Confessions of a Recovering Engineer


Hi. My name is Bob. I’m an engineer. I have been in recovery for many years, but my friends tell me there is hope. I knew I needed help when a grocery store cashier looked at me one day many years ago and said, “You’re an engineer, aren’t you?”

How did she know? What was there about my persona that branded me as an engineer? I didn’t have a pocket protector, and I didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses, but my “techie engineer” qualities were apparently tattooed like a bar code on my forehead. Somewhere deep in my psyche, I knew she had not given me a compliment.

I have titled this talk, “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer” as a light way of introducing and exploring the consequences of this techie-ness on your businesses. Now you may not be a techie, but I am, so I will speak about techies in the first person.

What is it about us engineers, geeks, nerds and techies that makes us think, behave and relate differently from the mainstream?

How do these differences affect your businesses and your people?

And to what extent does this “techie” energy drive the needs of your business ventures rather than support those needs?

There is something about engineers and techies that many people recognize. Let me describe this with a short story.

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost.  He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below.  He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me?  I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground.  You are between 48 and 49 degrees north latitude and between 122 and 123 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist.  “I am,” replied the woman.  “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.  Frankly, you’ve not been much help so far.”

The woman below responded, “You must be in management,”

“I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going.  You have risen to where you are, due to a large quantity of hot air.  You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems.  The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

Does this story describe any techies you know?

Several years ago, while the Internet was still exploding on our collective consciousness, I was flying east to teach a class on Information Technology. The man I sat next to was a senior executive for a major publishing house in Chicago. Our conversation turned to the Internet and I asked him, “What issues keep you awake at night?”

After a moment’s thought, he responded, “My business strategy depends on knowing whether the Internet is simply another distribution channel or a fundamentally new business model.”

Do you remember when dot.com companies were soaring to astronomical valuations and thousands of young geeks turned into instant millionaires? The techie dot-goners had convinced the normally conservative world of high finance that Internet technology was a fundamentally new business model.

It is easy to see the flaw in this thinking now, but from the eye of the hurricane, the horizon was not all that clear. At least I tell myself this so I won’t beat myself up any harder for all the money I lost on Yahoo.

I co-founded my own startup, Etelos, in mid-1999 with six others, and laid myself off along with most of my staff in September of 2000. It was a painful and costly experience that taught me several powerful lessons.

I would like to explore some of those lessons today by asking you, “Are the techies serving the strategies and goals of your business or are they driving your business in ways that may not align with your business objectives?”

Theoretically, my ideal audience for this question would be executive managers and leaders of organizations that have a large formal IT department; however, whether you are an independent insurance salesperson, a professional in private practice or a senior manager of a large and complex organization, the challenges are the same. We all deal with technology and technology people. The differences are simply a matter of scale.

I have been working with computers and Information Technology organizations and people for over four decades, and have seen some patterns emerge. My talk today will look at three of those patterns.

·      First, information technology organizations have not lived up to customer expectations.

·      Second, IT organizations tend to be structured in ways that make it difficult to respond to changing business needs.

·      And finally, both the problems and the solutions lie in our people and in our relationships.

The first pattern is about reality versus the perception. Information Technology tools and toys have evolved massively in the past few decades. We now have more computing power in our cell phones than we had to run large businesses when I was an IBM Systems Engineer in 1970. That is reality.

But with all this magnificent growth, IT customers and users have consistently perceived technology solutions, organizations and people as delivering poor service and poor value.

Several years ago, I surveyed a broad audience on their attitudes towards IT organizations and the people in those organizations. I included executives and senior managers, individual contributors and consultants. I wanted to get multiple points of view and see how they lined up. I asked a series of agree-disagree questions and some open-ended text questions. What I learned was no big surprise, and probably won’t surprise you either; but it should at least make you uncomfortable.

The agree-disagree questions measured how people viewed IT organizations and people. Here are some sample questions and the average answers:

  • IT contributes strategic value to our business (68% agreed)
  • IT has a well demonstrated customer service focus (51% agreed)
  • IT people are easy to work with (42% agreed)
  • IT people communicate effectively (32% agreed)

Almost 70% saw IT as delivering strategic value to the business, but half saw IT as having problems delivering customer service. Overall, the survey respondents gave IT a 46%. If your customers gave you this grade, how would you feel? If you were responsible for a department that delivers this level of customer satisfaction, what would you do?

