There are two types of IT professionals. Magicians and firemen. When I first started in IT, I was fireman. I enjoyed the never ending problems and that superman like feeling when I saved the day with just seconds to spare. After a few years, I realized that I wasn’t making any progress. I was still fixing the same problems everyday. I felt chained to the helpdesk. I realized that my work style was completely wrong!
Are you a Magician or a Fireman?
The easiest way to define yourself is to look at how you spend the majority of your day. Day in and day out, the fireman will run from one problem to the next. Always fixing problems but rarely really solving them. This barrage of issues dictate a reactive work style. If you were to clump most of their daily tasks together, the tasks would be urgent but not important.
The magician will spend most of the day working remotely, automating processes, and introducing efficiency. As problems are automated (and forever fixed), more time is made available to automate. This rather pleasant cycle lends itself to a proactive and flexible work style. If you were to clump most of their daily tasks together, the tasks would be important but not urgent.
Both types have overlap. Unanticipated problems will ruin any magician’s day. And a fireman will have that all too rare day where nothing breaks. If you are a fireman, you might be wondering how to be a magician. The secret is compounding time. The more problems you automate, the more time you will have to automate!
Funny Effects with Slight of Hand
For a practical example, let’s see the power of compounding time. You help dozens of users every day. On average, it takes you three minutes to get a computer name from a user and you have to ask six users a day for their computer name. That is 18 minutes a day spent on finding this single piece of information. If you work 260 days a year, you will spend two work weeks on just finding computer names! Imagine how much could get done if it only took you 10 seconds to find a computer name?
By making small changes like this, you slowly start to see your day getting easier. You suddenly start to feel like you are getting ahead of issues and actually making progress! But here is the crucial step in this whole process. Any time saved must be used to save more time. If you script a process that saves you an hour a week, that hour must be used to script another process or to learn a new tool. Otherwise, your up front effort is is wasted!
When you compound time for a few months, you will notice a few funny effects. First, your day will be a lot less stressful! Second, you will enjoy your work quite a bit more. Finally, you might start to worry about your job.
Can I Work Myself Out of a Job?
This is a topic often debated within our profession. My firm belief is that it is possible to work yourself out of a job if two conditions exist. First, you continue to automate but never show what you are doing. As with any job, you must show results to remain relevant.
An easy way to show results is to focus your projects on end user problems. Figure out a way to save a department time and show that department what you’ve done. By doing this, you will quickly gain staff members that sing your praises every day!
The second condition is to have idiotic management. It is possible to have a manager that thinks, “Well – no huge problems have popped up lately and our budget has been cut. Guess I will have to let someone go.” If that person was you, consider yourself lucky! You have spent time learning incredibly valuable skills like scripting, Group Policy, deployments, etc. Where you co-workers might have spent the day goofing off, you developed some serious talent! With this toolset, you have the ability to work anywhere (and probably get a raise in the process)!
So Where Do You Fall?
The times, they are a changing. The world of IT is becoming more and more automated. Because of this, I believe that the magician style of work is the easiest way to stay ahead of changes and trends. So where do you fall on this spectrum? Do you think I am right or wrong about this breakdown? Are there other roles or work styles that I completely missed?
Great post! While I wasn’t exactly questioning how I’ve been operating for some time (as a magician), it’s nice to have an external source to point to for validation.
I’m fortunate that my manager *knows* I’m busy and productive, so I’m not worried in that sense. But that aside and as some earlier posters have alluded to, I try to sprinkle in some visible time-savers for the end-users. Things like shortcuts, favorites, applications that auto-configure, etc., all are good PR for the IT Department.
Thank you James! Work is so much more enjoyable when your manager understands that IT can be in the background!
This is an inspiring post for IT pros who want to take a more proactive approach. We posted 5 tips to stop firefighting recently that follows this same train of thought. http://www.specopssoft.com/about-specops/news/stop-it-firefighting
Hi Aimee – that is a good article! The tricky part with step 5 (reinstall is the solution) is deciding when to reinstall vs when to troubleshoot. I’ve seen many techs who always go with the reinstall route. Because of that, they lack the troubleshooting skills needed to really fix an issue.
I agree that it’s good to know when to reinstall and when to fix, but not everyone has the time to troubleshoot properly. I think it’s good to know that reinstall is viable option that can save a lot of time.
I certainly agree there’s a lack of troubleshooting skill with desktop techs these days, largely as you note because reinstall has almost become the default action to fix almost any problem. That said, if you take the magician approach to the extreme, reinstall becomes little more than a matter of starting your imaging application. In our environment, nearly everything is redirected to the network, most users have mandatory profiles, and we install virtually all applications via group policy. So if the choice becomes a reinstall that’s going to take literally 10 minutes tech time, versus hours of troubleshooting a one-off problem, you can guess which way we’ll go.
Granted, if we’re seeing a widespread problem, I want an answer as to why something is happening, not just a quick fix. That’s when we’ll troubleshoot as much as needed.
First – it sounds like you have a very automated environment, so congrats! 🙂
With anything, there is a balance. If techs are simply imaging machines and are wasting the time saved, they aren’t getting any further. I completely get what you are saying though.
This is a great post. I’ve honestly been doing the very things you mentioned for about the last eight months. And I can attest that it does completely change your daily outlook, stress goes down and enjoyment goes up. It easily makes sense, automate more = less running around, less repetitive issues = more happy users; and while learning to automate more, you acquire more skill sets, able to fix more issues faster, and sometimes use something you just learned to resolve a completely unrelated issue.
