Playing with IT

Let’s face the truth. We’re in this thing called IT because we get to play with new technology, the gorgeous gizmos and glitzy gadgets. Even better? Someone pays us big bucks to do this, and they buy the toys! Kewl.

When we’re opening those boxes filled with plastic that goes p!o!p we’re like kids at Christmas. The same smiles and the same childlike glee. Even the same gloating, if we’re the first on our block with the latest and greatest.

All this childlike behaviour is not necessarily a bad thing, even in a professional. Years ago when I was an Information Centre Manager I had an unusual “filter” when hiring staff. I’d ask applicants if they owned a PC. If the answer was no, they’d have a tough time convincing me they were right for the job.

Accusations of economic discrimination aside, this question was an extremely good measure of someone’s interest in the type of position I was attempting to fill. First, anyone with any work experience in IT could afford some type of personal computer. Secondly, if your computer interest wasn’t strong enough to compel you to spend your own money on your toys – sorry, technology – then I didn’t believe you were interested enough in technology to succeed.

Playing with something is how we learn how it works and doesn’t work, what it can do and might do. It’s how children explore the world, and our potential is diminished when we put toys aside.

Think back to the first time you attempted to use a particular technology. You start out by touching this and twirling that. What does this do? How do I? What if I? Oops! I shouldn’t have done that! That didn’t work, I’ll try this! Why did that happen? Oh, a manual? I’ll get to that later.

Sound familiar? Now you could, if your ego and pride have become calcified over the years, refer to this as research but what you’re doing, by any reasonable definition, is still called playing.

The next step in this process, even in childhood, is a pilot project. Something small enough to be thrown away, yet large enough to explore most of the functionality of the new technology. This doesn’t have to look pretty, it need only explore functionality. Children do this with great glee. A child with Lego blocks builds pilot projects, then breaks them apart and builds another one, and another one, until all functionality is explored and boredom sets in.

This isn’t the last stage, especially if we’re adults being paid to play. Building a pilot is fun, but the real fun is building something bigger, something that’ll push the boundaries of functionality. It might even, if we’re not careful, produce something useful.

That’s ultimately the goal of all our playing with the gizmos and gadgets. How can we get this new opportunity to work to the benefit of our organization? Once you’ve played with the Internet for awhile, or WAP, or peer-to-peer technologies, then hopefully you can answer the question “How can I use this?” If you can’t think of a good application, then toss it aside and open up another shrink-wrapped box and start playing again. Sooner or later you’re going to hit pay dirt and find the thing that turns your industry on its ear.

It’s important to remember though that the people paying the bills are watching carefully. They’ll put up with the playing provided we keep them informed of our progress. They’d also like to have some confidence that the areas we’re playing in really could deliver a significant business improvement sooner or later. It’s not really an unreasonable position for them to take; after all that’s why they hired us.

de Jager is a consultant based in Brampton, Ont. He is at