7 IT superheroes and their weaknesses

IT superheroes can’t fly — at least, not without an airplane. Theydon’t possess X-ray vision or super strength. They won’t be foundwearing capes or spandex (at work). But the geeks who save the day timeand time again for enterprises around the globe exhibit someextraordinary powers.

Some tech heroes have an instinctive ability to suss out problems andconjure up solutions. Some are quick-fix artists who do their best workunder pressure or when all seems lost. Others are tireless workers whowill not quit until the battle has been won, or insist on doing thingsthe right way every day, no matter the cost.

Most organizations can’t function without at least one kind of ITsuperhero — and usually more. But beware: All heroes have fatal flaws,and sometimes a hero is not what he or she seems. Relying too much ongeek heroics can backfire badly.

Here are seven geek superheroes, one of whom could be a supervillain indisguise. No need to put out the bat signal to find them — just lookinside your IT department.

IT superhero No. 1: Captain Instinct Superpower: Otherworldly IT intuition

Technical degrees from top schools and high-levelcertifications are all well and good, but to be an IT superherosometimes you just gotta go with your gut.

“What’s important is your ability to feel your way through things,”says Anthony R. Howard, a best-selling author (“TheInvisible Enemy: Black Fox“) and independent technologyconsultant for Fortune 50 companies and the U.S. military. “Old-schoolgeeks like me who have been living and breathing this stuff for 20years can just sense what’s wrong and how to fix it.”

For example, in 2007 Howard was called in by a major bank that hadsuffered a catastrophic failure of its primary storage array.

“For four days, they called anyone they could think of to figure outwhy their storage array was down,” he says. “Finally they called me.Before I even touched the array, I had figured out the problem.”

It turned out the bank’s tech team had installed a new disc tray intoan older array. The new tray was incompatible, bringing the system to ascreeching halt.

“After doing IT for so long, I had a kind of sixth sense about what itcould be,” he says. “There were only a few things that could cause afully redundant array to go down without a power outage. I went with mygut.”

The failed array cost the bank untold millions ofdollars in downtime. Afterward, all but one of the bank’s tech team wasfired, says Howard. The guy who told the truth about what went wrong,instead of trying to cover his assets, was spared.

But there’s a downside to relying only on instinct: Guess wrong, andyour intuition can come back to bite you. Howard says you need to backup your gut feelings with facts before you go public with your theory.

“You want to follow your hunch, but back it up with the facts beforeyou broadcast it,” he says. “Even if you end up being wrong, no one canfault you because you’ve substantiated it.”

IT superhero No. 2: Fantastic Plastic Tech Man Superpowers: Extreme stamina and flexibility

The tireless IT admin who’s never offline. The network engineer whopulls 24-hour shifts when disaster strikes. The coder who never seemsto sleep. These are IT heroes by necessity, not choice.

Due to downsizing, many tech pros have been forced to do the work oftwo or three people, notes Mike Meikle, CEO of the Hawkthorne Group, aboutique management and technology consulting firm. Even when basicadmin or support duties have been outsourced, once the outsidecontractor or managed service provider hits their contractual limits,the spillover falls to this hero.

“They’re like the guy inFantastic Four who can stretch his body and cover anything,”Meikle says. “They fill the gap when your outsourcers hit theirallotted support time or contractual bureaucracy stalls progress.”

Often geeks have no alternative but to push hard until the job is done.After Chile’s Puyehue volcano erupted last June, Iron Mountain networkengineer Chris Preister flew to Buenos Aires and worked around theclock for four days migrating his company’s network, getting outmoments before the airport was shut down.

“There’s no magic or voodoo to it,” he says. “It’s just hard work andcommitment.”

This dependence on heroes bleeds over to development, when teams areoften pushed too hard to make unrealistic deadlines, says Steven A.Lowe, CEO of Innovator, a consulting and custom software developmentfirm.

