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OS/400 Edition
Volume 12, Number 17 -- April 28, 2003

Shaking IT Up: What a Wonderful IT World

by Kevin Vandever

These are rough times. Massive layoffs, budget constraints, and bleak economic outlooks dominate the business news. For many years, IT was immune from economic hiccups and downturns, but not any more. We've been hit hard, and many of us lucky enough to still have our jobs are paying for that luck by working longer hours, without the budgets for overtime, raises, or training. That leads to job burnout, which causes the productivity scale to approach dangerously close to zero. But it doesn't end there.

This causes more work reductions, which leads to even longer hours, and, well, you get my drift. It ain't pretty. There are many reasons why we find ourselves in this situation, and many smart people have written, discussed, debated, and pontificated about them. I'm not here to discuss how we got into this mess. We're already in it and we need to get out of it, right? But how do we do that?

For starters, we have to focus on what we can control. We have to combat this terrible economic situation with our IT skills. We have to become better at our jobs, more passionate, and more energized. Sounds impossible, right? Well, it is possible, and the answers may be sitting in your record case, or at least as close as the nearest music store or jazz club. That's right, we have to go back to our IT roots and study from the founding father, the one who set the foundation for a great IT department at our feet. I'm talking about Louis Armstrong.

You probably didn't know that the foundations for a great IT department were laid in the 1920s when Louis Armstrong recorded with The Hot Five and The Hot Seven, but they were. And he kept building upon those foundations until his death, in 1971. I discovered it a couple of years ago while watching Jazz, a film by Ken Burns. I have been a fan of jazz for many years, but it wasn't until this particular evening, when jazz critic Gary Giddins and world famous trumpeter Wynton Marsalis were talking about Louis Armstrong, that it hit me. Giddins spoke about Armstrong's passion for the music and the strength with which he played that music. He also talked about how Armstrong didn't just play as an art form. He didn't just hide up on some mountain and come down every few years to enlighten us with his latest masterpiece. He played every night, to entertain the public. To further paraphrase Giddins, Armstrong could be on stage one minute, clowning with a fellow singer, and the next he would play something on his horn that would bring tears to your eyes. Marsalis noted that Armstrong always played the melody. He improvised, as all jazz musicians should, but he did so within limits and always took care to play the melody. That did it. I knew I was watching more than just a great show about jazz; I was uncovering the secrets for building a better IT department. Let's take a closer look.

First of all, Louis Armstrong had the chops, and it is equally important to have the chops in the IT industry. An IT professional can have technical knowledge, or possess project- or people-management skills, but chops, in one form or another, are a must. But that alone is not enough. To be the swinginest cat around, you must have passion. Louis Armstrong had enormous passion, not only for the music or the gigs but also for the cats who put their butts in the seats and listened to the record albums. And that really separated him from other talented, and even passionate, musicians.

The same holds true in IT. It is one thing to have the chops, but it is quite another thing to be passionate about the gig you've got. It's even more powerful to be passionate toward the users. The problem with many of us today is that we look at our job as just that: a job. We don't show any passion or try to put on that extra good show for our fans. Chops alone can be wasted or never uncovered. Passion alone can be misguided. However, combine the two and you have the beginnings of an IT cat just waiting to crank out the code on time, under budget, and to a standing ovation from his fans. But there's more.

Louis Armstrong had the chops--no question--and he had passion coming out his ears. But he also had tremendous strength. During the early recordings with King Oliver's band--before the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings--it is well-documented that Louis had to stand way back from the rest of the band so that he wouldn't drown everybody out. As he matured, he learned to harness that strength and use it to play night after night, from one town to the next, all over the world. An IT professional must meet deadlines, discuss the requirements with users, and juggle many projects at once. In order to do perform these tasks day after day, year after year, while keeping his skills current to negotiate the fast-paced, always-changing IT department, the IT professional must be strong. Strong technically, strong with the deadlines, strong in practice and training, and strong with fellow IT folks and users when need be. Chops and passion will get you a long way, but strength will help you to carry your skills longer and further. Armstrong showed us that.

