ITs Identity Crisis: We're the Elevator

A celebrity caught breaking traffic or substance-abuse laws is apt to haughtily ask the arresting officer, "Do you have any idea who I am?" It's hard to imagine any IT professional doing the same. (A very good thing, too, since I doubt that query has ever done an offender an ounce of good.)

But it's not just IT workers' lack of celebrity that keeps them from playing the "Do you know who I am?" card. Sadly, the vast majority of IT professionals can't answer the question themselves. We've lost our occupational identity, and we need to get it back.

Occupational identity used to be a no-brainer. Everyone knew who the king was. In England and other countries, medieval tradesmen took as their surnames the labor they did, a practice that accounts for all the Smiths, Coopers, Cooks, Bakers, Brewers and Wrights in this country.

Today, with surnames long established, there is no need to revive the practice, but that means there are no Gretchen Project-Managers or Adam Sysadmins in the phone book.

Some professions equip their practitioners with uniforms and props that serve as identifiers: Lobbyists in Washington have their footwear of English leather and suits of Italian cloth, and gas pump jockeys can be identified by the shirts they wear with their own first name and the name of an oil company embroidered on the pocket.

And here is a story of fluid, mutual recognition: A sociologist working in Mexico pulled out a pad and pen, telling his interview subject, "I'm a writer." Before he could proceed, the interviewee cheerfully responded, "I'm a mechanic," and held out his hands, the tools of his trade, to display the oil underneath his fingernails.

But IT doesn't have occupational props anymore. We don't wear lab coats, it was always silly to identify us with pocket protectors, and everybody has a computer. Who are we?

Nor do most of us patrol a delimited territory in the enterprise. Most IT professionals no longer work in raised-floor, climate-controlled data centers. We've been distributed to the business units and most often work in anonymous cubicles, most of the tools of our trade residing unobtrusively within our hard drives. Where we work physically doesn't give much of a clue as to who we really are.

An anthropologist coming across IT might classify our tribe as what the celebrated international studies scholar Benedict Anderson called an "imagined community" -- it exists in the individual and collective minds of its members but is otherwise nebulous. And yet, ask yourself honestly if there is a consensus even within our own community regarding who we are or what we do.

Collectively, then, we need to take a page from the manual of the modern politician, who has learned that electoral success hinges on being able to define yourself before your opponent does it for you. To not do so leaves our identity in the hands of others. We may not like the identity that accrues around us without our input.

The comic Demetri Martin may be on to something of relevance to IT. Having been told by a store clerk, "If you need anything, I'm Jill," Martin wonders, "If I don't need anything, is she Alice?"

Watching Martin's routine, I recognized that IT's identity has become conditional: If something breaks, we're IT. If a process needs changing, we're IT. If information needs to be accessed, we're IT.

Who are we when nothing breaks, when nothing needs changing, when no information needs to be accessed?

That's a question that needs our attention, lest we become the corporate equivalent of the underloved elevator: always there, always running and never noticed.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. You can contact him at


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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