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People Tech

End users are not helpless babies

IT departments, particularly infrastructure teams, are often thought of as being anti-user. We get the reputation of being grumpy cave trolls, unsympathetic to the wants and needs of those all those dumb, unreasonable end users. It’s all tech for the sake of tech.

Sometimes that characterization is earned and fair, sometimes not. Either way, it’s a problem of attitude and perception.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who consider themselves defenders of end users, protectors against undue change and hardship. It’s not very often that it’s classified as such, but this attitude can be just as toxic and damaging as any overtly anti-user sentiment.

End users don’t need you

If you think end users need you, either as the provider of some critical service or as someone who will protect them from change, you sir/madam, are arrogant at best, if not also an idiot.

Unless the core of the business is technology, most businesses would figure out how to keep functioning if everyone in their IT department got hit by a bus. It might be painful and frustrating, but they’d make it through. Believe it or not, there were businesses before there was IT.

If you believe your end users need you to protect them from the IT trolls who’ve been looking down their noses at them, consider this: there is no surer sign of disrespect for a person than to assume that they need your protection.

At best, end users enjoy the benefits and efficiency of the services we provide them. Our job is to help and lead innovation where we can, not to lord-over or to be a conservitor.

Get out of their way

When it comes to creating road blocks for users, the usual problems are those that can be fixed by discussion –  having an un-realistic security policy is a good example.

Making a cultural shift from traditional IT to things like XaaS and BYOD is a little harder. Becoming comfortable with user-led IT and innovation is something that many IT people can’t achieve.

“Why would you want to use Dropbox when we’ve built this super awesome Windows file share for you?”

One of the hardest problems to fix, though, is a hardline conservatism against change that evidences itself by people saying things like:

“We can’t do that, our users will never figure it out.”

When that attitude pervades throughout an IT organization or business, it prevents users from getting access to new tools that might help them do their job and puts the business at a competitive disadvantage.

Yes, change control is needed and yes, we should not change things for the sake of changing them. But to not embrace change and enable end users to use new and different tools will leave everyone coughing in the dust.

Your users will figure it out, because they are intelligent adults. Have some respect for them and trust them. If you’ve provided them with good tools (which are inherently coherent and usable), they’ll get there.

Exposing end users to change isn’t an unsympathetic act (at least it doesn’t have to be). Speaking for myself, when I give a user something new it’s out of an intense sense of empathy – I know they don’t need me to help them, but I also know they don’t need me to stand in their way.

I’m also thinking about a longer game, one where not everyone works for the same company their entire life. I’ve seen family members and friends who were inhibited by their employer’s IT end up having a lot of trouble either finding a new job or coping with a more modern IT ecosystem at a new company.

As much as dismissing user complaints offhand isn’t helpful, sheltering users from change is not helping them either. If we really care about the people we’ve been tasked to help, the right solution is somewhere in the middle – throttled change supported by good testing, training, and in many cases, just trusting that users will figure it out.

Image Credit: Harald Groven

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People Tech

How to sell IT to a cranky millennial

I am regularly accused of not liking salespeople, sometimes by the salesperson I’m currently meeting with. I don’t think this is true, but I can understand why one might think it.

If I smell blood in the water – an obvious lie, hyperbole, arrogance, insincerity – I go for the jugular. An example must be made, a lesson taught. I don’t mean to be this way, it’s just something in the way I’m wired – a neurological pre-disposition to not suffering fools.

To be clear, my hostility is not directed at the person, but the role they are playing, in many cases, the role they have been taught to play.

Truth is, I’m fine with salespeople. At several points in my career, I’ve been one. I have stared into the abyss of constant rejection. I’ve felt the pressure and inadequacy. Sales can be miserable and, at times, soul crushing.

What I actually dislike is the Game of Sales, the wagon wheel ruts that so many salespeople fall into and never steer away from – the pitching, the talking in circles, the “I read it in a Zig Ziglar book” tactics, and oh-my-God, the presentations.

