Dispelling a myth of centralized IT

“Information Technology”, or IT as it’s more commonly known, tends to get a bad rap. It’s a black box to organizations, there to serve arcane purposes that always seem to have a habit of getting in everyone else’s way of doing whatever they need to be doing. The end result is the idea that “IT is evil”.

It’s a bit unfair, truth be told. IT doesn’t try to be evil (heck, some IT organizations actively espouse not being evil), it’s often a net effect of just being misunderstood. And like any misunderstood creature, problems arise, misconceptions arise, and pretty soon people are chasing down systems administrators with pitchforks, and…

Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Let’s rewind a tad, shall we?

From a statistical point of view, every single person on this planet is a moron. There are so many highly complex things that there is just no possible way for any one person to know all of it — this is the essence of specialization. An author might have once wrote that “specialization is for insects”, but there is no way for humans to be such generalists that we could get anything done.

Another author said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. And while that was meant in part to give us some mental buffer to understand far-flung science-fiction with our limited current understanding, the principle is absolutely apt in our day-to-day society: anyone with a sufficiently advanced skill might as well seem a magician.

I’ve worked in the information technology field in some capacity since the late 1980s (yes, I’m horrifically dating myself). I have been the person who has received the pile of wreckage that was once someone’s digital life, and seen the pleading look of “please fix it”. I wasn’t given instructions by that person, nor any semblance of “I’ll be watching”. It’s turning your sick child over to the village shaman in hopes of a miracle. Many, many years later, and I’m the person asking “please fix it”. It’s not from a lack of ability or a reticence to learn, myself. It’s a fact: there are those who possess the knowledge and skill, so let them have at it.

Today’s information technologies encompass immense breadth of services, and depth of complexities. The amount of knowledge needed to operate such things is almost comparable to the gangs of workers who would stoke the massive boilers in trans-Atlantic steamships; except that in today’s terms, it would also involve lion-taming, pest control, forensics and open-heart surgery (at the same time!), bodyguards, and rebuilding the boiler while it was operating. With such a chaotic spectrum of skills and processes, it shouldn’t be any wonder why IT departments end up looking like a black box.

How IT looks to others is always different than how it looks to itself. (There is no small amount of irony that the people who tend to work in IT also tend to be the ones least concerned about how they look.) Do you ever wonder how your TV works? Perhaps, but probably not enough to pry it open and understand its inner workings. Thus your TV is as much a black box — figuratively, and often literally — as your IT department.

An IT department doing its job is almost never noticed: things just work. Do you know how your VOIP phone works? IT does. Why your Windows 10 computer won’t boot? IT’ll figure it out. Make sure that you can move from room to room, building to building without ever losing wi-fi connection? I haven’t the foggiest idea how that works, but I know the guys in IT who make it work. And that’s what IT departments do well: make magic, without ever asking anyone to acknowledge it.

(We will, for this discussion, skip the problem with magic: if it doesn’t work, people tend to want the wizard’s head on a pike.)

Technology can be so complex that two groups within IT won’t understand each other’s systems. To keep our brains from exploding, or requiring too many additional brains to help keep all of these things going, IT departments have to impose limits: we tell you what we can support, and what we won’t support. (This is technically another problem with magic: when the magician can produce dove after dove from a hat, but can’t show you a rabbit.)

Every IT department has to set limits to keep costs under control. (With sufficient funding, you can support anything.) Limiting support necessarily means a restriction of options. Or, to put it a different way: The needs of the many must outweigh the preferences of the few.

So what’s the myth? That we’re magicians, dark wizards who conjure spells. We’re just people, no different than you. We have specialized knowledge that lets us deal with the inherently complex, so you don’t have to. And make no mistake, we’re just as baffled by other specialized knowledge. Ever had your IT representative in the room when you explain something that seems absolutely simple and normal to you, and you see a blank stare in return? It happens a lot more than you think it does, even within IT departments.

Why all the mystery? Why don’t we talk about it more to others, and educate them on the difficulties? You know why: Any sufficiently implemented technology is as interesting as belly button lint. And our problems dealing with said lint is even less interesting. We learned a long time ago that the only thing people care about from IT is how much something costs, and how quickly it can be done. I know that sounds a bit depressing, but we find solace in each other’s troubles.

So when you’re holding that pitchfork and looking to burn the witch, take a moment and remember that we’re just trying to get along, same as you. We might be a bit misunderstood, but we’re still people trying to solve a difficult problem. And maybe take a few lions in the process.