“Some IT heroes push through and code for 70 straight hours and sleepunder their desks to meet deadlines,” he says. “The problem is thattheir mental acuity starts to degrade after so many hours in front of akeyboard, and they start to make mistakes.”

Their fatal flaw? Burnout. Even the most powerful IThero can get stretched too thin and will snap — usually into anotherjob, says Meikle.

“The danger to the business is if they say they need it in three monthsand you get it done in three months, they’ll want the next project donein three months too,” adds Lowe. “They forget that IT got it donebecause everyone was working 90 hours a week. That’s not sustainable.Relying on heroes can be dangerous.”

IT superhero No. 3: Dr. Kludge Superpower: Quick and dirty fixes
“The dirty little secret of many acts of IT heroism is that the herohacked the solution,” says Innovator’s Lowe. Instead of doing it by thebook, this hero plugs a patch into the code to get it working right now.
Lowe recently consulted with a company whose dev team inherited a100-line script to control document display. The script was a hack fromday one, but fixing it was never a priority. “Every time a new machinecame online, its IP address got hard-coded into the script,” he says,”so the script gradually grew to over 800 lines. It’s unmaintainableand will have to be redone eventually.”

Production systems are particularly susceptible to this sort of hacking, Lowe says, because whenthe software fails, productivity stops, which costs the company moneyby the minute.

“That script is now 800 lines of special cases and hard coding with nocomments,” he says. “It’s unmaintainable and has to be redone.”

The danger with this kind of hero is that the technical debt you buildup via short-term fixes eventually catches up to you, Lowe says.

“In some environments you spend every day putting out fires,” he says.”You try to reach a point of stability but it never comes, because thefire you put out last month is causing a new fire this month.”

IT superhero No. 4: The Iceman Superpower: Performance under pressure

It doesn’t always take extraordinary intuition or superhuman dedicationto make an IT hero. Sometimes the circumstances demand you rise to theoccasion.

In 2006, independent IT consultant Jason Wisdom took a consulting gigwith the insurance division of a large bank that needed to update itslegacy mainframe accounting package to generate new types of reports.Naturally, the bank’s CFO wanted the solution done as cheaply andquickly as possible.

Prior to hiring Wisdom, the bank’s tech team dove in and startedcoding. After a couple of months, they hit an impasse. Meeting aftermeeting passed and nothing got done. Even after they brought Wisdom onboard to help come up with a strategy, the team argued for weeks aboutwhether to scrap everything and start over.

“Sitting in those meetings was starting to give me a headache,” Wisdomsays. “So I finally said, ‘Give me a day, let me see what I can do,’and I left to work on the problem. That afternoon they were stilltalking, but I had the solution.”

Donning his “calculus hat,” Wisdom reverse-engineered several formulasfrom the mainframe system, then tested them with sample data to makesure they gave the correct results.

“It was the perfect combination of pressure to get things done quickly,the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and four or five people reallyhoping I would come through because it was more than just my job on theline,” he adds.

The problem? The company wanted the solution to be cheap and fast, butstill expected it to be good. Eventually it was good, says Wisdom, butat that point it was neither cheap nor fast.

Here is where an IT department rife with Icemen can turn overconfidenceinto projects all too often overbudget.

“The amount of rework required drove the total cost of the project farhigher than it would have been had they done things properly from thestart,” he says. “What they should have done is hire a businessanalyst, technical lead, another developer, and a databaseadministrator. Instead they wanted one person who could do all that.They were being cheap.”

IT superhero No. 5: The Improviser Superpower: Thinking on your feet
Some supergeeks have the ability to improvise solutions at a moment’snotice using nothing but plastic bags, duct tape, and their owncreativity. “Kind of like MacGyver,only without the mullet and the bad sunglasses,” says Meikle.

Meikle was working for a state agency in Richmond, Va., when HurricaneFran came bearing down upon his city in 1996. His CIO located the bigthree-ring binder with the agency’s disaster recovery plan inside, blewoff the dust, and cracked it open.