I reject the notion that this is the way it has to be, that this is just “how it is” and everyone needs to get on board, power through, and get comfortable with never saying what they mean in a sales meeting.

It can be different. It can be so much better and it all starts with one thing.

Ask questions, and listen

I’ve lost count of the number of salespeople who’ve told me “Our customers love us because we listen to them.” and then proceeded into a lengthy soliloquy about how awesome their company is.

They talk about partnerships and our future together, coming off like the psycho person who talks about marriage and kids on a first date.

If we’re meeting in person, they probably brought a PowerPoint deck with lots of slides showing awards and Gartner Magic Quadrant placement and some insufferably cliche mission statement.

Guess what? This might hurt a little, but your prospects don’t care who you are. If they agree to anything as the result of your pitching, most of the time it’s just to get you out of their office.

As for partnerships? If you’ve pitched a partnership at our first meeting, I don’t want it. I don’t even want to be your customer. Partnerships are forged and justified by time, information, and action. We have none of those things together. What you’re really asking for is un-earned, blind trust so you can sell me the moon with no questions asked. Sorry, but no.

Try this instead: Ask questions.

  • “What do you need?”
  • “What’s causing you guys the most heartburn right now?”
  • “Tell me about your business.”
  • “What’s the next six months look like? Where do you want to go with this stuff?”

And just keep asking questions. Hone in on the problems your product or service can help solve. Gather information so that the next time we meet, you actually have something worth presenting: how you can help, which is 1000x more important to a prospect than anything else you’ve told them.

Maybe the answers to your questions reveal that you can’t help. That’s a real thing, accept it. What you’re selling doesn’t work for everyone.

Instead of wasting time chasing the prospect with follow-up calls and e-mails, and driving them to never wanting anything from you even if you could help, how about you shake hands and move along to someone else you might actually be able to help?

This works. It absolutely works. I’ve sold way more by asking questions than I have by pitching and I’m a lot more receptive to salespeople when they approach me the same way.

One of the earliest big sales I closed still sticks with me, not because of the dollar amount, but because of what the customer told me and my business partner after we closed.

“Out of all the companies who came in here today, you’re the only ones that asked me what I needed.”

Image Credit: Elias Levy

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People Tech

Accelerating Change: Adapt or be eaten

I was fascinated with animals when I was a kid. Whenever there was an animal documentary on PBS, I was glued to it.

My favorites were the predator and prey hunts – big savannah cats sneaking up on gazelles, chameleons popping out of camouflage to grab insects with their tongues – that sort of thing.

Mimicking the animals, my friends and I would play hide and seek in the woods – hunting each other with pellet guns (I’m really not sure how none of us ended up blind.).

Between reading, watching those shows, and getting pelted with lead, one thing stuck with me:

When you get comfortable and stop paying attention to what’s going on around you, you get eaten.

Or at least hit in the back of the head with a pellet.

Unable to adapt

Humans are terrible at anticipating change. It’s hard for us to get out of our day-to-day and our local scene. We’re busy, we’re distracted, we’re worried about surviving office warfare for the next 8 hours.

But we live in an age of rapidly-accelerating, Kurzweilian change. To keep one’s head down and assume everything is going to be a.) OK and b.) the same, is a form of intellectual and career suicide.

You know those people. You see them in the hall at work. You pass them on the highway.

They say things like “We’ll never do that…” and “It’ll be at least ten years until…” and “I’ll worry about that later.”

When it comes to technology they make the mistake of thinking that the next five years will resemble the last five. They look at continuous delivery, or BYO, or containerization and think “That’s fancy, but I’ll never have to deal with it.”

It is one thing to disagree about the nature of a change – this is healthy and necessary, but another to claim that something will not change.

