and they see users the same way the engineers who build power stations see toasters. They only know you as 'iPhone-in-the-dishwasher-girl', 'forgets-his-password-every-Monday-guy' and 'D-drive-p0rn-manager-guy'.
Honestly though? That's a good thing. If they know your name, that means they're paying attention to you.

And that means yes, they ARE reading your emails...

1 comment:

  1. Addendum: yes, there are MANY other breeds of Helpdesk Guy. The Jovial Tinkerer, the Embittered Rollout Veteran, the Linux Evangelist, the Semi-Retired Ex-Manager, the Oops-I-Am-WAY-Out-Of-My-Depth Graduate (and his less honest twin, the Googling Ignoramus) and the Laid Back Genius. But I had to draw the line somewhere.