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14 January 2009

How much power do our IT staff really have?

There was a tale in the news in 2008 of a disgruntled city IT worker who effectively blocked all access to the city network. Apparently the network continued to function but he refused to hand over the passwords to management so they could administer it. The story first first came to my notice in September's Cnet News; but it also had good analysis in July by CIO here and here during July 2008.

This is an interesting power struggle. We do not often consider the power entrusted to the IT folks in our organizations. Terry Childs was a network engineer who had created and nurtured the city's wide area network (WAN). Due to resource constraints he was on call 24 x 7 x 365, and he had come to mistrust the ability of others to effectively support the network. Thus other workers in department just left administration of the WAN to Terry. He appears to have been a highly dedicated network administrator who worked very hard but who had a cranky persona and an intolerance for incompetence. It appears that the crisis was precipitated by management changes and actions. It is worth reading the CIO analysis of the case.

Most people do not realise that most IT departments concentrate key information like this in the hands of very few people. They do not realise how vulnerable their organization is to incompetent or malicious acts by those few. And they are often not particularly grateful for the work that those few do.

It is not uncommon for IT workers to work a full 5 day week and then to be asked turn up on weekends or after hours to undertake essential works. In many cases they are not paid overtime for that extra work. Many IT workers are also required to be on call 24 x 7.

The role of IT can often be challenging. If things are working and all is going well nobody is grateful, it is just their job after all. But often it is hard to obtain the necessary resources - like redundancy - to ensure that all go well without interruption.

In the event of a breakdown or service interruption IT staff work until it is fixed (sometimes for several days in a row). Afterwards there is usually the ritual search for the guilty. Rarely is the guilt ascribed to the initial lack of resources that could have avoided the event.

Rarely are IT departments rewarded for problem avoidance. Instead resources are focused problem rectification rather than avoidance, thus causing a predictable cycle of failure and fixing.

We should be very grateful to our IT staff. Given the power they hold over our systems and our businesses, and how badly they are often treated, it is amazing that they do not take this power and use it against us.

By Carruthers via Aide-mémoire

1 comment:

nickhodge said...

1. I, for one, welcome our new network administrator overlords

2. never piss off your email administrator, ever.

3. Did the CIO try to turn the WAN off then on again?