Remember: serve the needs of the many

Among all the other crises that enter your life, installing major software patches or upgrades ranks right up there with paying your taxes in terms of stress.

One of the more familiar sights from my days of hanging around the MIS department was that of the network staff doing laps around the building in January at minus 40C, chain-smoking and wondering how long they could keep from freezing solid before they had to come back into the building and start the next round of upgrades.

Why the stress? Well, first, there’s the instinctive fear of screwing up something that’s already working reasonably well, thank you very much, and spending the next 60-hour week trying to get back to where you were before you “improved” things. That’s a scary prospect even if you enjoy living on the bleeding edge and installing all the new software you can find on your home PC.

After all, it’s easy enough to reinstall a single PC worth of software, but at work, you’ve got an entire corporation worth of users waiting to discover even your slightest mistake, and set up a wailing that will be heard in Redmond, Wash. After all, when was the last time any of the major software developers released a completely bug-free upgrade? And that’s on top of all the other daily crises you’ve got to face.

This makes it fairly logical to do your installations on an evening or a weekend, even if that messes with your home life, since working outside regular business hours means that you’ll get the peace and quiet you need to do the upgrade correctly. Sure, it means a little more overtime, but trust me: the freedom to work uninterrupted is going to make you an order of magnitude more productive than if you’ve got to hide from the daily stream of lost passwords, crashed computers, and missing e-mail.

Rushing through upgrades under these conditions guarantees that errors will happen, and that’s going to cost you more home time than doing the upgrades during your regular work day.

But the hidden benefit is the one that’s going to leave the best impression with your boss and the workers who depend on you to do the installation right. When things go wrong – and it’s almost axiomatic that something will go wrong – the only person you’re going to really inconvenience is yourself. Let’s face it; if you’re properly paranoid, you’ve got a disk image of the server tucked away somewhere safe so that if things go really sour you can restore the system to its working state by morning, and nobody will ever be the wiser.

That sure beats doing what one neophyte network manager of my acquaintance insists on: installing during the day so he’s got access to the local computer emergency consultants to bail him out. That’s all very well, but every time an installation doesn’t work the way it should, everyone on the network loses an hour or two of work until the cavalry arrives to fix things.

What’s in it for you? Apart from an opportunity to gain the reputation of being a true wizard who never brings down the network and to curry favour with the folks who determine your raise next year, you’re not wasting all that time from your community of users. The hour of time you lost fixing a problem doesn’t seem so serious until you realize it amounts to 500 worker-hours worth of time for your mid-sized company. You can bet someone’s going to notice that, and if 500 someones all get bent out of shape, you can bet that someone in management is going to have a few words to say about it.

Sometimes being self-sacrificing really isn’t all that noble after all.

Hart ( is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.