Monday, June 3, 2013

The Cruelest Cut

I can't even make this stuff up. I actually had a manager tell me how much they were enjoying "TLRF". He was "LMAO" reading it.


I think it's only fitting that I bring the new generation of "TLRF" cartoons to a close on this note. Perhaps it will be reborn as "Dilbert for Managers" someday. Who knows?

P.S. Wish me luck in my keynote today! I think I'll need it.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Well, now you don't have to come to my HighEdWebWest keynote because you know that there aren't any silver bullets to changing your organizational culture.

I don't know about anyone else, but I always worry about my presentations bombing, particularly when I'm under pressure to give an "amazing speech". Given that my keynote is only a few days away and I am almost wholly unprepared, I'm sure I'll be pulling some all-nighters to be as ready as possible.

On a serious note, I've worked in higher education for the majority of my adult life. The disconnect between the importance of what we do in higher education (from a societal perspective) and the levels of cultural dysfunction demonstrated at all levels in academia (including IT) is criminal.

I honestly don't have a 'big picture' solution, but I do think that it is time to call out this dysfunction exactly for what it is. What do they say in AA? The first step to getting cured is realizing you have a problem? Well, we need to start talking about culture and dysfunction in higher education in clear terms. Recognizing that we have cultural dysfunction is the first step to addressing it.

If you are interested in making higher education a better place to work, come to my keynote next Monday at HighEdWeb West.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Keep Your Receipt

I really did want to do a serious talk, but the conference organizers seemed to think that all I do are laughs. Expectations of a laugh-a-minute-riot-fest seem pretty high, but I'm actually not much of a comedian despite my reputation. A chuckle here or there, sure, but I think their memories of my previous HighEdWeb talks may be somewhat colored. I know for a fact they weren't as funny as all that.

So anyway, I don't think I can live up to the expectations of hilarity for this talk. However, I'm hoping that most of the people in attendance have no idea who I am or why I'm doing the keynote and thus will have no expectations whatsoever. That's my best case scenario.

Worse case is that everyone expects me to be higher ed's answer to Jimmy Fallon or Jon Stewart and they go away completely let down and angry.

Worst case is that they ask for their money back. So keep those receipts, folks!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Beginning of the End

There is only one purpose to this cartoon: to lower expectations for my keynote next Monday.

Seriously. I've given several talks at HighEdWeb conferences. I've even won a couple of red staplers for Best of Track. But some of the comments on my last talk were less than glowing... "This old guy isn't funny at all. He shouldn't be allowed to speak." ...or something to that effect (finally, someone who feels the way I do!!).

My Prized red staplers.
"If they take my staplers I will set the building on fire."
And my keynote is going to be new territory for me, since I'll actually be trying to address a serious topic this time around. Not that selecting web content management systems, doing web redesigns, and setting up web governance aren't serious. But those are all tangible things with clear beginnings and ends.

My keynote isn't going to be about anything as cut and dried as web redesigns, and it might not even be about something remotely interesting to my audience.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Impotence of Being Right

The litany of inane dysfunction in higher education never ends, does it? And this one is one of the worst. I call it "Special Snowflake Syndrome" (SSS) and it comes from the mistaken belief that you or your unit are so special and so unique that it would be physically impossible to do things the same as everyone else, or use the same tools as everyone else.

And sadly, this isn't as funny as it is real. It comes from a history of weak central power, which is all too common all over higher education. Our 'central' IT organization was for a long time little more than a collection of historically autonomous fiefdoms (HAFs), none of which ever really had to pay too much mind to the CIO.

Though that is changing, it is not happening without some resistance. Given our history, it is not only difficult to introduce standards, but it is also nearly impossible to enforce them. The slightest resistance basically derails any initiative to introduce positive change.

We should have introduced spankings years ago.

What really irks me most about this whole situation is not that we have people who refuse to recognize the value and usefulness of IT standards and best practices. No, what irks me the most is the fact that we have people working here in higher education IT who put their own interests ahead of the needs and mission of the university. They don't care if the university needs a document management system* or not; if it is a shiny object to them, they have no problem spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and years' worth of effort and resources on it - particularly if it enlarges their fiefdom.

Higher Education IT is a service organization within a service organization. We are here to provide IT services to an organization that is providing badly needed educational services to society. If you aren't here to serve, then you really don't belong here.

There, I said it! I've been itching to say it for weeks! Woohoo!

Most of the people I work with sincerely believe in the role and mission of higher education (in my case, public higher education). As much as I might disagree with those people on specifics, I respect them for choosing service over profit, power, and whatever other wonderful things people in "the real world" get. But for those few who seem to think that working here is an opportunity to put themselves first, I have no respect whatsoever.

There's way too much to say about this than I can cover here, but I'll be saying a lot more on this in upcoming strips. I would appreciate knowing if you feel the same way; if so, leave a comment.

*I'm only picking on document management as a cover for the real shiny objects certain people are obsessed with. At this point in time, I have as yet to form any negative opinions about the document management initiative. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

See you on the Flip Side

This is the flip side of the previous cartoon, and also all too common.

Someone with a budget gets hypnotized by a shiny object and plunks down a chuck of cash for it before really understanding whether or not it's really the best tool for the job at hand.

