In my dayjob, I’m a sysadmin. That’s a catch-all term that means I make computers work, but in reality, I make things work. By things, I mean everything. I’m the contact to the facilities manager, I paint walls sometimes, hang whiteboards from walls and TVs from ceilings, monitor and manage the cooling and power systems, and figure out office layouts. Oh, and I keep our network and computers running, which is actually in my job description, unlike all that other stuff.
I’m the only one in our small company who keeps those computers running, and the only one in our office with my particular skills and knowledge. You see, not all “computer people” are the same; I can write software, certainly, but not with the efficiency of those who do it full time; software developers can usually diagnose and fix problems with computers, but not as well as I can. There are subfields, and specialities; while a brain surgeon certainly knows a lot more about the heart than your average joe, if you’re having a heart attack, you’re better off with a cardiologist instead.
My field in particular, to great pain and displeasure, sometimes involves The Whole World Breaking. The causes of The Whole World Breaking are many, but the effect is the same: the entire company grinds to a halt, and everyone is unable to work or use the Internet or get email or print or do any of a thousand other things that makes a day productive.
And it’s on me to fix it.
When that does happen, I’m the only one in the company working. I’m the only one able to work. Everyone else is idle. As no one else has the specialized knowledge I do, and no one else is likely to be of help. No one else understands the whole system in its full complexity. But that doesn’t stop them from trying. People tend to discount the complexity of systems they don’t understand. They’ll therefore ask questions like “Have you tried unplugging the router and plug it back in!” as if a company network was just like a Linksys cable modem router in your living room.
Managers are the worst. They need to appear to be in control; that’s their title and rationale for existing, after all. They will crowd around, ask for continual “status updates” — which are always the same, to wit: “The Whole World is Broken.” Managers ask questions that have no answer: “What do you think caused it?” If I knew that I’d have fixed it. They don’t help, they just get in the damn way, and slow down the fix, which may be complex and intricate and require my full attention to address. A ten minute fix can therefore take an hour; and hour fix can take all afternoon. I spend a lot of time telling people that things are broken, trying to calm them down, nodding sagely that I understand they have deadlines and Important Business to take care of, and making completely bogus estimates as to how long it’ll take to fix the issue. And so I don’t end up with much time to actually, you know, fix the issue.
This pattern of behavior makes people feel more effective and more useful than what they should do, which is ordering me pizza and getting the hell out of the way. When I do Fix the Whole World, they’ll congratulate themselves for having Managed the Crisis. They feel involved, and feel of aid. It’s not a personality thing, either; I’ve never had a manager and co-workers who didn’t do this sort of thing, and my set of co-workers and managers have precious little else in common. It’s human nature to want to be useful in a crisis, so if they can’t be helpful, they try to appear to be helpful. Even when it’s harmful.
Now, I imagine, somewhere around the Gulf of Mexico, there is a small team of engineers who actually understand the Deepwater Horizon problem. There might even be that One Guy, the one that the other engineers and managers are looking to to Fix The Whole World. I don’t mean to be sexist, by the way: chances are very strong that it’s guy. That Guy intimately understands the risks, the complexities, and the difficulties of plugging the well. He lives in a world of uncertainties and probabilities, because complete understanding of complex systems is always a matter of uncertainty and probability. He understands that even when a certain thing should work, it sometimes doesn’t, and is left with choosing between a menu of potentially dangerous options to fix a damn well that’s been headline news for two months now.
And instead of dealing with just one manager and sixteen co-workers, he has to listen to journalists, the CEO of BP, a hundred million Americans, and Kevin frigging Costner standing over his shoulder and calling out suggestions. Because he’s The Guy, he’s the one called on for status updates, predictions and Congressional hearings, and is thus pulled away from actually fixing the well. Everyone else thinks the problem must have an easy fix, and that the engineer’s job is simple. The Joe the Plumbers of the world, with their down home common sense, think it should be simple — it’s just a big hole that needs to be plugged, isn’t it? How hard could it be — why not just blow the whole thing up? It’s a big issue, it’s in the news, and so after seeing one USA Today infographic, everyone’s suddenly an expert.
And if it’s easy to cap it, then clearly the trouble is that The Guy at the center of the storm is just lazy and stupid. So the correct response to flood BP and the engineering team with as many asinine suggestions and urgent demands as possible. That’ll light a fire under them.
Trust me when I tell you, there’s no one more motivated to plug that damn hole than those engineers. I’m sure they haven’t slept well since it started. Vacations have been canceled, childrens’ graduations have been missed. They’ve probably gotten a fair number of threatening letters sent to their homes. I’ll bet the CEO and VPs breathing down the engineer’s necks are the same ones who denied funding to safety measures the engineers recommended in order to prevent such a blowout, too. That’s how it works, in the world where professional management means that people with actual technical knowledge and a deep and personal appreciation of uncertainty and risk do not rise to decision making positions. Only people who understand so little that they do speak in absolutes and certainties rise to leadership.
Until they’re proven wrong, by a geyser of oil on the ocean floor. Or, for that matter, a flood of subprime housing losses. We’ve been here before.
And now the journalistic world thinks this is somehow Obama’s fault. I suppose they go with what they know, usually. Clearly these engineers will work faster if the President of the United States adds his voice to the jackasses already trying to micromanage a problem they don’t begin to understand. I’m not a huge Obama fan but I do give him credit for steering clear of the problem. It was probably actually helpful.