The questions on the survey looked at both the IT organization and the people in the IT organization. Over half of the people responding said IT people are not easy to work with, and almost 70% said IT people have difficulty communicating.

Let me cut to the bottom line. Overall, IT organizations and especially technology people (or “techies”) are assessed by those who interact with them as arrogant, poor communicators who speak Technobabble and are not service oriented. People who deal with techies typically do not enjoy the experience. The grocery store clerk who recognized me as an engineer was not giving me a compliment.

The other significant finding in my survey was the polarity between the business and IT over what is important. Business users need to solve business problems. They want the support of the techies, but that support often comes with a very expensive price tag.

There is a clear and simple reason for this polarity. It has to do with the driving needs and intentions of the people involved. In my experience, there are three driving intentions that I have found common to most techies.

The first great need of the techies is the need to be competent. Techies are expected to be technically competent. We are the ones who are supposed to know where to plug the wires and how to install and use every piece of software ever created. And most of us WANT to know. At least while we are very young and full of energy.

But technology is changing so rapidly and there is so much to know that any one person cannot possibly be competent across a broad range of technologies, much less a few Microsoft products. I have installed various versions of Microsoft Windows many hundreds of times on dozens of different computers. With each new version of Windows, something has changed or moved and many new features have been added.

When I was young, I could cut thru this stuff quickly and easily, but nowadays, I just feel old, stupid and frustrated. The half-life of my techie competence used to be measured in years. Now the half-life of technology skills is measured in months, and sometimes only weeks.

I have written over two million lines of code in my life, much in forgotten languages like FORTRAN, PL/1 and COBOL. I have learned and forgotten a dozen variants of BASIC including six or seven versions of Microsoft Visual Basic.

What does this get me today? Who needs and will pay for these ancient skills? If a techie is not competent in the same version of the tools that you are using, he probably won’t get hired.

Rapidly changing technology creates huge stress. Business users expect us techies to remain competent so we can solve the technical problems that show up every day. We want to know the right answers. Those who depend on us want us to know.

But there is so much to know and it changes so quickly that we start to feel like we are inside some arcade game. The longer we survive, the more aliens there are to shoot and the faster they are coming at us. If we survive and graduate to the next level, our reward is that the game becomes more difficult.

How do we renew our skills? We must be in a continuous state of relearning. A senior network engineer recently told me he spends about 25% of his time just staying current technically. I think this is a conservative estimate. The real number may be upwards of 30%.

If we don’t stay current, our skill set ages and dies.

Our only alternative is to grow our skill set covertly, sometimes on our own time, but more often on yours. You are paying for techie retraining one way or another. Only a small part of techie training is a visible line item in your budget. The invisible costs show up as mistakes, missed deadlines, runaway projects, poorly designed and implemented solutions, defensiveness, pretense and arrogance.

Now let’s add one more dimension, just to make it richer. All the time we spend staring at the computer screen is time we don’t spend interacting with people and growing our relationship skills. And many of us are a bit short on relationship skills to begin with.

This shows up as what I have labeled as the “Ego Dance.” In the spring of 1992, about a year after I left Microsoft, I was having lunch with two other fellows who had left Microsoft to produce and market high quality technical reports.

Both of these guys had been involved with the development and marketing of OS/2, and they really knew their stuff. The conversation was rapid and intense, as we each sought to establish our technical dominance over the other.

I raised a question about the motivation behind certain OS/2 design decisions and they pounced quickly. I was mistaken, they assured me, because they had had many personal conversations with Bill Gates about exactly the topic at hand, and my information was just plain wrong.

Somewhat chagrined, but not one to easily give up, I pounced back on another point, and then another. And on it went, the dance of the egos.

After an hour or so, we had traded an immense amount of information, but something else had happened. I realized that I felt drained and resentful, and I had absolutely no desire to call these two people into my life ever again.

It wasn’t that they were bad or mean or anything like that. Instead, they reminded me too much of myself… of that part of me that I was (and still am) trying to outgrow. And I realized that the process we had engaged in, this “dance of the egos”, which was so totally familiar to me as a left-brained engineer, was dehumanizing and demeaning to all of us.

