Working in IT often feels like how soldiers in the trenches felt during World War I. Long periods of boredom performing routine tasks associated with your job as an IT professional are punctuated from time to time with brief, intense firefights where you’re just trying to stay alive and not get fired. From working in various capacities in the IT profession, I’ve come to three simple conclusions. First, most vendors of enterprise software products will bend over backward to try to help their customers resolve any problems that may arise from (or may simply seem to have arisen from) their products. Second, most IT infrastructures consist of many interrelated parts that often have numerous interdependencies that are difficult to understand when it comes to troubleshooting problems. And third, real-world IT is basically all about keeping the network going and the servers running in order to support business applications and services, so a workaround in the hand is probably worth a dozen solutions in the bush.
It’s that third conclusion, however, that often leads to lively discussions whenever I meet with fellow IT professionals either online or IRL (in real life). Take rebooting a server, for example. Yes, it can cause a bit of downtime for your company, and yes, lost time equals lost revenue in its simplest sense. And the reality is that I can’t count how many times I’ve heard sysadmins tell me that they need to reboot a server periodically to fix some difficult-to-troubleshoot issue that’s causing problems for the business. And in my opinion, there’s nothing a priori wrong with scheduling reboots if that’s what it takes to keep operations going. So what if it’s a workaround for your network problem and not a solution. What is perfect in IT anyway?
Good IT? It’s just something that works ...
My own view is that good IT is simply any IT that works and that does the job regardless of whether it’s an elegant solution or not to the problem you are dealing with. For those who are mathematically inclined, an analogy for this is that it’s like finding the area under an algebraic curve by using the Monte Carlo method instead of looking up the formula for the integral. Yes, the formula may be elegant; but the numerical method still gives the right answer!
On the other hand, some of my colleagues in the IT profession feel differently about what I refer to here as good IT and they’re rightly not afraid to disagree when I express my opinions on this subject, either publicly or in private. For example, Jeffrey, who is a CISSP and holds more than 30 years of experience, specializing in security and identity management, tells me that my definition of good IT should be qualified: “I would disagree that good IT is anything that works. I would say that good IT is anything that works well enough, and while it may seem that I am just qualifying your statement slightly, I think it is an important distinction. Working could mean disabling access controls, or security controls, not really a desired outcome. Working well enough implies (at least in my opinion) that security/performance/availability is not compromised, or at least at compromised to the least degree required, and that proper exceptions are noted.” Jeffrey then describes his own company’s approach by saying, “My senior director for my full-time job reiterates that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We also focus on incremental improvements that provide business value and advance us towards a desired end state. So I am constantly addressing advancing the state of IT in my employer’s organization on a regular, continuing basis, which often requires some short-term compromises and workarounds to continue progress towards long-term goals.” I accepted his qualification as reasonable because, yes, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.
... or maybe not
John, however, who runs a computer consulting company in Virginia, disagreed with me when I stated that real-world IT is only about maintaining the status quo so your company can keep earning incremental revenue. “I take exception to the idea of good IT is anything that works,” John says. “I just lost a corporate client because I had the audacity to point out to them all of the mistakes that were made by themselves and by their prior IT company and how putting Band-Aids on problems instead of fixing the problem correctly causes them to snowball. Also the former IT firm was not training the client to not do the things that they’ve been doing and not explaining why. There were a lot of issues but primarily it related to QuickBooks. The client (often with the assistance of the IT firm) would copy, move, rename, and relocate the QuickBooks company file all over their network in order to resolve an issue. In doing so, they wound up having 25 copies of the QuickBooks company file in various forms & various names in various locations on the network and on various workstations. All the files were different. What a mess.” I agreed that his situation was a mess and asked him what stance he took and how things turned out in the end. John replied, “When I, as their new IT person, refused to continue this practice or to allow the practice I was terminated. OK, so be it, far less stress on me. It is going to take a huge amount of effort to straighten out their bookkeeping and thankfully I will not be involved in it.” I completely agree that sometimes you simply need to say your piece and walk away.
‘Just press F1’
On a somewhat lighter side, a colleague named Dean says that my comment that good IT is basically any IT that works and that does the job regardless of whether it’s elegant or not brought a smile to his face. It made him recall an incident back in the good old days when his wife called tech support to resolve an issue with her PC not booting and stopping with the old “press F1 to continue” prompt. “Tech support’s response was to ‘Just push F1 to continue.’ Obviously not elegant and not the solution desired (and my wife knew it wasn’t) but nonetheless it would get the PC booted. Having spent over 20 years in managing a support department prior to my retirement, I’m afraid there were probably many times that my department’s support wasn’t any more elegant than the ‘just press F1’ solution my wife was offered! What I did try to stress was that we never leave our ‘customer’ in worse shape than when they contacted us.”
Dean’s story resonated with me because of numerous and varied experiences myself and other IT professionals I know have had with tech support for different vendors over the years, some of which I’ve described in previous TechGenix articles such as this one and this one. I’ll leave it at that, but if any of you want to express your own thoughts about what kind of IT is “good enough” IT, you can use the commenting feature at the bottom of this article to do so now. Thanks!
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