Man, I Remember When You Used to Be Cool

I saw this summary of an article on Slashdot this morning:

In the simplest terms: too many IT workplaces have become Dilbertized — micromanaged, bureaucratic and stifled creatively. It’s become an environment where busy work is praised and morale is low. How is it possible to bring IT’s appeal back? ‘IT professionals that have worked in the field for a long time often speak about a shift in their work where they have gone from tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions to fighting fires all day. “There’s less emphasis on creativity, and more on maintenance. Tweak this, work on this … In being reactive not proactive, everything is a crisis. Something has to be done right now, putting out fire after fire, going a long way to making IT a less pleasant environment,” said Skaistis. Beyond making for a[n] unpleasant work environment for the techies already in-house, this firefighting serves as a warning to potential recruits: you will not like this job.’

I didn’t actually follow the link to the article, because it’s Slashdot and that’s not done over there, but also because the summary nicely captures a few things I’ve been particularly aware of lately. There are some underlying assumptions here: that I.T. work is meant to be creative; that the best measure of the proper functioning of an I.T. department is staff morale; and that it’s the responsibility of or in the interest of corporations to make one particular corporate function, generally a type of infrastructure, more appealing. Where do these ideas come from?

First, it’s true that effective I.T. work often requires creativity, but it also requires (like pretty much any other profession) flexibility, responsiveness, discipline, and wisdom. If you’re not being creative, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing a sub-optimal job. It may just mean that the problem at hand doesn’t require creativity. Also, just because you want to be creative doesn’t mean you’re actually capable of it. Personally, I’ve seen far more I.T. problems caused by inappropriate creativity than by lack of creativity. If your primary requirement in choosing a profession is that it allow you to express your creativity, then have the courage to be an artist and struggle for the luxury. Don’t take the significant remuneration and relative comfort of an I.T. job and then complain that your muse is being stifled.

Second, though management has evolved in many ways over the last few decades from a single-minded focus on productivity, the correct understanding of that evolution is that managers came to understand that staff morale is a significant contributor to productivity–that is, that staff morale is a means to the end of productivity. So, yes, as a manager and as a human being, it’s important to promote staff morale as far as possible, but if that’s done at the expense of productivity, morale will later suffer with the layoffs that decreased productivity inevitably brings. And low staff morale isn’t always the result of a management failure. It can also be the result of crestfallen I.T. workers being bummed out at the discovery that in exchange for the large paycheck they receive and the relative cushiness in which they work, their employer is actually not likely to be cool about unmet expectations or to be especially interested in their potential talents once they’ve failed to realize them.

Finally, very few companies, particularly outside of the I.T. industry itself, are going to be motivated to conduct a marketing campaign on behalf of I.T. as a profession. At the overwhelming majority of companies that employ I.T. professionals, they are employed as infrastructure, like accountants, lawyers, and managers. I’ve yet to hear any pleas that corporations seek to make those professions more appealing. All of them are challenging, and the number of people who can do them adequately is limited. As a result, people who do them tend to be well-paid and well-treated relative to less challenging professions. I’m not convinced that anything more is necessary on behalf of I.T. as a profession. And from personal experience again, it seems to me that the people who were drawn to I.T. work by the halo of cool surrounding it as a result of the initial Internet boom weren’t really very good at it. The challenge for corporations is not to attract more people to I.T. work with misleading tales of foosball tables and stock options, but to better evaluate and train those who are already doing I.T. work.

Jesus, when did I get this old? But the truth is that I am getting too old for this shit. The summary quoted above answers its own questions, just not with the answers that the submitter wanted to hear. It posits some past golden age of unbridled creativity in the I.T. industry, and wonders why now, after everybody was able to do pretty much whatever they wanted, “[t]here’s less emphasis on creativity, and more on maintenance,” why long-time I.T. professionals are seeing “a shift in their work where they have gone from tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions to fighting fires all day.” If that’s true, aren’t the reasons kind of obvious? While everyone was hanging out in the I.T. industry’s version of Eden, emphasizing their creativity by tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions, they were doing sloppy, unsustainable, unmaintainable work, and now they have to clean up the mess they made. The answer to the problem, if there even is a problem, isn’t to go back in search of some Edenic mirage–it’s to develop a grown up notion of what it means to be an I.T. professional, or to be any kind of professional really.

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