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The Unsung Heroes in I.T. Who Keep the Lights On So You Can Work From Home

Overworked and underfunded, they face enormous pressure to keep the American workforce afloat in a pandemic

Jeff, a 38-year-old in California, is busy. For the duration of our interview, he helped his son through a new LEGO set, made sure his daughter stuck to her math homework, and, oh yeah, kept his company from completely shutting down. 

As a lead information-technology manager, Jeff and his team had to swiftly ensure the entirety of his company’s workforce could work from home in the span of four days. Not only did this involve setting people up with the necessary hardware, but he had to make sure they knew how to use it, all while the rest of his duties — managing day-to-day tickets, infrastructure, monitoring and support — piled up. “There simply isn’t enough time during the regular shift to get all of this done,” he tells me. “But if we don’t, no one will be able to work. If the employees can’t work, the company shuts down; if the company shuts down, I don’t have a job. It’s just a terrible situation for everyone.”  

Is anyone else about to crack? from sysadmin

Needless to say, Jeff is stressed. As his displaced colleagues constantly run into new issues, the pressure to keep everyone online and humming is immense.

“It’s not hard to burn out when you’re putting in at least 12 hours a day, with execs breathing down your neck asking you for constant updates, and meetings that take away the precious time you have to get everything done. You get to a point when you start questioning if this is really what you signed up for. But you just keep going — you have to.” 

“Wanting everything to be done now is already very common in IT, but at the moment, there’s a lot more urgency as everybody realizes the gravity of the current situation,” adds Jacob, a 31-year-old working to improve the telehealth communications of his company. “People want everything to be taken care of so they can stay home and stay safe, which is obviously very reasonable. But at the same time, there’s only so much that can be done by IT for so many people.” 

Prepare everything for Remote Work? No problem. Get people to read the fucking instructions? Oh boy… from sysadmin

To their credit, Jacob and Jeff accept all the calls, headaches and arguably unreasonable expectations as part of the job. But what they find particularly frustrating, especially right now, is that they’ve been “pleading with their companies to move into the current century and be prepared for something like this, but they never listen.” 

“IT departments are generally tasked with figuring out Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery plans,” Jacob explains. “A question that’s always asked is, ‘How can we get people working from remote locations in the event of an emergency?’ and the answer is always to set up your workforce to support it.”  

Most companies, however, don’t see enough immediate benefits to justify the associated costs, he continues, “so the usual response is to get something passable enough to say that a plan is in place, but mostly, just worry about it later on. This leads to IT departments doing the best they can with old equipment and shoestring budgets, but never having the time or resources to properly flesh out these solutions.” 

And so, here we are, relying on outdated and underfunded IT departments to keep us afloat. 

Not that IT professionals expect medals for it. “I’ve had plenty of ‘heroic moments’ in the past — like getting through Y2K and 9/11, for example — but the work we did to keep our companies afloat has gone mostly unrecognized,” says Bob, a 48-year-old who works in IT for a major financial services organization in Australia. 

“IT is by and large a thankless job,” Jacob adds. “History has shown that appreciation of our efforts in times like these is rather short-lived. There are many stories of IT departments working tirelessly around the clock to save a company from its own failures only to turn around and dismiss those same workers shortly afterwards in favor of something more cost-efficient.” In particular, he cites when Maersk in 2017 was “hit by a seriously nasty ransomware attack and was saved by the tireless efforts of their IT staff — the same staff who very recently discovered that their jobs were being outsourced.” 

“There are certainly places out there that value their IT staff,” he continues, “but the general rule is that if you didn’t feel appreciated before a crisis, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be appreciated once it’s over. But we’re happy celebrating small victories ourselves.” 

In the meantime, Amy, a pseudonymous 29-year-old IT worker in Massachusetts, is holding onto the belief that she’s doing something for the greater good, not just for the place that puts food on her table. “I keep coming back to the idea that what we’re doing is enabling folks to self-isolate,” she tells me. “We’re helping maintain a sense of structure and normalcy for many in a super-weird time. That feels nice, and I’m trying to believe it.”

Still, she adds, “My company has a habit of making its employees feel very valued while sucking them completely dry. I hope this is different. Not that I expect an award, but it would be nice if they remembered my face.”