As kids, we grew up with heroes all around us. From fictional superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman, to real life heroes like firefighters, we saw them saving lives, defeating evil, and telling us not to do drugs. As a Cub Scout my father, a firefighter, would take us all to the local firehouse and let us sit in the trucks, turn on the lights, honk the horn. He was a hero, to all us seven year olds. And it was an absolute mystery, a flat-out betrayal, when he said one day that he never wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps.

Why can’t I be a hero, too?

Heroes like firefighters are only heroic when things are going really wrong. They put their lives on the line because someone screwed up, set a building on fire, and now people are in danger. We see news stories of dramatic rescues, big ladders, and see all the attention from the media when a soot-covered guy is standing there with a kid. What we don’t see is the firefighters, themselves, in the hospital, from smoke inhalation, having shrapnel from explosions removed, going deaf from the sirens, getting cancer from the toxic fumes. Even more so, we also don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work between emergencies to try to prevent these dangerous situations. The daily drudgery of building inspections and drills and equipment maintenance and training gets no attention from the public. It isn’t sexy.

The thing is, all that unsexy work saves way more lives than the heroism, including the firefighter’s own.

I think it’s safe to say that a career in information technology is certainly not as dangerous as firefighting. But we do have some things in common, like bureaucracy and hero syndrome. Heroes are worshiped at IT conferences as they tell war stories about how they’re indispensable because of their acts of heroism. They saved the payroll system at 4 AM with five lines of Perl, or rolled out thousands of desktops by themselves, or whatever. People gather around, beer in hand, to listen and cheer, and give these guys sysadmin of the year awards, publicity, and iPads.

Nobody ever seems to ask why they were required to be a hero in the first place. Why did that particular fire start and spread? How was it that you were there to put it out?

Perhaps it’s because process, procedure, and planning aren’t sexy. People who do these things get no attention in the press, they don’t get sysadmin of the year awards, and they don’t have crazy stories to tell over beer at conferences. These admins go home and get a full night’s sleep. They return to a working infrastructure, predictable, getting things done. And they don’t describe their days as “firefighting.” They’re busy working on new things, moving their organization forward.

While it may crop up from time to time, personal heroism has no place in IT. Managers should work to squelch hero syndrome in their staff, replacing it with planning and thought. “Great job last night, you’re a rock star,” should be replaced with “great job last night, let’s never have it happen again.” And staff, when they you find themselves saving the payroll system at 4 AM, should ask where the figurative smoke detectors were. The life that an ounce of organizational prevention saves might just be their own personal one.

Besides, most IT people don’t look good in superhero tights.

9 thoughts on “Heroes”

  1. Loved the article. But then, I like process and documentation and also have a number of friends and family that are fire fighters and I could definitly relate. Myself and a co-worker quietly spent years optimizing and standardizing our builds to provide state or the art systems that were extremely stable… and now we gain the fruits of our labors by spending more time with our families and less time putting out fires at work. Thank you for the wonderfull article

  2. Good article, I like the fact that my systems run smoothly, for the most part, the two values that we offer the companies we work for in IT are keeping things running and implementing new things to improve productivity, fill a void, increase usability or improve the company in some way. If we are always putting out fires because of our lack of planning we can’t be researching things and moving forward, at that point we really are just the black hole of money. I don’t think my bosses realize how much effort I and my co-worker go through to minimize costs associated with projects, etc.. and still do the best job possible.

  3. This hits home for me because I travel around the country giving trainings on SolarWinds network monitoring.

    We all have a deep-seated need to feel important and valued and if slacking off on the proactive is what sets little fires around the office that you’re already equipped to put out, that seems to do the job. Some IT folks need to find that satisfaction elsewhere. Maybe running successful raids in WoW. 😉

  4. We’re definitely in the kind of role that rewards behavior stemming from situations that shouldn’t happen.

    On the other hand, I’m convinced that bad situations do happen from time to time, and how we deal with those situations goes a long way to determine our professionalism.

  5. Agreed, Matt — sometimes you HAVE to be a firefighter. But that shouldn’t be all that often, if things are working right (big IF). 🙂 And it is definitely the true professionals that work towards it not happening again.

    As Steven said, quite adeptly, we should be made to feel important in other ways.

  6. Exactly what we are doing in our company – “how did that happen and what shall we do to prevent it from happening again” attitude is very encouraged.

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