Employees

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Earlier this month there was an event called the Ohio Growth Summit, “a celebration of your entrepreneurial spirit and “make it happen” attitude”. A number of folks I’m following on Twitter attended, so I saw a pretty steady stream of updates from the event. One quote in particular from Chris Brogan’s speech was re-tweeted a lot:

People who don't take risks are called "Employees".

I had a strong negative reaction to this comment when I first saw it, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit in the weeks since. I know that this event was for entrepreneurs trying to start their own businesses, so the remark was probably intended to make the entrepreneurs feel pumped up about themselves; but it’s this kind of attitude that I think perpetuates a lot of the bad blood between employees and bosses. Brogan’s remark is disparaging to the hard work and effort put forth by employees every day, and sells short a lot of the risk taking that does take place.

I’ve been fortunate in my employment history to have worked with a number of great bosses who have supported me, nurtured me, and created environments in which I could succeed. As I reflect back upon the successes I’ve had, a great many of them were specifically the result of a risk I took as an employee. I have no illusions that most of my work is behind the scenes, but there’s a tremendous amount that I do that is not just plugging away, playing it safe.

I was discussing some of this with Owen today, and he shared with me Zed Shaw’s keynote from CUSEC 2008. The take-away line, for both of us, from this presentation was:

Management demands all of your creativity, but trusts none of your judgments.

Hearing that, in light of Brogan’s comments, paints a pretty clear picture that many entrepreneurs and “executive” business people feel they’re the only ones permitted to take risks, even in domains in which they have zero expertise. As though somehow being an entrepreneur gives them special powers to make effective decisions. I’ve seen this first-hand too many times, whether in my bosses’s bosses, or the bosses of my friends.

Shaw jokingly advocates setting a trash can on fire when your boss enters the room, so that it’ll look like you’re doing stuff – dealing with emergencies and being productive – because so much of the effort required by programmers, system administrators, and other technologists isn’t overtly visible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve had similar thoughts over the years. It’s a common joke that sysadmins should occasionally “break” things in a spectacular way so that they can then heroically “fix” it, and save the day. I disklike this attitude as much as I dislike Brogan’s: it’s the wrong way to approach the problem.

Shaw’s remarks rang extra true for me in the context of my employment at OSU. I’m responsible for supporting faculty, many of whom have tenure and are therefore veritable kings on campus. Some of them demand that I support them as they pursue bad or inefficient practices, and actively discount the years of professional experience and insight that I’ve earned. They feel that they’re the boss, and may dictate how I do my job. To be fair, not all faculty members are like this, as there are a couple who genuinely seek to learn from me, and to collaborate with me in order to make their jobs more productive. Unfortunately, these are the minority.

It’s the curse of IT employees that the better we do our jobs, the less anyone knows what we do. It’s unfortunate that many employers and coworkers make the assumption that we’re not doing anything, and that our successes are diminished. I don’t assume it’s easy to be a boss, an executive, or an entrepreneur just because I don’t know what, exactly, it is that these people do. It would be nice to see these people extend some respect for the worker bees that keep their operations going.


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