Fruits of labour

If it seems like lately there hasn’t been much good news for people who work in IT, consider this: According to a new survey, most users think IT is doing a pretty good job — and a sizable number of non-IT managers actually want more IT staff.

In the poll of 1,200 U.S. workers by staffing firm Hudson Highland Group Inc., 75 per cent of users who have a tech-support group rated their support as excellent or good. And 21 per cent of managers surveyed said they think adding more IT staff will improve productivity. And nearly half of all workers (49 per cent) believe technology upgrades and more IT training will improve their own efficiency.

Whaddya know — users think IT is pretty good after all.

And that says a lot about how IT work — and IT workers — have changed over the past few years. Even though budgets have been slashed and workloads have climbed, we’ve still made huge progress in transforming IT people, in the minds of users, from a bunch of obnoxious, anti-social propeller-heads to a useful, effective team that users actually like having around.

How did that happen? Maybe it started with all those e-commerce Web sites we had to build and maintain during The Great Dot-Com Scare. Everyone was convinced that if we didn’t get them right, we’d be swept away by pure-play e-tailers. Management had to bet the business on IT’s ability to deliver. Suddenly, IT was critical to the business.

And just as suddenly, we could no longer count on users to paper over poor application design and performance. No more clerks or telemarketers saving us from ourselves; if something wasn’t right, customers experienced our failure directly. When sales were lost, it wasn’t anyone’s fault but IT’s. We started to understand what users actually do. We started to think a little more like users — and to appreciate them.

Then came Y2K: an impossible project on an immovable schedule. This time, we knew we were depending on users to work around anything we missed or couldn’t fix. Some users experienced early Y2K problems for themselves. Others sat through testing, worked up business-side contingency plans, even stayed up late on Dec. 31, 1999, just to get a head start on whatever might go wrong.

Users got a little better sense of how much blood, sweat and terror goes into an IT project that has to work. And for once, we really had something to thank them for.

Ever since, that back-and-forth has continued. We’ve helped users deal with a tidal wave of spam and viruses — things they felt the effects of directly. We also loosened up a little when it came to things like the wireless access points users plugged in themselves. (Not that we had a lot of choice; we didn’t have the time or manpower to be full-time Wi-Fi cops. So we negotiated, and they cooperated — mostly.)

And users have seen what happens when help desks get downsized or outsourced. They’ve watched projects and upgrades get delayed because there weren’t enough IT people. They’ve had to do more IT for themselves and have learned that this truly is doing it the hard way.

Yes, they really have gotten smarter about IT and about what IT people do. And we really have figured out that they know more than us about doing the business that pays our wages.

Which is a good thing. We’ve always known they need us. Now, just as users have come to understand the value of IT people, we’re realizing that we need them. Without support from users, we can’t do our jobs. And without project sponsorship from business units, we’ve got no jobs to do. The closer we get to users, the better it is for all of us.

We’ve all heard that claim for years. Now, finally, it’s not just a good idea — it’s becoming a reality. And both IT people and users are seeing the benefits.

And for the people who labour in IT, that’s very good news indeed.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld U.S.’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at [email protected].

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