I’ve been privileged to meet IT professionals around the world, and I’m always struck by their many fine qualities. One of the most common of these is the desire to help others. As a group, IT people believe in progress and hold that technology can be an important part of making people’s lives better. At work, we like to see that our products contribute to the efficiency, effectiveness and happiness of users and consumers.
Wanting to help is great, but sometimes we instead seek merely to please. They are not at all the same thing.
When all you want to do is to please your users, you become overly eager to say yes to every request. The problem with that is that requests need to be examined. You have to dig and find out what it is that the users actually want to accomplish. When you do that, you will find often enough that what is being requested isn’t the best way to achieve the real goal — and sometimes it won’t even come close. As IT professionals, we aren’t really doing our job unless we determine what will be helpful, regardless of what was asked for. Being experts in technology carries a professional responsibility to do more than simply fill orders.
Imagine a doctor who, when a patient asks for a prescription for Prozac, instantly responds, “Sure. What dose would you like?” No history-taking, no conversation, no tests. Such a doctor would be guilty of malpractice. No doctor worthy of the title simply fulfills every prescription request that comes her way. Doctors are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and they shouldn’t start treatment until they have performed their own assessment of the patient’s condition.
But we do the IT version of this all the time. Nontechnical users ask us to make changes to applications, security or databases; they request that we purchase new technology; or they ask us to develop something new from scratch, and we eagerly comply. And in doing so, we deprive them of the benefits of our expertise. We become order takers rather than professionals.
In the process, we not only miss the opportunity to serve our constituents well, but we also transform our self-image. Instead of thinking of ourselves as competent, caring experts to be consulted the way a patient would consult a doctor, we imagine ourselves being involved in retail transactions with “customers.” But thinking of our stakeholders as customers comes with unfortunate associations. “The customer is always right,” they say, and no one wants to alienate a customer. But doctors sometimes have to deliver difficult news and convince patients that what they want may be bad for them or not accomplish what they imagine it will.
Of course, in many organizations our reputation is exactly the opposite. We are known as the “Department of No.” This happens when we attempt to take on the professional role and advise our stakeholders clumsily. Instead of trying to understand what they want to accomplish, we simply explain why they can’t have what they want.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.