As a techie, my motivation is to convince you that I know more than you do about just about everything. Competence defines my social pecking order. The more technically competent I am, the higher I am in the social strata. If you need any proof of this phenomenon, spend 15 minutes on the Microsoft campus.

The consequence of the Ego Dance is the polarity between techies and non-techies. It shows up as arrogance and aloofness in techies and frustration and dissatisfaction in their customers.

I mentioned that techies have three driving needs. The second need is having fun, and the third is having control over our toys. We love playing with our toys, especially when we can get somebody else to pay for them. You may hear them called servers, web farms, routers or some other technical term. The proper term (from our perspective) is “cool toys.”

Over the years I have become very persuasive at convincing my wife that I desperately need some particular piece of hardware or software. I could cost-justify, depreciate, finance and amortize just about anything that I wanted.

At one point, I had fifteen computers in my house, all connected to the Internet full time! I was living in toy-land, quite literally.

And then in 1999, my dream came true. I became a co-founder and CTO of Etelos dot-com. We raised 3.5 million dollars, and I got to spend most of it. I hired a staff of elves and rented a toy-factory.

We purchased big Compaq servers as database engines and smaller servers for our web farm. A wonderful salesman from F5 convinced us that we needed a pair of Big-IP boxes at about $30,000 each, and we plugged them together with Cisco Routers and Extreme Gigabit switches.

We tested and tuned, tweaked and twiddled. We designed and built an engine that would serve up web pages at an incredible rate. All we needed was customers.

We spent close to a million dollars creating a toy factory that was just like the toy factory of every other dot-com. We built everything from scratch and spent money as if Santa Claus were a Microsoft millionaire.

We played with our toys and made darn sure that we had total control of our toys. Eventually two of my systems administrators got so carried away that they would not allow anyone into the toy factory. The elves became obsessed with their own toys and forgot about who the toys were really for.

It was so under control that it was totally out of control.

In March of 2000, the dot-com bubble burst and Santa Claus disappeared. By August, reality had set in and I laid myself and most of my staff off.

Why did I allow this to happen? In the time since then, I have pondered this experience deeply. What mistakes did I make? What lessons could I learn?

I looked at my own intention, my own driving needs throughout this experience. I realized that I built what I could have (and should have) outsourced because I wanted to prove to myself that I could and because it was fun. I wanted to be competent and I wanted to play with and control what I thought of as “my cool toys.”

What the business needed was a clear strategy, clear requirements, and reliable service that could deliver web pages to users as fast as they arrived. I could have out-sourced everything I built for a small fraction of the money I spent. It was a costly and painful lesson.

Is my own experience an isolated one? I think not. Look at your own experience dealing with the techies in your life. In fairness, I know many who are excellent communicators and highly self-aware. But in my experience, they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I started this talk with a question, “Are techies serving or driving your business?” My premise has been that techies need to be competent and in control of their toys, and this need has been driving the way your business uses technology to solve business problems.

It has resulted in vertically integrated, insular IT organizations that deliver poor customer service and cost lots of money.

Whether you are leading a large business with a formal IT organization, or you are a small business owner with only a single computer, effectively managing and accessing information about your business helps you in countless ways.

And the overwhelming perception of most people I have talked with about this topic is that those of us in the IT world need to do a much better job of serving our customers.

If we could wave our magic wand and do a better job, what would it look like?

Do not expect techies to mutate into great communicators. Asking your IT people to change their basic style reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the frog and the scorpion. They both drown because the frog assumes that the scorpion can change its nature. Personal growth and change come from within. They happen only when the motivation comes from within also.

So how can you get your technical problems addressed in an ongoing way? How can you get the kind of service that will make your users feel empowered rather than frustrated and angry?

When I examine this problem, I see three possible strategies that I will label as The Introvert Strategy, The Extrovert Strategy, and the Covert Strategy.

The Introvert Strategy is to recognize that your technical staff needs lots of ongoing training, certainly in technical skills and probably in interpersonal skills as well. They need to be coached and counseled, taught and led. You will have to budget for their training and allow them the time and room they need to continuously grow their skills. This is a very proactive approach that requires lots of work on your part as leaders. You will have to get very involved with growing your technical resources over the long term. Enlightened, benevolent large companies have recognized the need for this approach, and it works well; however when the tough times come, the training is often the first thing to go.  Anybody in the training business (as I was for about eight years) has seen this pattern play out.

