Woe is the Network Admin?

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When IT professionals huddle in our groups (gaggle? murder? flock?), one of the conversation undercurrents tends to be that we do have a bit of a rough job.  When you do your job really, really well, no one knows you’re there.  People only want to talk to you when they have a problem.  “Normal business hours” don’t mean anything – nights and weekends are just part of the territory.

It isn’t complaining – I think there’s just a sense of happiness to be talking to other people who understand and appreciate what the position entails.  To outsiders, this may sound a bit odd, or even unwarranted, given our compensation levels, but I can tell you from experience that it can be mentally challenging to constantly be in problem-solving mode.  Tack on the occasional bad manager, unrealistic budgets, crazy deadlines, and IT can be a tough place.

All that moaning aside, there’s a new study out that surveyed IT administrators regarding workplace stress.  Some key findings:

  • 68% of all IT Admins felt their job was stressful (those 32% must have it nice)
  • 49% work more than six hours a week overtime
  • IT Staff from firms of 100-250 users are most likely to quit due to stress

But the most telling statistic is this: 73% of respondents are considering quitting due to workplace stress.  That’s a huge number.  Of those, 28% cite budget reasons and lack of support resources as the primary cause of stress.

There are a bunch more statistics (41% lose sleep, 39% miss social functions, 38% miss time with their kids, 19% have health issues, etc) – but for those of you who have seen Architects on a deadline, you know those complaints are not in our domain alone.

I’ve gone on before about the difficulty in being a one-man IT shop, and the key takeaway for me from this survey was just how disproportionate the stress level is at the 100-250 sizes.  In the growth of companies, there seems to be any easy way to meet needs at the 50 person level, but as firms grow to 100-250, the recognition that the IT spend may need to grow at a level that doesn’t match the 0-50 growth may not be recognized.  You start running into IT expenses that firms of that size haven’t dealt with before.  At 500 users, the understanding of what the required spend for competent IT seems to have sunken in.

When I worked at a large Orange County VAR, the hours were crazy (24-hour shifts weren’t commonplace, but not very rare, either) and the stress levels extreme.  I would like to think – I am an optimist – that it doesn’t need to go that way.

My personal belief is that there is an existing assumption, ingrained into the industry, that we are going to work extra hours; we will occasionally have to work at night, and on weekends.  It just comes with the territory.  My goal is to say – fine, let’s say the baseline for extra, off hours is 10% of all hours, under the best of circumstances.  What can we do, from an organizational, or infrastructure perspective, to make sure that 10% doesn’t creep into 15% or 20% because of bad equipment, poor maintenance, or unrealistic deadlines?

Stressed workers don’t make good workers.  Unhappy workers tend not to stick around.  It can be difficult to assess, at times, the difference between normal-IT-stress and hey-this-guy-is-really-stressed-out-stress.  If it is the latter, the chances are high that there are steps that can be taken to lighten that load and have a more effective, balanced IT workforce.  Anything from implementing a structured maintenance plan, to rotating after-hour efforts across staff, to using the occasional outside support, to investigating and correcting time sinks, to simply forcing certain staff to learn how to say “no” when they absolutely have to.  At the end of the day, an IT group that is working hard, but healthily, will be much more effective overall for your firm.

*Insert shocking title here*

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I really have to learn how to write these blog titles better.  I could learn something from Peter Hinssen, a professor at UC Irvine who recently wrote an article entitled “It Departments Have Become Completely Useless“.  That’ll grab your attention, wouldn’t it Dear Reader?

Full of rage and indignation (I’m so easy to reel in), I read the article. Through the red mist, I managed to take away a few key opinions:

First, that the title “CIO” connotates a strategic ability that most current CIOs don’t fulfill – that CIOs really just act as a technology enabler, without real peer status or impact at the C-level.  He blames this, in part, on the fact that many CIOs are in their position now because they happened to be the one guy in the office who knew about computers when computers first entered the workplace.  In the Architecture vertical, I can confirm this is fairly common.  Many CIOs were drafters or computer hobbyists who said “hey, I can get us going on computers”.

This is not to devalue their contribution or abilities – it is merely a general statement about the evolution of technology.  20 years ago, the one-eyed man was King; now, your interns have eight eyes.

That evolution – and commonality and ubiquity of technology – means that IT groups no longer have the sort of exalted, mysterious, black box magic of years past.  And while that mystery may have worked to some IT groups’ advantage, the curtain being pulled back is a good thing.  The bar is no longer being set, and measured, solely by IT.

So the “traditional” identity of the CIO, as Chief Wizard and Blackberry-getter, may not cut it in today’s expectations of leadership.  In my definition of the optimal IT group, it certainly does not. Mr. Hinssen goes on about “CDOs” that really need skills in BIg Data, digital communications and social networking (!).  His trail goes one way; mine a bit different.  I could care less if the CIO knows how to use twitter.  Do they know how the *business* works, on a fundamental level?  Are they able to marry that knowledge with their technical awareness to create solutions that impact the firm’s bottom line?  If you want to get rid of IT’s reputation as a cost center, start making money.

Mr. Hinssen’s article devolves into buzzword-blather, but at the core, he has a point.  Our industry is maturing. The percentage of the workforce with a very high comfort level with technology is constantly increasing.  The bar is no longer being set internally.  That fact can be viewed one of two ways; with apprehension and fear, or with excitement at the opportunity.  I choose the latter.

*no, his title really didn’t have anything at all with his article.  Gotta learn that trick too.