17 March 2015

Information artisans

By Andrew Clifford

How do you view yourself and your colleagues?

It's not a question we ask very often. We are caught up in the demands of the moment, in the urgent problem needing fixing, in the next project deadline. But knowing ourselves is key to how we manage our careers and how we manage each other.

To our systematising IT minds, we often reduce ourselves to "resources". I hate the word, I always have. Other than a few narrow activities, IT is all about tackling new and different problems. We can't do that if we are interchangeable automatons whose only valuable quality is our availability.

Not that our work is just expressive art, either. Our IT solutions have to actually work, have to meet a need, have to deliver value.

Are we professionals, then? In a sense we are. But we don't have the burdens of responsiblity and regulation that surround lawyers and doctors.

To be successful in IT, you need an aptitude for information and for technology. You need perception to understand what's going on, and open-mindedness to stop you jumping to conclusions. You need an attention to detail and intellectual stamina, and the discipline to see the job through. You need a lot of inventiveness, even creativity.

Most importantly, you need experience. You need to understand lots of different technologies. You need to see IT from lots of different angles, from all parts of a solution lifecycle, in different business contexts. Only then can you understand the options and pick the right response.

In many ways, what we do is most like a craftsperson or artisan. We make things, in our case IT solutions. These are complex and have to meet specific functional needs. But the solutions need other qualities too, such as usability, simplicity, maintainability and longevity. Those things come, for want of a better word, from our craftsmanship. They have their roots in our experiences, our personal qualities, our style.

Our attempts to manage IT as dehumanised projects and processes rarely work. We need to recognise the importance of the people. We can learn from the traditional artisan roles: the master responsibile for the work; the competent journeyman who assists; the apprentice learning the trade.

Some would see this as backward. They would say that IT is too important to be left to individuals, and that most people with a technical aptitude simply don't understand business.

From what I've seen, the opposite is true. In many organisations, the long-serving, experienced technicians have a deep understanding of their business, even love for it. That they don't always agree with ill-conceived projects doesn't mean they don't understand.

Rather than ever-more-formal projects and processes, we should emphasise developing more broadly competent people. We should free people from the narrow confines of their specialisations and project tasks. We need to develop people - including ourselves - to take broader responsibility for the finished product. And that responsibility isn't merely to deliver, it's also the qualities and supporting materials it needs, like usability, longevity and documentation.

Maybe I'm a romantic, but my view of IT is not of a dehumanised machine. It's more human than that, more dependent on individual skills and experience. And its full of information artisans, not mere resources.