I had sold several training classes a month for over a year to Intel Corporation. I was riding high, knowing that I had sold all the business I could deliver for the coming year. Just after the first of the year, I got a call from the new training manager at Intel informing me that ALL training classes at Intel had been canceled due to budget constraints. A whole year’s income disappeared in a single phone call.

But, the Introvert Strategy does work. Intel eventually restarted classes simply because the cost of not training their people was so great.

This leads me to what I think of as the Covert Strategy. This is the strategy of denial and is common to most small businesses. The thinking goes like this: I can’t afford to train my people or buy good equipment so I’ll just force myself to get by. Maybe I’ll find a local kid to hold my hand and rebuild my old computer so that I don’t have to spend the money that I really can’t afford.

Now it may be true that you believe you can’t afford the money, but the problem is that you wind up spending it anyway; just not in ways that show up clearly on your Profit and Loss statement. Using this strategy, all your technical costs occur covertly. They show up as unsolved technical problems that keep you and your team up late at night, and increase your stress and frustration levels. They show up as business opportunities that you miss because you don’t have the technical infrastructure to allow you to chase those opportunities.

Using the Covert Strategy, you never really see the true costs of managing your technical infrastructure. But you sure do feel them.

The third strategy I label as the Extrovert Strategy. It recognizes that technical people need the ongoing training and the socialization with other technical people. It recognizes that most techies are not in the hardware or grocery or banking business, but in the IT business.

The Extrovert Strategy suggests that all generic technical skills and services will be outsourced to organizations and people who specialize in those skills and services. It calls for you to focus on your true business and not try to grow an IT business within your real business.

A key concept to the Extrovert Strategy is distinguishing between business-specific and generic services. I want to encourage you to look at your Information Technology assets and organization as a collection of services. There are many IT services you use on a regular basis. Email, database, invoicing, book keeping, printing, networking and sales tracking are just a few examples of IT services.

Ask two questions about each service in the collection. First, is this service core to my business or is this service generic to many businesses? Here’s a clue. If you buy it from Microsoft, it’s generic. Core services are those that express the rules and processes that drive your business. Generic services are those that everybody needs like email, word processing and databases.

If it is a core service, then the people who manage this service have to know lots about your business. For example, if you want to be able to offer free products to selected customers who purchase certain other products, this may require some intricate knowledge both of how your business works and how your invoicing system works. This is a core business skill.

On the other hand, knowledge of your email system, your Internet connections and your desktop and server operating systems is quite generic. There are standardized training materials and certifications available to teach and qualify the people who manage these generic services.

Does it really make sense as a business decision to have people on your staff who are trained and qualified in the management of generic services? The answer depends on the size of your business. If you have enough users and equipment that you can consciously cost-justify the ongoing training costs to keep people up to speed, then it may make sense to keep these services in house. But in my experience, this works out only for very large organizations, and sometimes, not even then.

Ryder Systems in Miami, Florida (the folks who rent the trucks) made a decision several years ago to outsource their entire IT organization to Anderson Consulting. Now given Anderson’s recent troubles, this may not have been the wisest decision they could have made; but it does serve to illustrate a point. Everyone who was on Ryder’s IT staff became an Anderson consultant with all the career opportunities, training and benefits that were open (back then) to Anderson employees world wide. And Ryder got to focus on what it does best: transportation management.

The Extrovert Strategy allows you to get several part-time experts rather than a full time challenge. And if you picked the wrong expert, you can easily fix the problem. You can ask your provider to send a different person, or you can change providers much more easily than you can change employees.

Most IT Infrastructure Professional Services organizations have a number of people on staff with a variety of skills. If you need your desktops upgraded to use the latest software, that’s a different skill set than tuning your network to make sure it is secure.

Since IT Infrastructure Professional Services organizations truly are in the Information Technology business, their technical staff must be well trained. The better organizations will encourage or even pay for their people to get not only trained, but certified as well. The certification process is your assurance that the person you are dealing with really does know what they are doing with the technology they are working on. They may still be a bit rough around the edges in their interpersonal skills, but they are certified as “competent” in certain designated technologies.

