Of heroes and wonks in the IT ranks

A few weeks back, one of my clients remarked that he architected his data center network so as to “avoid the need for heroes.” His point was that if the network were sufficiently robust, there would be no need for 3 a.m. heroics to keep things running.

That got me to thinking.

Seems as though there are two types of IT professionals: Heroes and wonks. Heroes thrive on the adrenaline rush of rising to a challenge — the more critical the better. They like living life when the stakes are high. They probably read and loved “Apollo 13” (or saw the movie) – the true story of astronauts trapped in a failing capsule able to jury-rig the lunar module as a lifeboat and safely land on Earth. Catastrophe is catnip to heroes, who view every disaster as a chance to showcase their skills and talent.

Wonks, on the other hand, like to prevent catastrophe before it happens. They prefer logic, order and advance planning to adrenaline-fueled heroics. Nothing makes them happier than a smoothly running system. The excitement in their lives comes from ensuring that nothing exciting needs to happen. They build systems that don’t require heroes.

You could say that mainframe folks are wonks, and PC folks are heroes. Or that voice engineers are wonks, and data engineers are heroes. But being a wonk or a hero is more a matter of temperament than technology. Heroes gravitate toward newer, more cutting-edge technologies, and wonks like to work the kinks out of more mature technologies.

And here’s a key point: every good IT department needs both. If you don’t have heroes, your organization isn’t reaping the full benefit of cutting-edge technology. But if you don’t have wonks, your IT department is probably chaotic and poorly run.

Which are you? You can get an idea by assessing how you react to a crisis. If a “red alert” gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline flowing, and you like nothing better than saving the day by narrowly averting disaster — you’re clearly a hero. But if your first response to a red alert is to think, “Darn it, that shouldn’t have happened! Where did the system screw up?” — you’re probably a wonk.

The tricky bit is that most people aren’t 100% one or the other. I have pretty strong hero impulses, for instance — but at my core, I’m a wonk. I like things to work. As one of my colleagues said jokingly, “To you, the glass isn’t half empty or half full — it’s under-engineered.” And I’ll put up with less-than-advanced technology if the system can keep functioning.

The bottom line? We need both: Wonks to engineer systems that don’t require heroes — and heroes to save us when those systems fail.

(The author is president of Nemertes Research of Mokena, Ill.)

From Network World US

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