Guru: The Essential Workers Of IT, And Lessons Learned From Trying Times
June 7, 2021 Rob McNelly
Over the past year we’ve all heard about essential workers. Essential workers are present in our industry as well. Those who manage and maintain our power grids and technology infrastructures have always played a vital role. It’s easy to overlook these professionals, but they shouldn’t be taken for granted. In 2020, their mostly unnoticed efforts were particularly important.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not necessarily putting IT workers on the same level as healthcare workers or first responders. My point is simply that during the pandemic, we were reminded that some aspects of our jobs can only be accomplished by people who are present in power plants or on the raised floor in our computer rooms. In many industries the operations teams continued to perform at their work on site.
We were reminded that we can do much of our jobs remotely, and that’s great. However, the shutdown made apparent the need for greater automation. Instead of having someone on site to do a task, we can let the computer do it instead of a human. I find taking repetitive, manual tasks off my daily to do list to be quite satisfying. Take, for instance, setting up processes to automate the creation of a virtual machine. Who wouldn’t prefer to carve out LPARs automatically at the push of a button? How much joy do you feel when you create a script and add it to the scheduler and take repetitive manual tasks off of your plate?
However, some work will always require human hands and eyes. Consider a new server build. (Admittedly this may not be the best example, since many IBM i shops run on a single physical frame, and often for years at a time. But you’ve likely been through a server upgrade at some point in your career, so stick with me.) While much of this process can be performed remotely, let’s start at the beginning. Once your hardware has been received, how do you remotely rack and stack the system, and connect the power plugs into the PDU? How do you remotely plug in a USB disk or a DVD that contains an OS install image? People are still needed for these tasks. You need someone on the raised floor to install and configure the box, at least until it’s powered up and on the network. You need people to troubleshoot network and fiber cable issues. You need CEs to come onsite and replace failed parts. As much as we talk about lights-out data centers, we’re not there yet. Our machines still require human intervention.
A Home/Office Hybrid
No one wants to relive 2020, but we have learned lessons from it just the same over the past year. For instance, remote work is likely here to stay. In our industry and others, people came to value working from home, and they want the flexibility to continue to do their jobs away from the office on at least a part-time basis. Forrester predicts that most companies in the United States and European will employ a hybrid work model post-pandemic. This is echoed by a Citrix survey indicating that “90 percent of respondents have no interest in returning to office work full time once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. More than half prefer a hybrid working model where they can work from home most or all of the time, while 18 percent want a hybrid model where they work from the office more.” Bloomberg shares anecdotes where employees are quitting instead of giving up working from home.
Author Scott Berkun suggests that CEOs roll with the change in attitude:
Remote work is seen as a threat to many CEOs simply because of their fear of change and resistance to progress. That fear leads to an irrational rejection of remote work, instead of a thoughtful examination of where it has succeeded and what can be learned.
Incidentally, no one had to make the case for working at home to me. I’ve done it for years: For me, quoting myself here, working at home was an easy choice. “I love being able to get going first thing in the morning while I’m fresh and alert. On weekdays at least, I’ll typically awaken thinking of work anyway. So rather than sitting through a commute, worrying about losing time, I can get right to it…. my dedicated office workspace has long been in place. I have fast Internet, a full-size multi-monitor setup, and my cherished old school tools: an actual landline and a vintage Model M keyboard.”
Naturally though, my own work routine also underwent a transformation. Even though I was used to working from home, I’d never worked exclusively from home. Prior to 2020 I traveled around the country, working at customer sites and attending conferences and classes (while racking up frequent flier miles and hotel and rental car points along the way). But I spent much of this past year helping business clients scale their infrastructures to allow for higher system utilization. Many of us had to enable our employees to be able to work remotely. Sometimes that involved beefing up bandwidth requirements to allow for more employees to connect remotely via VPN and use collaboration tools.
Another thing I’ve learned is that collaboration has its limits. As I write this, I have Slack open, along with multiple email inboxes. Throughout the day I can expect to join meetings using Webex, GoToMeeting, Zoom, or Teams. I’ll use shared documents, in addition to those I send and receive in email. And I’ll converse with coworkers via Teams, Google Hangouts and Jabber, among other messaging platforms.
Of course, the advantage to messaging – and even text and email, to an extent – is it’s meant to be non-intrusive. You’re allowing the other person to take their time and respond when they’re available. That’s considerate, and consideration is important. But sometimes you just have to cut through all the clutter and talk to people in real time. Talking one on one clears up misunderstandings. Sometimes it’s the simplest way.
Give Yourself A Pat On The Back
Over the last year, I was reminded that time is short. Fortunately, my family’s health wasn’t directly affected by Covid, but I still felt its impact. In the past year one of my friends died from brain cancer while another lost a child to Leukemia. The pandemic made that all the more difficult. Hospital visits were restricted, both in terms of hours and the number of people allowed in the room. That’s assuming visitors were allowed at all; I was turned away more than once. With the limits on gatherings, funeral services were also different.
Certainly, I wasn’t the only one to be reminded of what is truly important. Another example: blood donation. I’d donated sporadically for years, but seeing the gratitude of these families for those who made it possible for their loved ones to get transfusions, plasma and other blood products inspired me to give blood as often as I can, roughly every eight weeks. Please consider giving blood if you are able.
Things are starting to open up. Where I live fewer businesses are requiring masks. Seemingly it’s just a matter of time before I get back on the road for client visits and in-person conferences. While I enjoyed learning about tiger sanctuaries and chess players, I’m more than ready for a return to near normalcy.
How ever you managed to get through the past year, I believe you, the IT professional, are worthy of appreciation. By simply doing your job, by applying your unique skills, you made vital contributions. Your sacrifices went largely unseen. You work weekends. You work holidays. You’re on call at all hours. When systems require patching or operating systems require upgrading, you may get a change window of 1 to 3 a.m. on a Sunday. You have to make that work, and you do.
I’m reminded of the old Dunkin Donuts TV ads. A guy would head out the door at the crack of dawn and say to himself, “It’s time to make the donuts.” The world needs the people who make the donuts. The world also needs techies, and during a tough time, you delivered.
Rob McNelly is a senior Power Systems solutions architect doing pre-sales and post-sales support for Meridian IT, headquartered in Deerfield, Illinois. McNelly was a technical editor for IBM Systems Magazine, and a former administrator within IBM’s Integrated Technology Delivery and Server Operations division. Prior to working for IBM, McNelly was an OS/400 and IBM i operator for many years for multiple companies. McNelly was named an IBM Champion for Power Systems in 2011, an IBM Champion Lifetime Achievement recipient in 2019, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.