Unhappy is the land that needs a hero...

2015 04 17 IT heroes IMAGE

I was involved in a Twitter discussion about the role of the hero in IT recently. It all started with a simple question from Cherwell Software

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There were lots of Twitter replies, including these from Stephen Mann and Kenneth Gonzalez, but it soon became clear that 140 character soundbites wasn’t sufficient to discuss this topic…

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So here are some of my thoughts about why IT heroes are a problem that we need to address.

Some IT organizations have a culture where the hero regularly saves the day. These organizations often stagger from incident to incident, with huge amounts of effort being expended in resolving each incident but nobody learning from the experience and preventing future incidents. Technical staff who solve the problems are treated as heroes, and their status in the organization comes from their problem solving prowess. In an organization like this, someone who quietly prevents incidents will never be respected. The praise, and the rewards, go to the visible hero, not to the person creating the real business value by proactively preventing incidents, or by planning how to recover fast from incidents that can’t be prevented.

Those of us who have been around IT for many years know that the people we really value are the ones who contribute to continual improvement, who make sure the technology is configured correctly in the first place, who insist that the critical patches are installed before the incidents occur, who create and test recovery plans, who ensure that changes are well tested before they are deployed, and most important of all who share their knowledge to help other people succeed. These are the real heroes of IT, but they are often unnoticed and unrewarded.

One financial organization that I worked with had two system administrators who were very relaxed. They avoided making changes unless these were absolutely essential. They worked quietly to ensure they delivered the incredibly high levels of integrity and availability that their customers expected. Both of these system admins retired within a few months of each other, and the company employed a “heroic” system admin. This new system admin had a great reputation as a highly skilled person, but brought the hero culture with them. They kept making small “improvements” to the configuration. Some of these were not entirely successful, but every time something went wrong the hero resolved the incident. Within a year the hero had reduced service availability to the point where the business was suffering. The hero always resolved the incidents and blamed the vendor of the servers for the repeated failures. It took a long time for the organization to work out what was really causing these failures.  Eventually they realized what was going on, and appointed someone more senior to drive a culture of planned stability, rather than heroic recovery.

So how does your IT organization stack up? Do you encourage and reward quiet, proactive work, or do you admire the heroes who ride in and save the day, again and again…

Image Credit: Pascal




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