The Middle Manager

Surviving & Thriving as a Leader


canstockphoto3437289Communicating about outages and changes is an important part of what we do every day. But can we do a better job about how we communicate these events?

When a system or application goes down, contacting the customer and telling them the system or application is down is redundant. They probably already know that there’s a problem. Stating the obvious won’t win us any points and probably just frustrates them. What they really want to know is what happened, who’s impacted, when it’s going to be fixed. Those are the key things we need to communicate when stuff breaks. Communicate that we know what’s happened, we recognized the scope of the problem, and explain – in layman’s terms – what we’re doing to fix it and when we’re expecting the system to be back up. Follow up at regular intervals with updates and any changes to our estimates. If you have an IVR at the service desk, put a message in the greeting that makes folks aware that there’s a problem with a certain system and we’re working on it – nip the call in the bud at that point so the service desk doesn’t get backed up with unnecessary calls.

Don’t go silent once the problem is fixed, follow up with a communication stating that, and at some point in the near future it would be good to send an after-action report the details what happened and what IT is doing to prevent the problem from happening in the future.

Major changes to the technical environment should be handled in the same way. Clear communication explaining what’s being done – and don’t forget to explain why it’s being done – what we expect the impact to be on the business, whether that’s down time, reduced functionality, or if they need to arrange training for their staff. Be clear about the schedule, send regular reminders, and reassure them that we’re prepared if there’s a failure and we need to roll it back. The over-arching message in all of this communication should be that we care about their ability to do business and are being very careful to make sure there is as little impact as possible.

There’s loads of other communicating we can do outside of big events, though. Sit down with your business leadership and find out if there’s anything specific they’d like to see on a regular basis. Maybe our First Call Resolution (FCR) for the service desk, or the First Contact Resolution (FConR) for 2nd level support. Maybe they don’t care about first contact, but want to see the overall time it took us to resolve issues (MTTR). There are lots of potential metrics – take a look at the HDI 2015 Support Center Practices & Salary Report and/or the HDI 2015 Desktop Support Practices & Salary Report to find what other organizations are monitoring.

Even if your business partners respond that there’s nothing they want to see on a regular basis, we can still occasionally send out a marketing communication, celebrating our successes. Make the business aware that we’re not just there to inconvenience them with outages or deployments, but that we are working hard to respond to their issues quickly and successfully.

Celebrity Leaks

If you’ve been following the news over the last couple weeks, you’ve no doubt heard about the private photos of famous actresses that were posted on the internet.  There’s been a quite a bit of angst about how these accounts were hacked and the feeding frenzy on some social media sites by those who were interested in seeing the pictures.  It’s an obvious breach of these individual’s privacy, and the sad fact of the matter that no matter how much time and money they spend to try and stop these photos from being viewed, now that they’re ‘out there’ on the internet someone will always be able to find them with a diligent search.

canstockphoto6886684As it turns out, the latest news is that the cloud system where these photos originated was not directly ‘hacked.’  Rather, access was gained into these individual’s personal accounts by relatively simple brute-force attacks.  Their email or user id’s were compromised, and from there it was just a matter of trying to guess the passwords for each of the accounts – and there is plenty of illicit software on the web that will allow someone to rapidly try large numbers of passwords.  In essence, the accounts were simply not very well secured, likely with a weak password or easily guessed security questions.

As technology support professionals, does this really surprise us?  I know from personal experience that users of the systems I support frequently either use very simple passwords or store those passwords in places that are obvious and easily retrieved.  I’ve even seem them put post-it notes of passwords right on the front of the monitor or computer!

What does amaze me is that these people who are so well-known would be so ill-educated on the importance of properly securing their private data.  They are not typical users of these systems – while you and I may be concerned about data loss, and we may occasionally get snared in large-scale data breach scenarios – it’s very unlikely anyone would specifically target us.  Celebrities, athletes, politicians, or otherwise famous people really are targets, they make themselves such simply by being ‘famous.’ So I have to wonder what they – or their advisers – are thinking when cell phone or cloud accounts are compromised due to poor security precautions.  How much harder would it have been to place two-factor authentication on the account?  To have a complex password?

