True tales of invisible employees who make IT work

Not everyone in IT is a VC-funded, app-building, social media superstar.

Credit: YouTube.com

NPR's Tom Ashbrook recently reported on the "invisible workers" who aren't flashy but keep the world running. Who are the invisibles of the IT world? Rather than compile a list of job titles, I posed the question on Twitter: are you an IT worker who feels invisible? Six respondents turned off their cloaking devices long enough to reply, though in true fashion some requested to be referred to by pseudonyms: Ben, who works at a hospital; JSM, who maintains mainframe-based code for a railroad; Jonathan Russell, who works for IBM; Charles McG, a master of SQL; Annabel, a tech support agent for a software company; and Justin Sabe, who works for a wireless ISP. These are their stories, made visible.

Hidden away

Many IT workers work in a physically separate part of their office than the internal customers they serve. "If I don't eat in the cafeteria, I'll probably never see a patient or doctor during the workday," says Ben, the hospital worker. "My main face-to-face meetings are others in the operations side (accounting, payroll, admissions, materials management). I definitely get contacted when things aren't working right, but other than that I feel invisible. And I'm okay with that."

No, like, really hidden away

Justin Sabe, who works for a small wireless ISP, sometimes literally vanishes over the course of his job. "Working for a small company means that you get to do a little bit of everything from configuring routers, spectral analysis, programing the back end of the billing system and then drawing up the front end web interface. Also there is much hands on installation work: drilling holes and running wires in crawl spaces and drop ceilings and aiming wireless links."

Strength in numbers

Sometimes an IT worker can seem to vanish within a larger team. IBM's Jonathan Russell says, "I work in the division that makes management software that's designed to monitor the servers in the datacenter ... my role is that I'm a very small part of one of these products. Since datacenters can be huge, these products tend to be huge. And since they're only sold to data administrators, they are a niche market. So the products tend to be huge undertakings, involving hundreds of people that all need to coordinate their efforts with each other."

The problem child

JSM, the railroad employee, felt invisible in one job because it wasn't "trendy" enough to catch his boss's full attention. "I worked on a web system for about 10 years -- it was one of the first to come along, and was built on baling wire and spit because the information we needed wasn't available anywhere but the mainframe. I used my expertise to keep that system going. Well, that wasn't enough for the area director: her favorites were doing the sexy Web projects that got her attention, and meanwhile we just continued along, generating over $100 million in collected revenue per year -- but not pure Web, not sexy, so my boss had to fight every year to even get me a raise."

A typical day in the shadows

"My day consists of monitoring vital scripts and tinkering with them when they hang-up or error out," says Ben, the hospital worker. "I also develop new scripts that departments request to make their lives easier and cut down on their data entry. I am also starting to get into writing reports so that the outpatient clinic part of the hospital knows how to be more effective in delivering the care the patients are using most." Monitoring and tinkering probably jump out at everyone in IT who feels invisible: what you do doesn't necessarily have a big final product, even if it's important.

Fielding requests

Many invisible IT workers deal with short-term tasks that are important but don't add up to a big project. "I start my day by checking to see which of dozens of input files failed, usually changed by the sender without notice," says Charles McG., "then make the changes to bring in the new format, hoping this format will last longer than a week. I check for anything taking too long, and if I'm lucky, find some queries I get to rewrite. Many of my emails say a report 'looks wrong,' and I get to canvass all of the data processes and tables to verify the data before the business user admits they just didn't like the numbers and were hoping they were mistaken."

What if you weren't there?

JSM sums up what invisible IT workers know well: invisibility is a feature, not a bug. "The thing is, we're like football linemen -- if we're doing our job, we're supposed to be invisible. Remember the Y2K scare, and how afterwards everyone derided the 'media frenzy' over it? If it weren't for programmers like myself, who touched and tested thousands of lines of code up to 1/1/2000, it might have been a very different story. But no one sees that. Not even our bosses. But let something bad happen like it did two weeks ago when a disaster recovery test ended up corrupting live data and basically shut the network down for hours -- yeah, we get noticed. And not in a good way."

No respect

Maybe the lowest point for an IT worker comes when, as Justin Sabe describes it, "All my technical knowledge feels invisible." To him, this happens "when talking to someone who keeps fishing for validation that it wasn't their fault they didn't know there was a Wi-Fi off switch, or after the third time they mention that they are a student at the prestigious university and could not study online on a Friday night when they seemingly could not type in their username or password correctly." In such cases, the techie isn't seen as a human with skills, but just part of the machine that isn't working properly.

Credit: Annabel does not work at this Indian call center, despite your suspicions. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
If they can't see you, what will they believe?

Indeed, the more invisible you are, the more customers and outsiders are able to make up their own story about you in their head. Annabel, a software tech support agent, got an unusual note on a successfully resolved tech support ticket recently that said that "our 'insistence' on using fake names was really distracting. They're not fake! Our tickets are signed with our honest-to-god real first names. We've been trying to figure out what set him off thinking that for the last week, and the current money is on the fact that my team has such WASP names that they seem manufactured."

Passing the Turing test

Customer perceptions can get a lot weirder than that, Annabel says. One of her co-workers is a "fantastic writer" of support tickets, "a master of our weird little craft." And what thanks does he get? "People would write back about how they didn't appreciate a robot answering their questions, and could a real human please look at them. Users: if we had AI technology that was so good that it could make reference to specific pictures in your account, we wouldn't be selling consumer software. People have a simultaneous real overestimation of AI technology and a real underestimation of the skill required to actually figure out what's happening in their account."

Holding it all together

It perhaps isn't a surprise that, for hospital worker Ben, the real-world stakes of his invisible job are quite high. "If I weren't here or I (and my backup) didn't do the job right, theoretically surgeries, nurse stations, or labs could run out of vital supplies, the hospital could run short of funds, employees couldn't be paid, lab results wouldn't get on electronic medical records etc." More proof that invisible workers are only invisible when they don't work.

Invisible angels

Sometimes the issues aren't life and death -- but can't thousands of tiny moments of averted frustration add up to  something close? IBM's Jonathan Russell does his best. "As a result of my effort, the only thing an end user sees is a lack of downtime. If we set up the data centers correctly, then systems will automatically back up their settings and reroute themselves, and a customer gets a little peeved because an app or webpage loads slightly more slowly than they'd expect (because the backup might not happen instantaneously). They might be frustrated by this lag. But not as frustrated as they would be if they saw an error page saying the site went down for maintenance or that it just died."

Just happy to help

In the end, for Russell the knowledge that he's helping people who don't even know it carries its own satisfaction. "My job doesn't send a flashy, feel good message to the customer. It doesn't help them balance their budget or keep them entertained with cute cartoon animal graphics. The message it sends, in their moments of frustration or impatience, is simply 'Hey, this could be worse!'" Annabel, who does get to deal with customers, even though that's mediated through email anonymity, concurs: "Most of the people who do work in support really do want to help people, and are delighted when folks come away with their question answered."

Loving the work for itself

Many IT workers just enjoy the actual processes of their tasks -- a radical thought in an industry that can have a real focus on climbing the career ladder and building "disruptive" businesses. "I love SQL, and the satisfaction of seeing data combine into new and useful information," says Charles McG. Similarly, JSM says of his work on mainframe systems that "most of the people who knew this stuff inside and out are long gone, and there's next to no documentation left. You've got to have Batman's detective skills sometimes to figure stuff out. It's not an easy job -- but that's precisely why I enjoy it so much."