The times they are a changing

How many times have you heard that line applied to the technology business? Overused, overworked, over-marketed.

But I’m talking about generational change here, and I’m talking about technology people, not technology itself.

I was talking to someone I know the other day who does security type audits for one of the big audit firms. She continues to be “astounded”, she said, by how many IT organizations “really haven’t got it together yet” in the areas she reviews, even after years of people like her pointing out deficiencies. She said that she has clients where employees are still using the same system passwords that they were first assigned two years ago, clients where contractors working for them can “call up the help desk, ask for access to a proprietary system, and have full access in 20 minutes without so much as anything resembling a review and approval form.” And most ominously, from a legal point of view, organizations where the number of desktops using a piece of software far exceeds the numbers it was licensed for.

Thinking about it, I realized that these ‘oversights’ are neither malicious nor especially incompetent — rather, they are a reflection of how we ‘old generation’ IT people have been trained to respond. How else would you explain it? We’ve had computers on the desktop for 25 years now, and we’re still getting away with practices that would be unforgivable in more ‘mature’ industries.

To fix the issues my friend was talking about, the ‘old’ generation will have to make room for the new. It was very ‘old generation’ to think of computer folks as pioneers — as pioneers, they could be odd, they got to work on computer stuff even if they didn’t have a formal degree in the area as long as they were people who could demonstrably “keep that damned computer stuff from blowing up.”

As long as they worked, you didn’t have to explain to anyone how they worked; you didn’t have to document the process by which they worked. Hell, you could even get away with ignoring the once-in-a-while call for documentation: “What would you rather have me do: spend my time adding in the functionality you say you have to have by next week, or doing documentation on code that’s already running just fine?”

And when IT people did finally get pushed into change, the change was in the direction of customer service, much more than it was toward process, discipline, documentation, security and reliability. Yes, we learned the ‘service ethic’ — it was pointed out (usually correctly) that all the guys (and a very few gals) who’d gone to school to learn computer stuff lacked ‘customer service’ skills. Program? We could do that. Chase down bugs and patch code? That too. Talk to ‘users’ about their ‘visions for a system’? Nope.

But that changed too — they began to pay us to play nice with clients (never ‘users’) as well as just to play with the shiny computers, and that drove a change in our attitude.

And now our corporate masters are looking for another change in attitude, beyond just technical skills, beyond just ‘working well with others’, a generational switch from computer renegades to corporate animals, from ‘build it fast and furious’ code jockeys to security, process and discipline soldiers.

The days of the IT renegade are over, folks (except for those malicious cretins who write worms and viruses, for whom ‘renegade’ is far too complimentary). It’s time for us to adjust or hand leadership to the new generation, and that’s as it should be, how it’s been in older industries for a long time, and how it will be in ours, like it or not.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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