A day in the life of an ill-equipped IT temp

That’s it. We’re never letting her out of this office again.

When one of my most trusted and valuable co-workers took a month’s holiday to visit her family overseas, I knew there would be some challenges. We talked about it early on, had a meeting with some of the other people potentially affected.

We tried to work out an action plan. We didn’t have a budget to hire a temp of any kind, and we also knew the colleague in question handles a number of database and content management applications critical to our day-to-day business. I ran through a whole bunch of things with her before she left. I thought we’d done the knowledge-transfer thing.

I have no idea how we’re going to get through the remaining two weeks.

What I didn’t realize until now is that all the talking in the world did exactly nothing. I had a rudimentary idea of how she worked, but not until I actually sat down to do part of her job did it become clear I was out of my depth. Suddenly I found myself immersed in precisely the kind of problems all kinds of enterprise users suffer through. Basic applications weren’t integrated. There was a platform compatibility problem that made it difficult to decide whether to perform a task on a Mac or a PC. After talking to my IT manager I discovered the laborious, convoluted, time-consuming routine that is required to update a simple database and publish content to a Web page. Without going into too many details, it makes about as much sense as washing your car with a toothbrush.

It wasn’t always this way, of course, but in the last three years we’ve launched a number of IT projects that brought in new software and hardware, and we obviously didn’t take into account how this would affect some existing processes. Like a lot of highly skilled professionals, my absentee co-worker soldiered on despite the technology lunacy surrounding her. If she hadn’t gone, I might never have known what it’s like. Probably like a lot of CIOs.

When a chief executive is appointed from outside a company, one of the smartest strategies for that individual is to spend some time working hands-on in every department, if only briefly. The CEO-to-be might start on the plant floor of the manufacturing division, for example, before sitting in on marketing, administration and some of the customer-facing activities. It’s not unlike the manager of my gym, who is regularly seen doing a complete circuit of every machine in the building and jotting down notes about the equipment.

There is a partial equivalent of this in IT, where those involved in a specific project may take the time to go through the typical workflow of the users and then tailor the technology to minimize any learning curve or service disruption. Once the project’s over, however, users are left to cope with subtle, more evolutionary changes to their IT infrastructure by themselves. They might provide feedback to the IT managers on occasion, but unless the help desk response time is second to none, they will be more likely to turn to each other for ideas.

Scheduling an ongoing “”job shadow”” program for IT workers would no doubt be difficult, but it might also help avoid some problems before they start. Only by becoming a primary source will technology professionals become more proficient in responding to what they hear from the users they are assigned to support. As for me, I wish I’d taken my own advice much earlier. We’ve always told our vacationing co-worker that we don’t know how she does it all. I had no idea that this is how she does it.

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