If it hadn't meant an organization was about to be plunged into chaos, it might have been funny, or even gratifying:
I was an outgoing database administrator, network nerd, and all-around one person technical support outfit who'd been pulling the load for two for a couple of years. It was time to move on to greener pastures. The people I worked for were doing an exit interview to figure out how to look for a replacement.
"This is sort of a sensitive question," said one of my soon-to-be former bosses, leaning over the table, "but what are people who do what you do making out there right now? How do we find another one who did what you do?"
I explained, briefly, that "people who did what I did" were hard to nail down, because out there in the nooks and crannies of organizations where information technology is a must-have but money is tight, or management experience in dealing with the ins and outs of managing tech workers is scarce, there's a small army of people doing what's best called "informal technology management." Career IT professionals used to managing large-scale networks and hundreds or thousands of end users won't go near small organizations that don't need (and probably don't need to pay) for a seasoned system or network administrator.
Trying to be helpful, I tossed out a number, explained the benefit of a real job description, and walked out the door relieved to be done with an organization that didn't bother to understand why its servers kept running and its users kept connecting to the database until it was faced with a crisis. I was mildly surprised when they found someone, less so when I recognized a kindred spirit who was moving up from a small law office that couldn't provide him any upward mobility. No doubt his former employers would soon be tapping one of the paralegals who happened to understand Netware, and the cycle would begin again.
For managers, informal technology workers are a frustrating and often unknown quantity to deal with, because they're "officially" specialized in something besides, for instance, network administration. But in small organizations they're often key to the smooth operation of the largely ad hoc networks and other computing services that find their way into companies and schools. Legacy print and file servers, the occasional intranet Web server, and even basic e-mail services are often kept moving by someone who got hired because of her ability to write good copy or even a college student who got picked up as a part time administrative assistant.
Aside from the normal cultural tensions between managers and techs, organizations that don't have much budget for tech workers or even a formal position to handle the support and management load even a few servers and a small network entail face other problems: like how to keep someone around who's probably overworked the second they agree to figure out where all the mail is going. With a little common sense, though, managers who just need to make sure things keep running and those informal IT workers who just want to get their job(s) done can stay sane and happy.
Managers: Tips To Deal With Your "Unofficial Techs"
- Write a job description: Your informal tech is probably hoping to turn her hard work into some sort of résumé bullet or useful job experience she can claim. Do her the favor of acknowledging her work and aspirations, and eliminate the resentment miscommunication can cause.
- Ask for a report and a proposal: If things have been "just working" for a few years, rest assured that they won't forever. If you have someone on hand who's interested and engaged in the process of keeping your tech infrastructure moving, pick his brain and see if you can get ahead of the game for a change.
- Pay for some training: Classes at a local community college or university are usually inexpensive when you're talking one or two a year, and when you compare them to the costs of unneeded or poorly planned upgrades from an enthusiastic but uninformed "shade tree technician," they're just plain cheap.
- Back them up: Sometimes an organization's users have unrealistic expectations or chafe under newly imposed security or management policies. Make sure you take the time to figure out what's needed to keep your IT ship running smoothly, then support your tech if users complain.
- Consider a bonus: It doesn't have to be king's ransom, but fair's fair: if you're getting some extra work and can't afford to hire a "real" IT person, reward the effort and acknowledge the worth of a smooth-running IT piece.
Four Tips for Informal IT People
- Ask for a job description: You just saw me mention a job description to your boss... if he isn't taking the cue, go ask for one if you feel like your occasional support of other users, or wholesale maintenance of the servers, is taking more time than "team play" warrants.
- Document what you do in plain English: Write down what you're doing and establish your professionalism by seeing to it that the people you're working for understand that you understand what you're doing and can relate it to others who might need to pick up where you leave off.
- Do your homework: Even if your company can't come across with some training expenses, consider a class or two each year, or even a good book on some of the core technologies your organization uses. Classes provide contact with other people interested in what you're dealing with who can help you figure out best practice, as do news groups and mailing lists.
- Get approval for what you're doing: The problem with the "informal" part of your job is that you weren't hired to do what you're doing and that changes the way your efforts are perceived if you make an innocent mistake. Remember to ask before changing anything, and try to write down what you mean to do before doing it so no one can say you exceeded your bounds.
Is everything going to be sweetness and light from here on out? Probably not: networking and server technologies, though getting easier to manage, are still complex. But if you're depending on a part-time tech worker to keep things going, maybe things will run a little more smoothly.
Michael Hall is the Managing Editor of Crossnodes.