“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” – HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In IT it’s very common to surrender to a syndrome I like to call the Superiority Virus. The network group makes fun of the DBAs for accusing us of imaginary latency, the sysadmins think the network team is full of knuckle-dragging simians and the security team behaves like rock stars playing stadiums while everyone else is just a cover band. Ultimately, no matter which team we’re on, many of us succumb to the tribalism of, ” I’m smarter than the stupid user.” We seem to forget that users and organizations full of them pay our salaries. They justify our existence and without them, we’d be like chauffeurs driving empty limos.
I’d like to propose a truly radical concept, especially because I’ve been just as guilty of this sectarian mindset. Users aren’t stupid; they just want to get on with their lives. If the advent of personal computers and the explosion of the Internet were supposed to be the great democratizers, then why do IT professionals frequently behave like some kind of ruling elite? When the infrastructure sees itself as more important than the human beings or business it serves, it turns into HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As engineers we can easily get caught up in the “coolness factor” of technology. Many of us used to take things apart to see how they worked when we were kids. We were the ones who drove our parents crazy with “why” storms. We pissed off magicians, because we didn’t believe in magic, we wanted to know how they did the trick. This mindset has helped create some wonderful innovations. But when we start to see technology as the end and not the means, it becomes little more than mental masturbation.
Do you have to understand the details of internal combustion to drive a car? When you take it to get an oil change, does the mechanic make you feel like an idiot if you don’t know how an engine actually operates? That’s the beauty of technology when it’s really good. It just works, enabling you to focus on something bigger and more important. When IT professionals forget this, that’s when they become an obstruction to progress, in love with their own hype, convincing themselves that users are stupid. Maybe we should all take a cue from Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, one of the apostles of personal fabrication. He started a class at MIT called “How To Make (almost) Anything” and was surprised to see people without traditional technical backgrounds filling the class. Instead of being consumers, they wanted to be creators and the results were truly astonishing. The Fab Lab became an international movement with groups all over the globe using fabrication and technology to explore creativity and solve real-world problems.
I’m going to offer the following challenge: try to see the big picture of how you’re enabling people to do their jobs and enhance their lives. They will become your partners, providing you with a sense of purpose and vision. This is the ultimate cure for burnout. It’s guerrilla computing, truly revolutionary and radically transcendent. Volunteer or contribute to your local Fab Lab and hardware hacker space. Get people excited about the infinite possibilities for technology improving their lives and the world.
“The message coming from the Fab Labs is that the other five billion people on the planet aren’t just technical sinks; they’re sources. The real opportunity is to harness the inventive power of the world to locally design and produce solutions to local problems. ” – Neil Gershenfeld