With the more obvious foundations--chops, passion, and strength--Armstrong then showed us some of more subtle, yet equally important, aspects of a great IT department. Many jazz musicians create music only as art, not as entertainment. These cats really don't care who listens to their music. They don't care who it upsets or uplifts; they are only concerned with the artistic value of the music. How original or close to the edge the music can get is what motivates these cats. They may have passion, chops, and strength, and be utterly awesome to listen to, but they are not potential IT candidates, nor good examples of how IT professionals should function, because they are missing the primary point of IT, which is that IT is a service department. Louis Armstrong had this point nailed. He could create art, and man did he ever--I've cried at the sound of his horn--but his primary purpose for playing was to entertain the fans. We don't write programs just to write programs, or at least we shouldn't. We write programs to improve business functions and to make life easier for the public, who use those business functions. Don't get me wrong; creating art is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in both jazz and IT, art is a positive side effect of some of the work that we do. Often times a masterpiece is created and gets duplicated and reinterpreted over and over and brings much joy the listener, as well as to the user, but the fact that we work for the user is the important point to take from this lesson. And, as I said before, Armstrong could create some art. Art, however valuable in jazz and IT, should be a means to the end, not the end itself. We often forget that little fact, but the good news is that listening to a Louis Armstrong record can quickly set us back on the right path to a successful and happy IT department.

Louis Armstrong always played the melody. This is the final piece to the IT puzzle that Louis left for us. Jazz artists improvise and, as I said before, create art on stage. There are many definitions of jazz and, depending on your likes, dislikes, and knowledge, one definition may appeal to you more than another. My own definition of jazz is improvisation, within limits. Jazz musicians improvise. They create their art right there on the stage, but most of them stay within the limits of the original melody. This goes along with my art-versus-entertainment argument. Those cats that don't play the melody are really just trying to create art for art's sake, in my opinion. They are trying to push the envelope. Much of the time it sounds like random playing, with no boundaries or limits. Do you know any programmers like that? I do. Those cats who play the melody are usually there to entertain. Louis Armstrong used improvisation to interpret the melody, at that moment, to illustrate the mood that he was in. He did not improvise to simply show off his chops. That wasn't the point. His chops got showed off, alright, but it was always in the frame of the melody and to entertain the fans.

Louis Armstrong showed us that it's okay to improvise in IT, too. Often it's necessary. Those who can truly improvise in the heat of a big meeting or under the pressure of an unreasonable deadline are going to make it in IT. But remember the melody. You must stay with the limits of the melody, or within the original requirements (in IT lingo). Those who don't play the melody end up going way off base and tread in areas that they don't realize or understand. This creates backlog, bugs, burnout, and backlash. All of these, not hip to the IT scene.

The lessons are there. You just have to look for them. And Louis Armstrong wasn't the only one to enlighten us to the IT way. Numerous cats helped Louis Armstrong build the foundations, and are still doing it today. For those of you hip to the jazz scene, it's cool to choose your own IT architect to follow. I follow a few cats down in New Orleans, like Leroy Jones and Kermit Ruffins, among others, to supplement the teachings of Louis Armstrong. These new cats provide me with constant training, to help me develop my IT skills. The point is to understand that listening to a jazz record or catching a live act is not only a great way to spend some time but also a necessary training tool for improving your IT skills and understanding what it takes to improve your IT department, so that maybe we can control, if just a little, when and how we get out of the current state we're in.

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Timothy Prickett Morgan

Managing Editor
Shannon Pastore

Contributing Editors:
Dan Burger
Joe Hertvik
Kevin Vandever
Shannon O'Donnell
Victor Rozek
Hesh Wiener
Alex Woodie

Publisher and
Advertising Director:

Jenny Thomas

Advertising Sales Representative
Kim Reed

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