Tom VanAntwerp

IT Is About People

If working in IT has taught me anything, its empathy. Something beginners or outsiders might assume about working in IT is that it’s all sitting behind a computer screen and never dealing with people. (In fairness, some of it is that.) But the most important thing to know for IT work is how to work with other people to solve their problems.

People usually come to you with a symptom of an underlying issue. There are two main flavors of symptomatic complaints. The first is the vague complaint, e.g., “The computer is slow.” The second is the odd request, which is when the user asks you to help them do something that, in your expert opinion, makes no sense, but, in the user’s mind, will help them solve whatever their problem is. In both cases, it’s up to you to figure out what the real problem is and help the user implement a solution. The only way to do this is by talking with the user and asking them about what they’ve been doing and what their goals are.

Communicating isn’t always easy. I frequently use jargon that users don’t understand; I have to catch myself when I start doing that. Conversely, the users’ lack of correct jargon in describing issues makes it harder for me to understand what their underlying problem is. Careful communication is crucial to discovering underlying issues. Let your users talk, and ask questions. Do it conversationally; it’s not an interrogation. Slowly, the full picture will emerge and you’ll both understand each other.

It’s also important to remain calm and professional. Users can get stressed and emotional–sometimes you’re to blame, and sometimes it’s something else and you’re just the unfortunate soul who wandered by at the wrong time. If you know you messed up something for a user, apologize and fix it promptly. Otherwise, don’t take anything personally. Users may be stressed for any number of reasons, almost none of which are related to you. It could be a pressing deadline, or home troubles, or maybe they just haven’t eaten all day. Don’t assume malice. Try to leave them a little bit better off than when you found them.

Users need to feel comfortable working with you. They need to know that you’re capable, responsive, and kind. You must be someone who is on their side, working to solve their problems. This is important not just for your mutual sanity, but also because of the destructive consequences of a breakdown in trust. If the users you support don’t feel comfortable working with you, then they simply won’t. This results in problems being hidden for your view rather than openly addressed. Even trivial-to-fix issues will go unmentioned. Your whole organization will quietly suffer rather than ask you to do the job you want to do for them. This is a very bad situation to be in.

The role of IT is to help users apply technology to leverage their own capabilities. It’s easy for an IT person to forget this, moaning about stupid users and just getting angry when they don’t follow the carefully-crafted rules. But that’s a shortsighted attitude. The user is counting on you to help them navigate the technological landscape to reach their intended destination. They are counting on your support. The only way to help your colleagues is to relate to them as the people they are, with understanding and acceptance.

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