It’s always winter in IT

This is not a good time to be an IT manager.

I don’t mean “time” in the sense of this moment in history, though job uncertainty and conflicts with other business units may suggest as much. I mean this time of year, summer, when no one wants to be at the office, least of

all the people whose role is typically confined to the indoors.

When Texas Instruments veteran and creator of the integrated circuit Jack Kilby died earlier this week at the age of 81, I wasn’t struck simply by the significance of his achievement. It was the fact that, as a relatively new employee in August 1958, he wasn’t allowed to take a vacation, unlike most of TI’s other 7,500 workers. That meant he was alone in his laboratory, hand-wiring multiple transistors, while the rest of the world soaked up the sun. “It was a very quiet time and he got a lot done,” a colleague told Reuters. If Kilby had been given a chance to enjoy the nice weather, we might have waited a long time before the microchip industry grew into the trillion-dollar giant it is today.

Unfortunately, most IT professionals don’t have the luxury of using the summer silence to develop breakthrough innovations. Instead they are expected to use the opportunity to schedule software upgrades, replace desktops or roll out pilot applications that will go into production in the fall. Even when the rest of the world goes on vacation, we insist that high-tech workers continue to maximize their productivity.

What makes matters worse are remote access technologies that keep users who are supposed to be on vacation in touch with enterprise data. If they experience difficulty with their Web-based e-mail, database or other application, they want the same level of support as though they were still in the office. As for those who choose to take time off in the winter, their exasperation with routine IT problems reaches an all-time high because they know there is a beautiful world outside waiting for them.

Some highly creative, successful people have faced similar challenges. Science-fiction author Isaac Asimov managed to crank out a prolific library of novels, short stories and non-fiction books by shutting the blinds and pretending there was a blizzard outside. The pianist Glenn Gould kept the spirit of Canadian winter alive by wearing a thick coat, gloves and hat at all times, no matter how hot it became. Michaelangelo had no choice but to stay inside while working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then again, they didn’t have to stay in front of a computer checking their e-mail every 10 minutes.

It may not be possible to summer-proof the enterprise, so some IT managers can hold meetings on a local patio instead of the boardroom, or rely on self-monitoring/self-healing systems while they take an extra-long lunch hour. The trade show and conference season includes a few summer events like JavaOne and OracleWorld, and if I were an IT manager I’d be the first one on the plane.

We take into account lower costs, efficiency and better communication when IT projects are planned, but seldom discuss the impact on work/life balance. Is the goal of technology to free more staff to enjoy the months between June and September, or is it to make work a year-round activity? It might be best to contemplate that question now, when there’s still a little time for reflection. Once the snow falls, hibernation is definitely not an option.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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