What should this teach all of us as technology support professionals?  Simple – if these people who are so famous and obvious targets of nefarious individuals who want to steal their personal and private data are so oblivious to the importance of securing that information, how much more important is it for us to continuously stress to our staff and customers how critical it is to be protected?  In the environments that we support, are our clients and customers educated about securing critical information? Many of us work in financial, healthcare, legal, or energy industries.  We have much more to lose than the loss of a few embarrassing photographs.  There could be credit information, health records, or other personal information that could severely damage the trust and reputation of our employer.

These types of events should make us think about how we do things in our own lives and work environments, and give it real consideration as a teachable moment.

Work-Life Balance

How many vacation days did you use last year?  If you’re a typical employee in the USA, it’s likely you ended the year with more than half of your time unused.  Studies show that 91% of companies provide their employees with vacation time, but nearly 60% of the time more than half of the vacation allotment goes unused.  In comparison to other developed nations, the United States fares poorly when it comes to providing staff with a good work-life balance.  The US is the only developed country that does not have mandated vacation days – and in many countries not only are businesses told they must give staff time off, there are also laws that tell the employees that they are required to take a certain number of days off!

Americans lose around 175 million vacation days per year.  They’re entitled to take it, but choose not to use the benefit.

This explains why more than 65% of Americans are stressed to their limits. A study by the Families and Work Institute shows that large numbers of workers feel burned out, emotionally drained, or ‘used up’ at the end of the work day, and a Bellevue University study goes so far as to indicated that one quarter of all US workers hate their job.

Even when we do take time off, we’re not really leaving work behind.  Almost 70% of employees who took vacation time still took some time away from their vacation to check in with the office, and if they were traveling made sure they had some sort of electronic tether back to their job.

canstockphoto9002587aIt would be easy to blame the economy on these statistics, but the truth is for most Americans the state of the economy has little impact on whether they choose to take time off.  The reality is that there is an expectation by many businesses that if an employee desired to be successful in their job, or wants to advance, then they have to put in the hours.  They don’t really care about the impact this may have to level of stress felt by the employee, or the lack of time they may have to devote towards family or non-work related activities.

It really comes down to a simple choice for each individual.  What’s the most important thing in your life.  If it’s work, there’s nothing wrong with that – and if it’s not there should be no stigma attached to that, either. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Time and again over the course of my career I’ve seen good, qualified people passed over or viewed as not being good performers because they put family obligations first.

My personal feeling is that my family will always be my priority.  It was the way I was brought up, and I highly value the time I spend with them.  I have a disabled child, and feel that spending time with her is vitally important.  I would never put my job before my wife or child; fortunately, my current employer has never questioned that in 20 years on the job, and because of my tenure there I have more than adequate time available to spend time away from work when needed.  I’d be very disappointed if that ever changed, but I’d gladly leave advancement opportunities if it meant more hours, more stress, and less time for my wife and child.

The important thing is, when you’re at work your focus should be work, and what you can do to help your employer succeed. I’ve always felt that to not do this would be stealing valuable time from employer.  So I try to best leverage my time to be as successful as possible.

But I do place quite a bit of importance on time away as well.  It’s important to get away from the politics and stress of management, to be able to decompress before heading back into the office.  I’ll admit I am one of those people who makes sure I have my electronic tether available, so I can keep up with email and be able to answer pressing questions that may arise while I’m away, but I do that in the evenings once the day is close to over and we’re winding down from family activities.

I try to market the value of time away to my staff as well, and will rarely deny requested vacation time.  In fact, I’ve encouraged some of my staff in higher-stress positions to take regular time off to decompress.  It’s not something I can force anyone to do, but I believe it’s better for everyone in the long run.

So I encourage everyone reading this – work hard, but take time to relax as well!

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