Even paranoids have real enemies

Lately, the network administrator's job seems like an invitation to paranoia. After a couple of weeks on the job, an administrator can feel that everyone in the company who is grouchy targets his or her aggression at the IT department managers and staff. After talking to some IT folks, I get the impression that their relationship with users is always adversarial. Having worked on both sides of that wall, I understand why.

Although the IT staff and the users are on the same team, they have different goals.

From the user's perspective, IT actions often seem capricious and high-handed. The IT staff often tells users to log off, not to use email, or to take actions that make little or no sense without explanation. For the user with an immediate need, a 72-hour wait in the support queue is often intolerable. And technically competent users get frustrated because they get no better treatment than users who ask where the any key is. Almost all the user perceptions of the IT department result from these very typical IT interactions.

To the IT staff, users often seem incapable of blowing their own noses unless you give them step-by-step instructions. And users' problems often result from their actions, including installing unapproved software on desktop computers, which introduces all kinds of problems into the IT department's carefully ordered world. At the same time, users expect the IT department to wave a magic wand and fix things instantly.

To state the obvious, what we have here is a failure to communicate. As a user, understanding what your IT department can and can't do for you will make it much simpler for you to get your expectations fulfilled. As for the IT department, creating rules that make sense to the user will go a long way toward improving IT and user relationships.

Once, as a user in a large company, I needed to reinstall Windows NT. The corporate IT policy permitted running NT as your desktop OS, but the IT department wouldn't provide NT Workstation support. I had seriously messed up my NT installation and decided that the best fix would be a complete reinstallation. I reinstalled NT, then called the Help desk to have the corporate messaging applications that I needed set up. The Help desk sent up a staff member later that afternoon. After the application installation was complete, I realized that I had forgotten to configure the IP addresses for the company's local gateway and DNS server. Not having the IP addresses committed to memory (and not wanting to disturb my coworkers to get the addresses off their computers), I called the Help desk and asked for the two IP addresses. A 15-minute conversation ensued, in which I explained what had happened and why I needed to reenter this information on my system. The Help desk informed me that I wasn't authorized to receive this information, so they would send a staff member to my office to type in the numbers (although I could get these addresses off any computer in my department). Not wanting to argue the point, I let the Help desk send an official IT employee to my office to type in this crucial information. When the IT staff member got to my office, he called the Help desk, asked for the IP addresses, and relayed them to me to type in. Unsurprisingly, the users in this company didn't regard the IT department highly.

I've found that IT departments can break down the walls between IT staff and end users by managing users' expectations. The IT department needs to provide users with information in advance about changes that will affect the users. If the IT department solicits input from users about what impact its actions have on other departments' schedules and makes schedule adjustments when possible, smoother IT and user relationships will likely result.

With seemingly daily releases of new viruses such as Worm.ExploreZip and tools such as the Cult of the Dead Cow's Back Orifice 2000 (BO2K), external threats are enough of a burden on an IT department's peace of mind. (For more information about BO2K, see Mark Joseph Edwards, "Back Orifice 2000," page 91.) Not having a good relationship between IT and users just makes everybody's life more difficult. Remember that you have plenty of real enemies outside your company; you don't need to create more of them within the company.