Expectation Management.

Like almost any industry IT can sometimes feel like a pretty thankless job. If you’re halfway competent at what you do people won’t notice the vast amount of effort you put in to making sure everything runs smooth and will begin to question whether they really need to keep you around. Conversely if everything isn’t running smooth it’s more likely everyone will recognize your hard work, but you’ll be spending all your time fighting fires and solving problems that need to be done urgently which isn’t the greatest thing if you like your work to be stress free. Plus the work doesn’t stop once you clock off in the afternoon since (if you’re one of the only computer guys in your family/circle of friends) people will bug you with their computer problems, begging you to provide a fix for them.

The latter point though is applicable to almost any industry. Way too often when people are socializing and the topic of work comes up people’s professions seem to be an open door for people to solicit free advice from the first person to mention what they do for a crust. The doctors will get regaled with tales of various ailments, the mechanic about car problems and the IT guy will of course be barraged with all sorts of strange questions that realistically can’t be answered on the spot. Whilst I don’t shy away from telling people what I do for work anymore (I just tell them my going rate should they want me to fix their problems) it does make IT a bittersweet industry to work in sometimes, and I’m not the only one to think that.

What spurred this idea was this blog post on why it doesn’t pay to be the computer guy. Boyd makes some great points in there hitting on some common frustrations that nearly every IT person has encountered throughout their career. Indeed I had found myself struggling with such problems for some time, like the lack of appreciation for the work that I did and how saying “it should work this way, let me check that” turns into “he said it would do exactly this, and it didn’t so its his fault” quicker than I could ever imagine. Still whilst I’m not going to say that much has changed in the 4 years since he wrote that post there is one thing that I learnt from my time in project management that I feel could solve at least half of the problems that he faced there.

That thing is expectation management.

You see when people expect the world of you it’s in our nature to not turn them down. It’s really quite flattering to have people come and ask you for help and the more you’re able to do for them the more they will expect of you. For us IT folk this has a habit of spiraling wildly out of control since 90% of the problems users encounter are 5 minutes on Google away from being fixed, so expectations eventually reach levels that no one will be able to live up to. Thus you end up being placed on a pedestal and users will look to you first instead of attempting to solve the problem first. They then expect you to be the answer to all their problems, which seems to be the root of many of Boyd’s complaints.

The best way to fight this problem is to educate the users on what they can do to help themselves out, empowering them. Back when I used to work as an IT technician for servicing people’s computers in their homes I’d usually spend a good hour of my time there explaining to them what was wrong and how they could go about fixing it themselves in the future. You’d think this would be bad for business but it wasn’t as many customers would recommend me based on my services, with a good 20% of new customers coming from referrals. Additionally when they did hit a problem they couldn’t fix themselves they were far more appreciative of my skills when I returned, knowing the effort that went into it.

We IT people could also do with eating some humble pie once in a while. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked something that I know nothing about and I’ve straight up said “I don’t know” to a user’s face. Their reaction is always of surprise since it’s unusual for anyone (let alone an IT know-it-all) to admit they have no idea about something you just asked about. It’s not easy I’ll admit and your pride will take some hits from being so brutally honest about your limitations but it will knock you off that pedestal the users have put you on and they’ll be far more likely to treat you like a human rather than some IT deity. If a workplace doesn’t value this kind of honesty then I’d recommend moving on, unless you like the position you’re currently in.

There are a few points Boyd makes however that can’t be simply managed away like the constant skill devaluation and getting asked the same questions again and again, but you life as an IT worker can be a whole lot more tolerable when you start molding people’s expectations of you to more closely align to reality. It’s not easy sometimes, especially when it feels like you’re giving your boss reasons to fire you, but in the end you’ll be better for it and you’ll be far more appreciated for the work you do.

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  1. You make some great points. “users will look to you first instead of attempting to solve the problem first” sounds like the story of my life. Great writeup and thanks for the link.

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