Pros and cons of invisible IT

With pieces running in the Harvard Business Review titled “IT Doesn’t Matter” and all the talk about the commoditization of IT in the press, you would think that IT has gotten almost to the point of electricity – just plug something into it, and it works. In some basic operational areas, IT has gotten substantially easier.

If you’re a CTO running Windows XP on the desktop, you probably aren’t hearing the same complaints about system crashes that you heard constantly during the pre-Windows 2000 days. On the back end, whether you’re a Windows, Unix, or Linux shop, your servers are probably more stable than they were just a couple of years ago, but the comforting hum of desktops and servers doesn’t mean that IT has become easy. There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes in everyday IT that escape the view of many of the folks commenting on it. Unfortunately, invisibility is more or less equivalent to success.

Sometimes, especially in big companies with big IT staffs, we’re even invisible to each other. Once, when I worked for a larger company, I needed help with a faulty CSU/DSU that was receiving a critical automated news feed, so I was referred to the company’s CSU/DSU expert. I had been working in IT at the company for well over a year, and he worked down the hall. I had never seen or met him, yet he had been working at the company for years. I had never met him precisely because he was so good at his job – his systems never failed. This is the kind of employee good CTOs hire, but also the kind whose excellent work can go unnoticed. After he quickly fixed my problem, I hardly ever saw him again.

Good IT is relaxed, unobtrusive, and at times almost imperceptible. But IT is more critical than ever to the success of any company. At various times, I’ve dabbled in audio engineering, so when I go see live music in a club, I try to watch the sound engineer do his setup. The engineer places dozens of microphones and exhaustively checks the sound quality from each one well before the audience arrives. By the time the show begins, the sound engineer sits almost motionless on a stool off to the side. He might bump one knob 1/16th of an inch and tap one of the sliders up or down slightly. You might think he was lazy if you didn’t know any better. When the sound is bad, the sound engineer is everyone’s worst enemy. This is the essence of IT within most companies: Sales is out front with lead guitar, the CEO sings lead vocals, and Finance provides the rhythm section, while IT quietly runs sound. Run it well, and hardly anyone notices. Do it poorly, and the audience’s and band’s wrath is upon you.

Most successful bands know that a good sound engineer is essential to a live band’s overall sound. However, with IT growing more invisible (read: successful), CTOs must make an effort to call attention to IT efforts when everything is working flawlessly. How? By turning the invisible into the visible. Whether your network is performing at 100 percent or your team is working a string of late nights to make sure a key system works during critical times, let everyone in your company know. And if you’re at a show and need to kill time while you’re waiting in line to get an autograph from your favourite band’s lead guitarist, buy the sound guy a drink.