I have not always been in IT. My previous roles have been in healthcare as a practitioner. Being able to look from both sides of the glass, I often muse about the perception of IT people . Angry is the most common perception, but also elitist, rude and someone who makes you feel dumb. Us non-IT people would talk around the cooler about how so and so had met one of those criteria. We had one guy who was so rude to a colleague the she would break down and cry. Ironically, I now work in IT and can better understand frustrations. Across a number of roles, I have been in situations where someone might have seen me as any angry IT guy. Now seeing both sides of the fence, I wanted to write a quick post about how we as IT people can bridge the gap.
The Angry IT Guy
Stereotypes are often unfair or flat out wrong. But at the same time they can be a window into group perception. Like it or not, the angry IT guy is one of the most common perceptions. It is so common that Saturday Night Live parodied it (Nick Burns). Of course, an IT person will counter that if you had to deal with what they had to deal with, you would be angry too. But I must challenge my IT colleagues by saying that is not good enough. I have found four truths that help me be kind and professional, while still being able to get things done.
Truth 1: Computers Can Make Even Smart People Feel Dumb
My first job was at a help desk for an outpatient clinic system. On a daily basis, I worked with doctors and their computers. I would watch and observe the doctors interactions with computers and see their frequent frustrations (often directed at me). But I though hard about how to respond. I could tell that their lack of computer knowledge made them feel dumb. Apart and unrelated to me, they felt dumb. People are accustomed to feeling confident in what they know. This can lead them to avoid working on things they don’t know. Many of the doctors I worked with found it easier to not learn the details of computing and instead direct frustration at IT staff. “This never works” sounds a lot better than, “I don’t know how this works” in the eyes of most people.
The solution was to enable the doctors. While always being mindful of what I was saying and how it might inadvertently make them feel dumb, I would encourage them and guide them to the correct steps. I would often write instructions and tape them to their desks. They where grateful and I excelled. Now you might argue, “We can’t babysit or help people who don’t want to learn.” But frankly, I focused on how the interaction helped me. I was seen as someone who “bridged the gap”. It helped my career and I moved out of the help desk role quickly.
Truth 2: Computers Can Make Even Dumb People Feel Smart
Be humble and approachable. Hubris is ugly. IT people deal daily with complex technical details that require absolute precision. So when you have successes, it can be exhilarating. The problem arises when we use computer knowledge as the gauge for someones skill set. Each person is different and they contribute their own knowledge from study and life. It can be easy to view someone as dumb if they ask what we think is a simple question. But the problem is that people see our judgement of them. If you happen to watch the video I linked above, Nick Burns eventually tells the woman to “MOVE”. Everyone around could see that in essence he was judging her as not smart enough. That’s never going to help you in life. Being aware of this has helped me as I have moved up over the years. No matter how complex a system I might be working on, there is always someone smarter than me.
Truth 3: People Don’t Have To Learn the Computer Details If They Don’t Want To
Anger often comes from feelings of unfairness. IT people have complained to me in the past that its not fair that they have to teach people even simple things one day only to have the same person ask them again the next day. Frustration quickly builds when people don’t want to learn about computers. But the thing for me is this: they don’t have to. I don’t want to learn the details of how to fix my car. I don’t care. Funny thing is my mechanic does not care that I don’t learn either. He benefits from it. But you might argue again, “Why do I have to do everything for people who are unwilling to learn?” You don’t. Provide them the tools to learn, and in a patient, understanding manner, explain that you can’t help today and encourage them to follow the steps you previously provided. When your perception changes about what they “should” do, so will your experience with them and ultimately, their perception of you.
Truth 4: IT Is Not The Point
This one can be hard to swallow for many of us. But ultimately, IT is a tool for a company to succeed. I have seen many IT people, including myself, be offended when people point this out to us. Our natural reaction is, “This place would not function without me!” But the truth is, a company would fall apart if anyone didn’t do their job. Information Technology, while important, is no more important than other part of the business. Everyone who works for the company is contributing and should be recognized as such. Once again, your perception of yourself shapes how you interact with non-IT staff. If you see your job as more important than others’ jobs, its going to show when you interact with others. There’s no way around that.
I hope these truths have been helpful as you think about how you can bridge the gap in your professional life.