Be Human

Over the last couple of days I’ve been bastardizing Guy Kawasaki’s list of ways to brand products and applying it to system administrators (sorry Guy!). Sysadmins have ample opportunities to treat themselves and their work as a product being sold to their end users, but they rarely do. If there was another IT group in the building would yours still get the business? Are all of your users happy with the product you provide to them? Do you communicate as a human being and not as a robot when you talk to non-IT people about IT topics?

Guy Kawasaki’s points six and seven hit hard. “Focus on PR, not advertising,” and “strive for humanness.” There are two key points he makes, the first of which is:

“Brands are built on what people are saying about you, not what you are saying about yourself.”

Corporations spend money for advertising, but IT departments operate in a different currency: time. And when it comes right down to it, you can spend time making yourself seem like an awesome IT shop, or you can spend time being an awesome IT shop. Spend the time to be the best and your customers, your coworkers, will know it. They’ll go from being ordinary users to raving fans.

There are two ways I can tell when an IT department has this backwards. First, they hold big kickoff meetings for projects. Ditch the ceremony, quit trying to convince yourselves that you’re cool, and spend the time actually working on the project. Second, their infrastructure sucks. No automation, no proactive attitude, no monitoring, but they have things like portals and Java and fancy buzzwords. Spend the time on being technically excellent instead of posturing, and you will be badass.

“Great brands achieve a high level of humaness. They speak to you as an individual, not as part of a market.”

The second point is integral for a system administrator. When you communicate, when you do something for your users, are you communicating with them as an individual, a fellow human? Or is your attitude that they’re just a flock of sheep?

The best way I’ve found to add humanity to an operation is to expose your staff to your users. Encourage people to take personal responsibility for things, but with process and procedure to back them up. Many IT shops I’ve worked with send mass email to all their users, telling them about changes and whatnot. What a great opportunity to seem like you aren’t a group of robots!

An example of this is one from a nearby university with a fairly decentralized IT staff. There’s a central backup server, and occassionally there are problems that prevent overnight backups from working. All the IT folks get automated warning emails saying that backups failed, and the admins of the backup server have to send something out about it. There are two ways this happens:

“The backup server was unavailable for a portion of yesterday evening, preventing most backups from occurring. The problem has been resolved, and we apologize for the inconvenience. – the IT staff”

…and we apologize for seeming like we don’t care at all. Even if you don’t care, act like it. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Did you answer their questions? No. Remember to speak English, but also be a real human being:

“The backup server’s network card had improper settings that were not detected after the scheduled maintenance yesterday afternoon. Because of these settings the network connection was extremely slow, and the server was effectively unreachable overnight. The problem has been corrected, and we apologize for all the extra warning email. Feel free to do a manual backup of your data. If there are additional questions, concerns, or comments, please let me know. – Jack Johnson”

That’s better. It answers n00b questions and has enough information to appease the more technical people. Folks also have a direct contact if they continue to have problems, but if they contact him about other things he should reinforce that they should call the Help Desk.

Just get out and talk with your users. Go hang out with them. Buy doughnuts and go cube to cube with them, introducing your team. Go to meetings in other areas and introduce yourselves, and talk about things you do. Better yet, ask the other groups what they hate about IT.

It all comes down to the golden rule: “do unto others as they would do unto you.” Do that, spend the time to get things right, communicate well, and get out and about so you have a chance to communicate, and you’re home free.