System Administration By Walking Around

Hot damn, Guy Kawasaki has a blog.

If you aren’t familiar with him, good. That’s one more reason why your kind will never rule the Earth.

I was reading his post on the art of branding and it got me thinking that system administration teams never act like they have a product they’re selling. Time after time I’ve listened to non-sysadmin friends and relatives bitch about their local IT guys, how system X sucks, how the IT guy messed up all their stuff, etc. Why? Why don’t sysadmins act like they have a product they’re trying to sell? Sure, it’s not a product in the traditional consumer sense, but the people in your organization are the people that pay your salaries. Countless web pages, books, conferences, and forums are dedicated to making system administrator’s lives easier. Why not spend a little time and see if you can make the lives of your customers easier, and evangelize your team, too?

When is the last time you asked your customers what they don’t like about your product? Undoubtably you’d hear about it if the CEO has problems, but have you walked out to your average user, like your CEO’s secretary, and asked them what they don’t like about their computer? I bet you haven’t, and when you do you’ll hear all sorts of things. “What would make you happier with your computer?” Hint: take a notepad with you, and write absolutely everything they say down. Run through it with them again immediately afterwards to make sure you got it. Set some expectations: tell them that you aren’t sure what you’ll be able to fix, and then ask them what the #1 thing on that list is.

You will be shocked as to how many little things are on that list, and how many #1’s are things *you’d* never put up with. Say thank you and take the list back to plot your next steps. Easy things to fix? Do it. Training problem? Make a quick-reference card for them. Something big? Get it added to the group’s to-do list. Tomorrow, go out and beta test your fix with the person who mentioned it. They’ll be thrilled, and if they aren’t, try again.

This also helps the normal people in the organization understand what you do. It might seem shocking but most of your users, including upper management, probably don’t know what your team actually does. Generally IT services are intangible, the IT guys hide in their offices, and only talk to people over the phone or via email. And you only come out when there is a problem. Negative correlation — bad! Come out and interact positively and people will think you’re great. Or at least they’ll stop thinking that you’re a troll.

There are things on the list that are easy to fix but belong to a different person in your team? Talk to your boss and that other person, explain what your list is, and see if they can take a few minutes and help you fix some of the stuff.

Your homework for the day: practice system administration by walking around. In person, find one of your users and ask them how you can make their computer work better.