“The plan called for the agency head to take off in a helicopter and’monitor’ the situation from the air — in the middle of a hurricane,”Meikle says. “The contact phone numbers in the binder where from yearsago and many of the individuals had retired or moved to differentroles. Essentially the plan was useless.”

They improvised. Meikle and his team covered all the critical hardwareand filing cabinets with plastic trash bags and created acommunications plan on the fly. Then they hunkered down and waited outthe storm.

“Fortunately the building roof leaked but held and the agency was savedfrom disaster,” he says. “The disaster recovery plan was putback on the shelf where it probably remains today.”

But relying on improvisation is a bad long-term strategy. At leasthurricanes give you a time to prepare; with other disasters, not somuch. As with Captain Instinct, the Improviser’s Achilles’ heel is atendency to simply wing it.

“A lot of times when disaster strikes and you have no plan, you’restruck trying to rebuild without any idea how to do it,” he adds. “Youcan improv, but it’s no substitute for planning ahead.”

IT superhero No. 6: The Distorter Superpower: Bending reality — for good or ill

Call it the Scotty technique. As in the original “Star Trek,” whenCommander Scott told Captain Kirk the warp coil array was damagedbeyond repair (yet still managed to fix it before the next commercialbreak), some IT pros look like heroes through the time-honoredtechniques of underpromising and overdelivering.

That’s partly because, in many organizations, IT departments have toexaggerate how bad the circumstances are in order to get the resourcesthey need, says Wisdom.

“In some organizations IT will not get any type of support until itcries wolf,” he says. “It’s like in the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ Whenthe troops needed more soldiers they’d ask for a tank,because they knew if they just asked for soldiers theywouldn’t get them. The culture forces them to scream bloody murder inorder to get attention.”

But while the Distorter can prove to be an asset to your department,navigating interdepartmental politics and championing IT’s value andneeds with relative ease, this IT superhero can turn supervillainquickly, given the Distorter’s tendency to take credit for yoursuccessful projects — even if they did everything in their power tokeep them from being successful.

Lowe says he was working for a public energy agency in the early 2000sthat needed to adopt Microsoft’s .Net framework for office automation.The agency was largely a Java shop, but for this scenario .Net didthings Java couldn’t do, he says.

“Our department manager backed us to the hilt, but the vice presidentof IT opposed it every step of the way,” says Lowe. “She made us dothree pilot programs. They all passed with flying colors. In the end,the VP had to admit that .Net was the tool we needed. Then shetransferred the department manager who’d pushed for the initiative andtook all the credit.”

Distorters gone supervillain not only breed discontent, they also hidethe sources of real value in your IT department, says Meikle.

“When someone else is getting credit for your hard work — especiallywhen you’re pulling double or triple work loads — you tend to jumpship. Or the company won’t understand the benefit you’re providing sothey’ll outsource your function. Then when customer service orproduction support go south, they’ll have no idea why.”

IT superhero No. 7: The Lone Geek Superpower: Willingness to tell the truth

The least-sung heroes are perhaps the most important of all. They maynot possess outstanding technical chops or great instincts. They mightnot be able to reverse-engineer mainframe code or get handy withplastic bags and duct tape. They simply do it right, every time — andthey speak up when something is wrong, no matter whose feathers getruffled.

“They’re the guy or gal who always does things the right way, no matterwhat corners their bosses ask them to cut,” says Lowe. “They’re usuallyalso the people who stand up and say, ‘We shouldn’t be doing it thisway; it’s going to cause problems down the line. We should take theextra time to do it right.’ They may not always be recognized orappreciated for that.”

As in the example with the bank’s failed storage array, only one person hadthe guts to say what his own department did to cause the problem andhow it got fixed, says Howard. In that instance, that hero got rewardedby being allowed to keep his job. Not all organizations work like that.

“If you’re the lone geek, you’ve entered a thankless realm,” Howardsays. “You can’t walk into the arena expecting a lot of glory — it’snot there. You need to be part of this world because you’re passionateabout technology and helping people find solutions.”

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