Why IT people hate IT, and what to do about IT

Damon Edwards, Founder of SimplifyOps, and IT Skeptic Rob England. aren’t afraid do lift the lid on the dirty little secret of the IT industry—a very high percentage of IT professionals hate their jobs. In fact, this is pretty well known in the technology field. It is just something people have learned to live with, but at what cost?

A woeful history of personal, professional, and organizational suffering

According to Edwards, “Life is not good for everyone in the IT industry.” Yet people continue working in this sector for a couple of reasons. First, it often pays better that whatever they would otherwise be doing for a career. Or, they are in it because they love the technology and want to be able to tinker with it. If getting a steady paycheck for doing intriguing work was the simple reality, IT professionals would, by and large, be a happy lot. “Unfortunately, it’s everything else that’s layered on top of that which makes things miserable.” IT professionals are overworked, given insufficient resources, and expected to keep up an insane level of context switching. They tough it out year after year, hoping to put away enough money for the kids’ college funds and maybe a decent retirement. In the meantime, they suffer from burnout, resentment, frustration, and fatigue.

While the impact on a personal level is troubling, an entire organization suffers from loss of productivity, effectiveness, and innovation when IT workers are stressed. Fortunately, some businesses are starting to take this matter seriously. England said, “I’ve noticed in a number of organizations, one of the KPIs for IT is sustainability. They’re not talking ecology, they’re talking about whether they are working in a sustainable way in terms of technical and cultural debt. Can they keep up the pace?” If not, the organization pays the price in competitive advantage, customer satisfaction, revenue, and market share. That’s the stark business reality.

Focusing on people comes first

Both DevOps speakers agreed that, as corny as it might sound, people are still the number one resource in any company. Developing people, creating an environment where they want to work, and retaining them over the long term is essential for success. England pointed out that, in the move to the information age, many businesses have kept a manufacturing mindset from the industrial era, seeing people as clerical cogs. “When you move to a knowledge worker model, you have to respect and empower them.” IT resources may be replaceable, but the cost of having to start over due to poor retention is far too high.

Of course, there are lessons IT can learn from modern manufacturing when it comes to best practices. Edwards noted that at a company like Toyota, executives are almost never on the list of most successful people in their field—yet this business is one of the most efficient and effective in its industry. Instead of giving glory to those at the top, the focus is on excellence throughout the organization, helping people and systems flourish. IT organizations could take a lesson from this model, determining whether executives are in operating a servant/leader capacity or simply as slash and burn artists in search of short term wins that they can add to their resume before heading off to the next cushy job.

Improved processes are the pathway to a better professional experience

Above all, improvement in IT culture requires a clear understanding of how things get done. Again, a manufacturing model can be handy, in Edwards’ view. “When you make the work visible, you can turn it into supply chain management. You don’t have to understand what goes on inside the boxes, if you can just see how things go from idea to cash, how long it takes, and how painful it is.”

One doesn’t even need to be a technology specialist to see ways to improve the system. They just need to be able to visualize the workflow and make intelligent adjustments. Damon mentioned several choices that can make the system more tolerable for IT professionals: working in small batches, building slack into the system, and avoiding overloading people or any piece of the system.

DevOps provides a peek at a brighter future

What kind of impetus does it take to shift culture for the better? Rob mentioned crises as frequent instigators of change. When upper tier executives finally realize that there is a serious problem and step in to make changes, it’s good to be able to point to at least some small pockets of a company where things are being done in a better way. “That’s the time to pull out DevOps.”

The grassroots movement taking shape in small teams can be used to demonstrate that the method works. “You can use those quick wins to drive change.” DevOps teams that are pioneering this new way of working should take heart, even if they are the minority in their organization. They may well be leading the way to a more humane IT culture once enough pressure builds up to force a full system overhaul.

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