Non-IT Manager: “There is a problem with the network.”
Me: “OK.” (Does quick scan of monitoring tools, checks phone to see if there are any alerts I’ve missed.) ”I can’t see anything obvious at the moment. What is the problem?”
Manager: “A couple of users were trying to Skype…” (Me in my head: “Uh oh”) “… to Laos and Cambodia …”
At this point you know how this is going to turn out, and it is an enormously frustrating position. Beyond sending out BGP attributes or having a relationship with your immediate upstream provider, the enterprise Network Engineer’s influence ends at the network boundary. However, many non-technical people (or might I venture to say most) have a perversely juxtaposed image of what the Network Engineer (although this applies to other technology areas, too) can do. On the one hand, they assume we have Level-15 privileges throughout the globe, and on the other, if we point out that we don’t then we must in some way be incompetent.
So whose fault is this? Part of it is ours as networking professionals. And no, that is not because we haven’t got QoS and RSVP working globally, or because that firewall we’ve put in has blocked their P2P traffic. As I’ve commented before, open communication is the key. As far as many end users are concerned, what happens beyond the wall socket is essentially magic. They don’t care what it is or how it works, as long as they get the service they feel is their right. On the other end of the scale are the people who have “set up their network at home”, and because they managed to set the SSID on their NetComm router and run a cable to the PC, how hard can it be to scale that up for several thousand users?
How do we reach these people and explain what we do, what our limitations are and how things work? Well, there are lots of ways, but I would argue that we don’t have to, at least not on that broad a base. In an enterprise, the important people to reach are the managers who ring your boss to pass on complaints from their staff. These are people with influence, and when time comes for funding, or an organizational review of IT, these are the people who will be involved and if all they are getting is a one-sided litany of complaint because the Network Team can’t fix the internet, then this will flow though to the “organizational perception” of IT.
This need not be a formalized process. Having worked in an educational institution for most of my working life, and done a higher degree in physics, I see the benefit of holding seminars, lunchtime lectures and so on for anyone who is interested about the services the IT department offers and how they work. Hold occasional open forums where people can come along and pitch questions. It happens all the time amongst the academics, so why not the IT staff? However, this kind of thing will only reach those who are genuinely interested.
This is where management comes in. Good management-to-management communication is extremely important. The IT management need to be educators, in the sense that they can communicate to people at their level of the organization. A criticism of IT staff generally is that we are poor communicators and it is often true. We need to work on that, but in the meantime, management needs to be that conversational buffer that can explain and teach.
We don’t stride the internet as gods, with lightning at our fingertips. But just because we don’t, that doesn’t mean we are Laurel and Hardy. As every networking professional should know, good comms is the answer to everything.