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Cars, Computers, and Trust April 23, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I dread getting any sort of work done on my car. Although I am fascinated by automotive technology, I am utterly incapable of working on cars or diagnosing their problems. I’ve always worked with guys who knew cars inside and out; they would tear down engines, replace crucial parts, and rebuild things with careless abandon.  I envy their skills and confidence.  My limited experience with cars usually resulted in expensive trips to a real mechanic to correct my errors.

As I write this, my car is having new tires installed.  I don’t mind this, since I understand the value of tires in helping me get from here to there.  What I do mind is the inevitable visit from the mechanic during the process:

We gave your car a courtesy check while we had it up on the lift.  Honestly, we don’t know how you even drove here this morning!  Your brakes are completely shot.  The suspension is worn out.  It looks like the electrical system is about to burst into flames, and we think you’re actually missing a piston.  We’re afraid to even drive your car out of the garage bay.  You want to get all that fixed while you’re here?  If not, the law requires that you sign this waiver so we can let you leave the lot.

Argghhh!  I have no idea if any of this is true, or expected, or even possible.  The car has been running fine.  Does disaster loom around the corner?  Will I be left helpless on the side of the road?  I am totally at their mercy, with absolutely no information to help.

Such poetic justice!  This is exactly how our users feel, every day.  For anyone not in the secret computing geek club, computers are mysterious, magical, confusing devices.  When they work, they get the job done, but when they break, the average user is completely clueless.

Our explanations are equally arcane and absolutely inscrutable.  Here are the actual fixes I made to my wife’s laptop last night to (hopefully) correct a Vista network printing problem:

The Linksys router firmware is out of date and needs to be upgraded from version 1.00.9 to 1.02.5.  According to some web postings, I need to disable the IPv6 dual stack support on both network adapters. Finally, according to some other postings, the Dell BIOS settings are incorrect: we need to disable the flash cache support and switch the SATA controller from AHCI to ATA mode.    All this might fix the problem, but it might also require a complete reformat and reinstall of Vista, resulting in a loss of all your data and settings.  You want to get all that work done?

And we wonder why people have a love/hate relationship with computers?

Things are no different in the corporate world.  The rest of the company has no idea what we really do with all those blinking lights and wires in the data center.  They don’t know what it really does, or really costs, or if they really need it at all.  They place their faith, their wallets, and increasingly, the fate of their company in our hands and hope for the best.

Everyone in IT is responsible for earning and keeping the trust of our users.  We have to police ourselves, making sure that we give good advice and provide accurate service.  We cannot spend money foolishly or buy technology because it is cool.  By scrupulously managing ourselves, we’ll give our users good solutions that meet their needs, further the business, and don’t break the bank.  If we fail in this, we’ll lose their trust and lose the privilege of serving them.  As CIOs, we must instill this attitude in every person at every level in our organization.  Our success, and our company’s success, rides on it.

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