Don’t be an IT janitor


That's what the janitor in my grade school used to solve most problems. I am sure that's not what happens these days, perhaps only because there isn't a wood shop with lots of sawdust as a waste product, but every so often I run across an IT staff which behaves a lot like that janitor: Almost every problem has the same solution, and it's mostly about containment and disposal. That's not what good IT folks should be doing.

Maybe I need to give you some examples of the IT janitor at work so you can recognize one. I've run into these situations at companies where I have worked and where I have been on-site to help with SharePoint deployments:

  • Every issue can be solved by reimaging your machine: Customer opened a ticket because she could not access a web site. The IT janitor took the machine away, reimaged it and returned it. Customer tested again, still could not access the web site, another trouble ticket, another reimage. This continued for awhile until one of the new IT staff asked about the issue and realized it was an issue with the proxy server, fixed that issue and the re-imaging cycle ended.
  • Why look for a system fix when you can get paid by the hour to fix the same issues over and over? I see variations on this one a lot. For a small firm, while you could do some segregation in a domain to provide images specific to a small group of users, instead it's the hallmark of an IT janitor to work harder, not smarter. "Bring in your laptop for required security updates!" is the requirement I see.This also helps reinforce the myth that the IT staff knows more than you and you shouldn't ask questions like: "What security updates are you installing? Can I install them myself and save the trip?"
  • Say "no" by default. If pressed say it's a Security Requirement that's non-negotiable. Sure, it's possible that some requests are unreasonable, but the IT Janitor starts with the "No" answer every time. No discussion, no investigation. Just easier to say No and hope you go away.  

What's a better way to do things?

  • Don't assume what worked for the last customer is automatically the right solution for this customer. One of the tough things about being an effective IT support person is recognizing patterns as well as being open to new ideas and solutions. There's likely lots of cases where someone missed an important development because they knew the answer before the customer finished speaking.
  • Look for opportunities to fix systems, not just symptoms. You may not always have the right tools to implement a department-wide or company-wide fix, but it's better to have a goal to find one than to rely on brute force and lots of billable time.
  • Seek to find out what the customer needs,  and why they're asking for this particular software or this change. If you went to the doctor and said "Doctor, I need morphine" what result would you expect? Do you think the doctor has a duty to find out why you think you need morphine or should she just hand over the pills? It might be a better course if the doctor tried to figure out why you are in pain, and then see what could be done to remedy the cause. So often it seems that the IT janitor either says "No" or hands over the pills, without any discussion about what you're trying to achieve.

Why is this so hard when it should be so obvious?

Here's what I see: Many IT folks choose their field so they can avoid interactions with other humans. But it's those other humans who need the IT folks, hire them and pay them to help. If you spend your life as an IT janitor -- including hiding out in the maintenance room, like David Spade and Christopher Walken in the movie Joe Dirt -- you set yourself up for failure. Sure, you'll probably keep your job which you define as the IT equivalent of pouring sawdust on the floor, sweeping it up and disposing of it, but ultimately you won't be doing yourself or your employers any favors. There are folks out there right now who you could be helping. Simple things you already know how to do, and complicated things you will have to learn how to do. You're there because they need you to keep the IT stuff running, but they also need you for other reasons they may not even know how to tell you yet.

It really is your job to start looking for those people, looking for their ideas and partnering with them to try and solve them. It might not say that in your job description, but it should be -  you're in a much better place personally and professionally if you at least pretend that's what you are supposed to be doing.

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