Keep moving

We’re living through a major technological transition driven by pervasive compute and connectivity. It’s a big enough step that not everyone is going to make it – especially those who can’t or choose not to re-tool. Many people are going to find themselves pushed into lesser-paying roles or different careers.

It’s heartbreaking talking to those folks, trying to convince them that what’s headed their way is real – that the future is coming and it will be radically different than the present, even though we might all be wrong about the details.

“If you would move literally two steps to the right I think you’ll be OK.”

“Nope, ain’t gonna do it. You’re wrong, dummy. YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME TO THE CLOUD!”

But I’m going to keep trying because the world is in constant flux and the future is coming. In fact (in the words of William Gibson), it’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Image Credit: Shutter Fotos

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People Tech

Cisco Live: A river of dudes

It’s been a few weeks since Cisco Live, and I’ve had time to digest a lot of what I heard and saw there. There were some pleasant surprises: The DevNet area was awesome and highlighted some interesting things that Cisco is doing with Infrastructure as Code.

There were also disappointments: Intercloud remains a confused mess, some vendors went super-cheesy with their presentations, and the follow-up sales calls are relentless (Seriously, Puppet Labs, I didn’t need another 25 voicemails.).

But weeks later, the thing that stands out in my mind is the homogony of the attendees. Easily 99% of those present were male, and that stinks.

This happens everywhere

Diversity isn’t a tech industry problem – tech just happens to highlight the most egregious examples because of the current underrepresentation of women and minorities in math and science-heavy fields.

Across all industries, we make it hard for women to get their foot in the door – I’ve seen women turned down for jobs over concern for how others in the business would “cope” with them and a myriad of other silly reasons. I’ve seen women forced to prove themselves far past what’s required of male applicants with similar experience and credentials.

I’ve seen those that have gotten hired treated horribly – spoken down to, insulted, alienated.

Yeah, so…I’m gonna need you to answer the phone now

A few years ago my wife and I worked at the same company. When management fired the receptionist, they decided to split the phone duties among “the other women” in the office. Male peers, at the same employment level, were excluded – they had important work to do. My wife was managing HRIS, but because of her gender she was seen as “less than” the males working in entry-level roles a few offices away.

I know plenty of smart, competent women who have strong interest in fields in which they are not working – tech, science, manufacturing, field ops. When I ask them why they didn’t follow their interests, the answer is almost universally “because I didn’t feel welcome”. They didn’t feel welcome in computer club, in biology class, in their MBA program – so they defaulted to something they didn’t love in order to survive.

That makes me furious

My wife and I have been talking about starting a family, and during those discussions my imagination runs wild. I imagine future children, teaching them things, showing them the world.

I imagine having a little girl who gets told by others that it’s more important to be pretty than smart. I imagine her applying for a job and getting turned down because of her gender. I imagine her getting treated poorly by a chauvinistic manager. I imagine her standing up for herself and being called a bitch and it makes my blood boil.

Changing culture

The status quo hurts everyone. A meeting room filled entirely with men lends itself to the pack-mentality groupthink that results in bad decisions and stagnation. It creates a toxic, locker-room culture in which it is OK to talk down to others and management is accomplished through intimidation. It leads to stale ideas pushed forward by literal yes-men.

My ideal hiring scenario, because I don’t trust my own subconscious biases, would be completely blind – if I was managing a team, I wouldn’t know if a new hire was male or female, I wouldn’t know their race or age, I wouldn’t know any of the unimportant things about them until they walked in the door the first day.

(This sounds impractical, but Google is actually pulling something off that is very similar.)

That’s really hard though, especially for companies that don’t have the resources to setup selection committees or do away with the concept of “hiring” managers. It’s not that hard to blind resumes for the first round of review though, so we can start there.

It’s also not that hard to treat your current coworkers like human beings.

Diversity is a hard problem to solve. There are no easy fixes – there never are when a problem is based in the way people behave, but we have to start making changes, if only to build momentum.

Down with the patriarchy. Long live basic human decency.