Last week I missed a day of posting to this blog because we were blindsided by a sudden power outage. It was fairly local, maybe extending a block, and was probably related to some construction that’s going on near our office. For a few hours, however, chaos ensued.
Well, it ensued if you define “chaos” as people strolling casually down dark halls, gathering in common areas and giggling over their lack of productivity and leaving for extended coffee breaks. In many ways it seemed to facilitate more coworker bonding than our most recent social event, an excursion to Woodbine Race Track. There was just so much to talk about – how useless it felt being here, how being in the dark in the middle of the created a sense of quiet, and of course the bright, shining possibility of going home early. At one point I even contemplated getting one of our newly-acquired video cameras and doing a documentary about what happens in an enterprise when the lights go off. That’s when I realized our IT department was nowhere to be seen.
When we talk about the lack of soft skills among technology professionals, we sometimes ignore the fact that they are by definition excluded from one of the most time-honoured aspects of office life: wasting time. (This is why there is no IT manager character on TV shows like The Office, for example, or in most sitcoms.) When you’re responsible for the mission-critical systems that run the business, you don’t get the luxury of enjoying the strangely liberating limbo that comes when those systems shut down.
Of course IT professionals are also supposed to be more involved with strategy now, but for every other department all strategy goes out the window once the lights go out. Total downtime – which is probably the best term to describe incidents that not only include system performance issues but the fundamental elements needed to keep a business functional – puts the dual nature of the technology executive’s role in sharp contrast to that of his or her counterparts in marketing, sales or finance.
Of course, when the lights came back on here and all applications and systems followed shortly afterwards, it’s not like the IT department got any applause. This was an expected part of their job, something we take for granted. In fact, there was probably more consternation that they managed to do as good a job – “I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a coordinated groan,” a coworker commented, referring to the disappointment over having to actually, you know, go back to doing what we are paid to do here.
We want network uptime, but most businesses don’t make any allowances for the additional strain this puts on technology professionals, and they are routinely underappreciated when they actually manage to keep the lights on and offer some creative business ideas. So who’s really lacking the soft skills?