IT best practices from J.D. Salinger

If I could add just one volume to the ITIL series of books, it would probably be “The Catcher In The Rye.”

Not that the novel, whose author J.D. Salinger died today, touched even remotely on technology. Published in 1951, it predated by decades the PC, the Internet, the smartphone and the IT industry as we know it. Yet there is something about his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, which continues to echo in the enterprise, as unlikely as it would be to find him there. It is that angst against phoniness, the discomfort of being surrounded by accepted modes of behavior and the urge to transcend the ordinary that resonates, not just in teenagers but in anyone who tries to find their place in a society, or even just a company.

If you haven’t read it, “The Catcher In The Rye” tells the story of how Holden Caulfield, expelled from school, spends three days wandering around Manhattan in a state of loneliness (and occasional drunkenness) trying, and often failing, to make the human connections that matter to him most. Today he might be one of countless young people who lock themselves in their bedroom with little more than a laptop and a broadband connection, but his outrage at what he calls the “phonies” would probably make even digital relationships impossible. This quote, about the inherent phoniness of lawyers, is a good example:

Lawyers are all right, I guess – but it doesn't appeal to me . . . I mean they're all right if they go around saving innocent guys' lives all the time, and like that, but you don't do that kind of stuff if you're a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren't being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn't.”

“Oh, grow up,” the average lawyer might be inclined to respond, but there’s something about Caulfield’s venom against phony characters that stings. We’re all phonies sometimes, as soon as we put careerism above doing work that fulfills us. Replace “IT manager” with lawyers, and think about how the quote might play out: Being an IT manager is great if you help people to work better together, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re an IT manager. All you do is make a lot of dough and avoid people who irritate you and try to keep secrets about how to use computers away from people. How would you know if you weren’t being a phony?

Well, you’d know because of the book. As many critics have noted, the appeal of “The Catcher In The Rye” comes in part from the way its readers tend to identify, even in the most extreme cases, with the protagonist. It breeds a sense of me-against-the-worldness that all of us feel on one occasion or another. When we listen to pedantic corporate “visions” from a CEO we don’t respect, we have Holden Caulfield squirming alongside us. When we are constantly being told something is not worth the investment, can’t work or the powers that be won't listen to new ideas, Holden Caulfield is our comrade, seething with rage. (“People always think something’s all true,” he notes.)

Long before IT departments were encouraged to develop their social skills, there was Holden Caulfield. “All morons hate it when you call them a moron,” he observed. But the morons were still morons. There’s even a reflection of the IT guru’s occasional Messiah complex: the title refers to Holden’s dream of being a “catcher in the rye,” who saves children from falling off a cliff and being exposed to the evils of adulthood.

In a world where everyone, particularly those in charge of IT infrastructure, are expected to be sure of everything, always, J.D. Salinger reminded us of the power of doubt, and the importance of responding to school, work and life as it comes at you, not always in a premeditated fashion.

“I mean, how do you know what you're going to do till you do it?” Holden Caulfield asks. “The answer is, you don't . . . I swear it's a stupid question.” And yet, no matter how powerful the urge to take the kind of risks that lead to innovation, IT professionals feel more and more compelled to answer it.

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