When I first starting working in IT more than a decade ago, I noticed an odd phenomenon. At the time, I worked at a major EDU and we had a pretty small group, with no real division between systems, networking and apps. Whenever there was a problem, EVERYONE (both technical and management) seemed to amass in a crowd behind the person actually working on the issue. It could be quite disconcerting and chaotic as people offered suggestions and even grabbed at the keyboard. The experience was like being at that infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont and I often wished for my own Hell’s Angel for protection. Once I even had a mini-meltdown in the server room as I stood in front of a Sun E6500 which was the multi-user shell system for the university. I was desperately trying to figure out why no-one could log in. As the group behind me reached proportions similar in size to the crowd scenes from Ben Hur, I turned around and yelled, “There are entirely too many people standing behind me!” I bemoaned the frequent occurrence of this scene to a very senior Unix engineer who was my mentor. His response was an analogy I’ve never forgotten, “It’s just like kids’ soccer. There’s no strategy here, everyone just follows the ball. Swarm left, swarm right.”
Much to my chagrin, I see a similar behavior demonstrated by many organizations, especially in the security realm. Instead of committing to a proactive posture, most stay permanently in reactive-mode. Although painful for staff and customers, in many ways it’s easier for management to avoid the effort required for long-term planning. Although I feel frustration when I see this, I understand how painful making the shift can be. It’s serious culture shock, sometimes requiring a complete reorganization. Usually this only happens after an enterprise has reached a tipping point, when technical debt comes due and Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh.
What’s the best way to make this change? Emphasize the human factor over technical solutions. There’s no magical piece of technology or software that will solve all your problems, so stop believing the marketing hype. As much as technologists hate to admit it, companies are still comprised of people. According to Sandy Pentland at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, the science of great teamwork is scientifically measurable and the key component is communication, both formal and informal. Companies should reward the individuals who are catalysts for collaboration and listen to the truth-tellers who point out the boiling frogs. And if you think this doesn’t apply to you because you aren’t a member of management, think again. Leadership is everyone’s responsibility.