Why your IT department is incompetent

Complaints about IT are common. It is not difficult to find examples of gross incompetence. So why does it happen?

I am not going to discuss whether IT departments really are incompetent. I have come across enough examples personally to be convinced — let alone public examples such as Jerry Taylor of Tuttle’s hilarious email exchange with Centos (Centos is essentially Red Hat without the license fees).

I want to explain how the incompetence comes about, and why it persists.

First the root cause. Consider how well a typical CEO and board of directors understands accounts. They may to know every technical detail, but they know enough to understand what the accountants are doing. They also know enough to ensure that the financial director (CFO in some countries) is competent. The same applies to other functions like marketing, personnel, etc.

Now how well do the same people understand what IT is doing?

The inability of management to judge IT’s competence and work, gives IT perverse incentives. In particular, IT departments are disinclined to take risks. One of the oldest pieces of wisdom in the business is “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”.

It is probably more often Microsoft than IBM these days, but the lesson is unchanged. Buy from one or two big vendors who senior management have heard of, even if their product is not the best (or even good). Then, if things go wrong, the vendor can be blamed. If you pick a less well known vendor, you may have to explain why if things go wrong.

Another bad incentive is not to change stuff. Management need never know if you miss a chance to roll out a new technology that would improve productivity, security, or service quality, but if you try a roll out and it fail, then you will be blamed.

An aspect of this is that IT people are inevitably familiar with a narrow range of the available technologies. This will bias them against others. Beware of those whose only qualifications vendor certifications, for this and other reasons.

Another problem is that there is a shortage of competent people to do some crucial jobs. Systems administration is particularly tricky. It requires an intelligent competent person to do right, but it can be tedious work which intelligent people get bored with. If you have a really good sysadmin (I know a few), be grateful.

All this was exacerbated by the dot com boom produced a lot of well paid vacancies in short time. This drew in a lot of people with neither interest in IT (like many jobs, you need to enjoy it to do it well) or talent.

Of course I cannot suggest any easy solutions. The only real solution is for senior management to learn about IT. How to go about this is a question I cannot easily answer. Reading this book might make a good starting point. So would reading the huge number of IT websites and blogs that are out there. So would trying out new technologies for themselves.

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