Despite embracing much of North Carolina’s culture since arriving here in 1994 – from pork BBQ (Eastern style, please) to adding the word “might” before the word “could” when proposing a thought, to snagging my very own Southern Gentleman for my husband - there is one overwhelming cultural icon of the South that I just haven’t warmed to: I cannot bring myself to watch NASCAR. I realize that this may put me as a marked woman in some circles. In my defense, it’s not that I don’t like racing en masse, because I do. I can distinctly recall the childhood trips when dad would take my two sisters and I to see the drag races in Southern California. The noise, the smoke, and Shirley Muldowney’s pink car all made for an exciting day at the races. I also like Formula One racing, and the “Grand Prix” style racing that one of my favorite movies, “Viva Las Vegas” uses as it’s exciting climax. But with NASCAR the cars just go round and round – which I find altogether boring.
So why then have I entitled this post “The pit crew and the race car driver”? It’s because the “14 second or less” critical time frame that has to occur during the race is a perfect analogy for what I see an IT department’s role to be. In short we (IT) are the pit crew, and you (library staff, library customers) are the race car driver. When all is said and done, our job in IT is to get in, fix whatever needs fixing, and then stand back. I think by and large we tend to do a good job in getting in and fixing the problem – although we wouldn’t get anywhere near the 14 second mark – but we fall really short in two areas: we don’t “stand back” (and get the heck out of your way), and we often don’t admit that you are the driver.
From my time as an “IT person” in libraries, I’ve observed far too often the tendency for an IT department to over-manage the hardware and software used by it’s customers. Now don’t get me wrong – I currently manage a crew of folks that live and breathe anti-virus, operating system and application updates, and various authentication methods – because all are necessary in our current computing environment. But basics aside, like the pit crew getting the tires attached correctly and putting gas in the tank, there are plenty of things that IT departments have historically managed and controlled that need to be reviewed and changed. And where did this come from? Well my view is that earlier on, when PCs and the like were first introduced to libraries, there were very few “experts” and a plethora of buggy and “proprietary” (i.e. – persnickety and doesn’t like to play with others) software. The logical thing was to have a smaller group of people make the best and most informed decisions, then create policies around them. That way the “Well, I just asked my husband to come in during his lunch break and install this multi-CD changer on our reference desk PC…and now it won’t turn on” scenarios were avoided, and reasonable calm and order was maintained. (Because whether or not they’ll admit it – there’s another group of people that are just as happy with calm and order as librarians are…and their profession’s initials are I.T.)
Along with this “expert” management followed the notion that we knew best what technology tools you needed to do your job. We would then “grant you” what you needed, and made it very clear that you must use these tools in the manner we have prescribed without any variance. And again, the timing was such that most folks, not wanting to “break” anything, accepted this culture (at least on the surface) and again C&O (Calm and Order) were maintained.
But then uh-oh, the “PC” turned into “The Internet”, and cracks began to form in our established C&O. And it’s taken no time at all to move to a world where web based applications rule. In the blink of an eye we have customers and staff that have become web experts in their own right – without any help from us – and thus don’t need us to give them rules to make them feel comfortable around technology. They just need us to have the car running on the fastest engine as we can afford (hardware that’s up to date and fast), with a good set of tires (the groundwork of solid anti-virus and updates), give them enough gas (network bandwidth), and then GET OUT OF THEIR WAY!
Have you ever seen a pit crew member standing in front of the car they are working on, and say to the driver – “Don’t you think I should drive this car for you?” , or ”You know, you’re not driving the way I think you should be driving”, or “I don’t think you know enough about your car to make the best decisions about how it should be driven”. Or better yet, have you ever seen a pit crew intentionally put limitations on the car’s performance based on the notion that it would be ”safer” that way?
Of course not. That would be counter-productive. That’s making assumptions the person in the driver’s seat isn’t capable. That’s avoiding risk.
That’s not how races are won.