To IT or not to IT?

On new responsibilities for employees in that most important area of business

In 1999, when I took up volunteer work at internet service provider Het Net, I literally saw a whole new world: the world of the internet, and modern communications networks in general, capable of connecting people physically – just watch the cables bursting into your living room – and more importantly, virtually. A fascinating world. People who understood IT were revered back then, and given all sorts of nicknames, from ‘whizzkid’ to ‘nerd’. My first mobile phone, bigger than a fridge and connected to the GSM network of the bygone company Dutchtone, was very popular with the girls in my class.

Then suddenly, the internet bubble burst; but because that was clearly the fault of people who were just meddling for more financial gain and who didn’t belong to the ‘nerd’ category, the IT people got off easily. The following years made less grand promises for investors and shareholders, but as a result of the fiasco called World Online, the internet and the amazing possibilities that the internet and IT systems have to offer had made it into the memory banks and microprocessors of the éminences grises. It also became clear that those possibilities could not be attained just like that, and that they would require recruiting experts. Recruiting those experts involved major investments, not the least of which were due to having to hire them externally and offering them various trainings. So much money. That time was when financial appreciation appeared for people who know their way around computers and networks; after all, they were needed to deal with the IT fever of directors who saw opportunities for saving money, and to develop various different systems and implement them in existing organisations in a short timespan. It was fun work: meaningful, rewarding and very much appreciated.

The role and function of a job in society have always been subject to change, and now once again it seems to be the turn of that of computer gurus. Alas: we’re too expensive, not flexible enough (there are supposedly various advantages to hiring a brigade of button pressers in India instead) and we’re hard to find on the job market to boot. And since firing people and saving money on one’s staff are sensitive topics in times of budget cuts, organisations and the government would rather just blame ‘IT’ for their escalated expenses. Who were the people all those years ago who were calling for more IT as a way to attain those same cost reductions? Add to that the recent surge in publicised leaks in IT systems – probably just the tip of the iceberg – and the reignited privacy debate. With a dazzling amount of IT expenses (including on failing systems, like the public transport chip card, and systems that will never see the light of day, like the Electronic Patient Records – costing € 300 million – and the black boxes for cars for a now repealed road pricing system) and the sudden political attention for this subject, the IT professional’s job has become different, more important and possibly charged with more responsibility than ever before. And exactly that group gets the blame for runaway expenses in many parts of society. Is that supposed to be our fault?

In the cockpit of an aeroplane, it’s the flight captain and his team who are in charge. Instructions from the CEO of the airline company they fly for don’t necessarily have to be followed; the safety of the aircraft’s passengers comes first. How does that work for the IT professionals whose systems now seem to be the subject of more and more debates? Do they have enough autonomy with the projects they work on? Or is it the manager, whose know-how is mostly about processes, or the minister, whose know-how is mostly about – actually, what do they know about? – who really calls the shots, and who ends up causing expenses that spiral out of control and half-baked systems that nobody is ever going to use, or only with security leaks?

Just like the flight captain takes responsibility for their own flight, people who know their way around computer systems should less meekly listen to managers, employers or ministers who give instructions that aren’t a good idea. It’s time for some respectful disobedience, to prevent IT professionals from becoming the black sheep in an overly expensive society.

I wrote this column on request for Volkskrant Banen (Volkskrant Jobs)

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