Some of the more common certifications are the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP). Both require multiple exams and lots of study. Anybody who has an MCSE or CCNP certification is a highly skilled techie.

There is a second part of the Extrovert Strategy that I would also like to examine with you. The first question is “What services should be outsourced?” The second question is, “Where should each service be located?” A desktop computer must be close to its user. Printers and the local area network wires that connect computers together all need to be local. But there are many services that could be located remotely. Email services, web servers and backup services are just a few that could be situated physically far away.

In the past remote services were costly and slow to access. For example, a local Qwest T-1 line costs roughly $250 per month and runs at only 1.5 million bits per second, while a local area network usually has no associated access costs and delivers about 100 million bits per second. The T-1 cost is relatively low because most in-Bellingham T-1 lines pass through one Qwest central office. If multiple CO’s are involved, the monthly rate for a T-1 can quickly approach or even exceed $1000.

Clearly the cost structure dictates keeping most services local. But what if the economies of this shifted? If you could have super-fast access to remote services for a pittance, are there any advantages?

If you have a small office or a home office selling insurance or running a garage, can you afford to have fifteen servers in your office? Of course not. Small office users instinctively place almost all of their services at remote sites like Yahoo, MSN, AT&T Broadband or AOL. They recognize what business they are in, or they don’t stay in business very long.

Is out-placement of services right for you? Again, it depends on several key questions. First, where are the users of the service? If the users are spread around the Internet, then it makes sense to put the service close to a very fat pipe to the Internet. That was the justification of most of the collocation services that sprung up during the dot-com era. By building large, secure data centers with high speed connections to the Internet, companies could place the services they offer to their audience in a pre-built facility with heavy duty power, fire suppression and air conditioning and lots of rack space for servers. Other wise known as server heaven.

But something went wrong with this equation and most (but not all) collocation centers floundered. Although the collocation centers were wonderful for servers and great for serving up web pages (if there were any customers who wanted to see them), getting to the collocation center often took more band width than was conveniently available. Let me analyze this problem for a moment. Remember that I am still an engineer, and the analysis part is fun.

Computers and the entire digital industry only do three things:

  • They store and retrieve bits from devices like disks, tapes and even printers;
  • They crunch bits in ever faster processors;
  • And they move bits between locations.

We have done a great job of driving down the cost of storing and retrieving bits. You can walk into most stores and purchase a hard drive with over 40 gigabytes of space for less than $100.

And Intel has done a great job of driving down the cost of crunching bits to the point where we only use a tiny fraction of the true computing power available to us.

Finally, we can do a pretty good job of moving bits across short distances at low cost. It’s moving bits across large distances that presents the “final frontier.” The Telco’s have managed to keep the cost of long haul bit movement relatively high. And this cost threshold has made it difficult to even consider out-placing services that are used by the local on-the-LAN customers.

Fortunately, the cost of high speed bit shipping looks like it is starting to come down considerably. As the InfiNET rolls out, local businesses can now consider placing services at any physical location on the InfiNET without a performance penalty. For slightly more than the cost of a local T-1, we can situate servers where it makes sense; at places like Fibercloud, for example.

It is beginning to make good business sense to out-place services like file and database backups. It even makes sense to move shared servers to more centrally managed facilities. For businesses that have multiple locations, this creates many new possibilities.

So here are some business questions you should be asking:

  • What generic services could I outsource?
  • What physical services can we out-place?
  • Does it make business sense to do so?
  • How will the users be affected?

I have posed these questions to lots of IT folks and the answers they give are quite predictable. “We shouldn’t outsource any services because we don’t know how to manage them remotely.”

Translation, “If I can’t touch it, I can’t control it, and I am already on technology overload, so please don’t ask me to become competent in yet another skill set.”

If you out-source your technical services and move your servers to remote locations, it will change the way you do business. The techies will be affected, and so will your users.

Don’t expect your IT people to agree with all my recommendations. Some may, but most will find some well articulated reasons to defend their status quo. You have just entered the realm of the Ego Dance.

Thank you and have a great day.

About the Author

Bob Jones is a sales engineer working for Office Systems Northwest in Bellingham, Washington. He may be reached by email at bob@rhj4.com or by phone at (360) 441-9784.

Last updated on 2/21/2008

Print Friendly