For the last few weeks I’ve honestly been rolling around in my head just about every major topic you touched on. For the first year at the client I staff at, I had been the fireman. As you described, swooping in and fixing “critical” (to the end user) issues at the last second was fun and all of my users were still happy, though riddled with problems.
But as I mentioned, earlier this year I switched gears. There were two of us fighting the fires every day until the other IT member left for other opportunities. After a few weeks, I realized I was running myself silly. I was enjoying myself, but I wasn’t learning anything of value and didn’t have a spare moment to breath. So I started looking at the most common recurring items and made mental notes of what could be done to drastically reduce or eliminate them if possible. Each time I got the spare time, I spent implementing these changes. Eight months later and I’m enjoying what I’m doing even more, in-part because things just work — and I finding time to research and resolve more complex issues that I thought were above my current capabilities. There’s still the fire fighting, but those are just brush fires. I can breath between my tickets now.
The less visible running around brings up your same question, [If they don’t see me working am I] “working myself out of a job?” While *I* know what I’ve been working on and the major issues that I’ve resolved, no one else knows. Before I was waiting for the next time something to crash because I knew it was, but the client wasn’t, they expected it to be running. So I’ve been going over all the major things I’ve implemented and see that for 90% of them, no one knows that anything changed except for me. It’s not that the fires just finally went out, I took the matches away.
So I’ve been working on a communication system with the management team so they are aware of the projects that I want to spend time to automate and/or prevent issues from happening. And I can bring up all the old fires that used to rage and show them the metrics. I used to spend “x” amount of time resolving this same issue for “x” amount of users “x” times a week — now, that issue is completely gone. And it only took “x” amount of time. That’s simple mathematics and logic; you could make a pretty little graph to show this — management types always like pie charts. 🙂
Again, this was a great post Joseph it was nice to see I’m not the only one thinking this way. It’s also given me a more seasoned view on the process since I’ve just been coming to end of the cycle and started to build theory on it.
This is a great comment! It is so great to see this system working in completely different environments. I especially like the way you describe your problems as brush fires now – I will have to borrow that term.
Another way you can highlight this work style to your management is to go for the low hanging fruit that make their life easier. If you can make accessing programs, printers, websites, etc easier for them – they immediately see the value that you bring to the job. For example, we pinned the most common office programs to all of our users taskbar. That simple 20 minute job received way more excitement that some of our multi-day projects. I try to do something small like this once a week.
And thank you for letting me know your story! Makes writing these posts a lot more enjoyable!
That’s true, the simple things to us may be the most appreciated by management/end users.
I created shortcuts via GP to all the common internal web applications and with a little help from the graphics department, all staff have high quality, easy to identify shortcuts on their desktops.
Another thing I’m trying to do is switch all internal applications that require authentication over to AD/LDAP authentication. So, for some users, that could equal, one, two, three, or more fewer passwords that they have to remember. AND that many fewer password systems I have to access to reset them. Win-Win for everyone.
That is an awesome use of internal resources! Are you running IE11? If so, have you played with the Add Sites to Apps tool (under IE options)? It creates a “modern” like webpage app for you.
Correctly, no. The client I’m working at has been held back on iE9 because of the payroll software they use. After the latest update I believe iE10 is working now, so I’m going to start slowly rolling out iE10 to a few users for testing. I’ll have to check it out on my personal machine though.
As much of a pain that this payroll software has been, it’s probably the biggest factor causing me to switch gears and automate as much as possible. If I hadn’t, I would have been running myself ragged. Just as an example, with all the Java issues and changes this last year (payroll SW requires Java), all computers have to have the latest version as soon as it’s released. So if I hadn’t of used GPSI, I would have been running around to 250+ computers, between five different locations, with the main campus being spread across roughly ~1 Million square feet.
That is awesome that you used that pain point as a catalyst to automate. I know too many techs that will keep dealing with a sucky manual process over and over instead of eliminating it.
Very inspirational!! I think I enjoy your “Thinking about IT” style more than the how-to and scripts
That was my goal Zack! I am hoping to write a bit more about similar topics. Something like a “Best Practices for the IT Professional”. Still just thoughts though.
Joseph, I enjoyed the article. Keep up the good work.
Thank you very much David! Always a pleasure to hear from you!
Your points are well stated and I agree with you. Crafting comprehensive solutions requires a through knowledge of a broad array of technologies and the environment to best implement solutions that are comprehensively effective. This is one of the factors that make our jobs so complex. The best effective solutions can and usually originate from products and/or tools from different Companies. A strong background in scripting and programming languages is warranted – or at the very least a balance is struck with such experience within the team.
I agree completely Bob! What makes the background in scripting so powerful isn’t the scripting itself. It is the logical thinking that scripting requires.
I never knew it but I am a fireman… I feel so stuck right now… how do you break the problem cycle and start to get ahead?
That is a tough place to be but you can get out of it. Each day, try to automate one thing (no matter how small). You will slowly see the effects of compounding time and will start to build some breathing room. As that time builds up, tackle the harder projects. Continue this for a few months and you will certainly see a difference!
Great post joseph! Any suggestions about dealing with the manager that you describe?
Thank you Ivan! Every manager that I’ve had embraced the magician work style very quickly! From their point of view, I think a manager would rather have less complaints from users and more compliments from their boss about how well everything works.
If you have a manager that worries you, make a point to highlight big projects that you’ve done. Be sure to share credit/include your manager when possible. This creates an interest in your work because it is making your manager look good.