Then the staff, who were never consulted, have to find a way to make it work - typically incurring the lasting hatred and wrath of everyone forced to use the misbegotten tool along the way.

Get the impression I've been through this one before?

We are really struggling with this one, though most people are getting on board. The age of throwing money at shiny objects is slowly coming to an end if for no other reason than no one has any money to throw at anything anymore. Also, I'm hopeful that endless issues/problems/difficulties/outright-failure of several high profile projects of this type will sway people to look at the success of several projects that used a more rational, data-driven selection process, and choose the better way. But then, I keep falling for those Nigerian bank emails.

P.S. Thanks to the three-eyed, yellow, bald data analyst with bad teeth for the idea for this cartoon. It's amazing how much his character looks like him IRL.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

You Are Your Own Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

So, this actually happens. You've probably seen it.

A manager asks for advice on managing, and certain staff perceive that as a weakness - and also not their job. They decline to give relevant input and then bitch endlessly about the cluelessness of management when decisions are made.

They create organizational failure in the very way they conduct themselves on a daily basis. And then they blame the failure they've created on someone else.

This infuriates me more than anything else I see in IT, precisely because it is so insidiously passive-aggressive, and always gives the perpetrator several outs ("I didn't DO anything", "I'm not paid to make decisions", etc., etc.).

I'm certainly not saying that management is blameless. Far from it. My point is that there is blame on all sides, and anyone who says "I'm pure. I'm not to blame for any of this" is most likely either lying or deceiving themselves.

We're all guilty of the organizational dysfunction we live with because we all create it together. And organizational dysfunction is a lot like cigarette smoking: it's bad for you, and it's a very difficult habit to break. The difference is that you alone control your smoking; the entire organization controls your organizational culture.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How Hard Could it Be?

Ah... the land mines of higher education.

One of the worst is the baggage that people carry around, sometimes for decades. People have amazingly long memories of slights - perceived and real - in higher education, and it can turn the simplest undertaking into a logistical (read: political) nightmare akin to setting up a permanent residence in the Marianas Trench.

"Oh, you can't talk to them. They hate us because of the Great Network Meltdown of 2002. You'll have to talk to so-and-so, because they have finally forgiven us for the Epic Email Downtime of 1998 and actually seem to like us. Of course, they have no control over this decision, so you'll really need to suck up to what's-his-face so that they'll talk to so-and-so about helping us."


I've actually been here long enough now that I know most of the political landmines that we have to dance around as if they were fresh, steaming piles of canine doodie on the sidewalk. The saddest thing is that I've been here long enough to have witnessed many of them being deposited firsthand.

And I hate it. I want to yell "Get over yourself! This isn't about you!! It's about doing the university's business, not about how you perceived some imagined slight years ago because of something that probably had nothing to do with you!"

Higher education isn't supposed to be some transdecadal-bruised-ego-grudge-match. It's supposed to be about educating the next generation of the world's leaders. Or something like that anyway.

If you are carrying around something that happened years ago at your institution, I can only beg you to try to let it go. I understand that you hold a grudge to help protect you from being taken advantage of like you were twenty-eleven years ago. But it doesn't help you do your job; it just makes everything harder than it has to be.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Déjà Vu All Over Again

So, finally I'm getting to the central thesis of my keynote, and to the main thing that I've learned in the two years since I've moved from mere plebeian to actual minion. And that is: management and staff aren't as different from each other is they think. In fact, they're exactly the same.

I know, it's not really that stunning of a revelation, but it never really hit me until I moved into my current position. I sit in a unique place in our organization and that gives me a rather unique perspective. Although I'm not in a management classification, one of my jobs is, well, managing the managers, specifically when it comes to projects. On the other hand, since I'm still technically staff, the technical folks still let me hang out at the watercooler*.

So I get to see and hear firsthand both the management and staff perspectives. And although they often couldn't be more different, what I've learned is as much as we may distrust and misunderstand each other, we're really not that different. In fact, we're all here to do the exact same job: provide technology services to support the mission of higher education. I personally think that's a lot more important than our petty distrust of each other.

*We actually have a Jabber chat room called "the watercooler" where some of the technical staff hang out. Occasionally, actual work gets done in the watercooler, but it's really more of a place where people attempt to demonstrate how witty they are. The average snark level in the watercooler is slightly higher than the LD50 for a normal human being.

P.S. Oh, and notice how I spared Prophead from being an attendee in the project management meeting? He only wishes he was so lucky in real life. Sucka.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nothing Personal

Poor Taghead. Nobody likes him!

OK, can the sympathy. This hasn't actually happened yet. The DBAs and programmers are sufficiently dim-witted that they haven't yet recognized the obvious superiority of my managerial skills, and thus have yet to shun me from their plebeian lunches (it also helps that I am still classified union-represented technical staff employee and have yet to reap the fiduciary bounty that is a *real* management position).

And most of the managers here wouldn't flinch at going to lunch with a pleb like me. In fact, Prophead and I went to a baseball game with a manager just last week (our team, the HSU Hypotheticals, is third ranked in the country!). Of course, the Hypotheticals lost... mostly because a manager was present.

Anyway, even though this hasn't happened, I know that some of the 'technical staff' view me with suspicion because of my close relationship with some of the management.

This will be a developing theme, both in TFRL and in my keynote address.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Circular References Cannot Resolve

Sigh. See, this is the problem right here. