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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Perspective: Don't be a Nick (Burns)!

I thought before I launched into the geek speakiness and tech talkiness, I would do a psychospiritual level set and talk about one of the challenges I face as the "company computer guy".

One of my favorite recurring characters in the late 90s sketch line-up on SNL was Nick Burns (Your Company Computer Guy). Watching those sketches was hilarious, and painfully self-referential for me. See, there's a Nick Burns buried inside me, an archetypal character defect that I will probably never completely exorcise, no matter how many spiritual inventories I do. I would even venture to say that there's a little bit of Nick in all IT professionals, no matter how polished, humble, and self-effacing you might be. And, at the heart of that archetype is a lack of self-esteem that wields sarcasm as a blade to cut ourselves off from the potential of future rejections. When we dive into something with almost religious zeal, whether it's computers or video games or what have you, we become "geek". And when our geek gets deeply buried enough under arcane language, inside jokes, and minutia, we cut ourselves off from the general population. It can become a vicious cycle.

Wow, that went deeper than I anticipated. Sometimes I even surprise myself.

For the first 6 years(!) of my IT career, my geekitude both paid the bills and gave my Muse a medium, as I worked in the Helpdesk doing phone support in a retail environment (and in my spare time, pushed pixels with a passion). I could go on and on about the challenges and frustrations of trying to troubleshoot computer problems when you can't see the screen of the person you are helping (this was pre-TeamViewer or Remote Desktop days), don't know as much as you'd like about the system you're trying to fix (old-style dumb terminals and HP mini-computers), and the person you are trying to help is under the gun to help the customer glaring at them on the other end of the phone. And by nature, I am not a patient person. It's amazing to me, looking back, that I did not get written up on a weekly basis for my attitude.

When I moved into desktop support, it was a little easier to temper my frustration because I was at peoples' desks, seeing the problem first-hand, and was almost always rewarded with genuine gratitude. That fed my soul. The Nick in me still came out, but in a way that people tolerated as "just Jack", not mean-spirited but that gruff, sarcastic character that was often tempered with kindness and humility when nobody else was looking.

Occasionally, my sarcasm even causes a chuckle, as I would send folks a link to the Let Me Google That For You site when they had a question I thought was incredibly easy to "just google", which they could have done themselves. In fact, I became so famous for that directive within my wife's family that her sister gave me a shirt one Christmas that had "just google it" emblazoned on the front so I could point to it whenever they asked m something they knew I would tell them to google.

Since then, I've tried to incorporate the philosophy that "knowledge does not equal virtue" and daily remind myself it is unfair to get attitude with someone because they don't necessarily know or remember tech procedures that I think should be fundamental. Virtue should be measured by what and how much we give of ourselves to others. Period.

When I started working at ARC, this attitude of patience and empathy was an even more important "coat to put on" every morning. In the corporate world, it is somewhat reasonable to expect people to have basic computer skills because it's an integral part of their job. In the non-profit sector, people consciously choose to get involved in order to contribute to the greater good, not necessarily to make a living or further their careers. So the expectation of basic computer knowledge is not appropriate. These folks at ARC are here to make a difference in the lives of those we serve, and it's my job - my MISSION - to make sure that their experience with their computers doesn't become a distraction from THEIR mission.

As I continue to define and refine the direction that I'd like to guide the development of the IT infrastructure here, I think it's central to what I do to remember what's important to the people I'm helping. I guess, in that light, calling this an IT "empire" is rather... Nick-ish of me. So from now on, I'm going to call it OUR IT Collective.

Cheers, and have a great day!

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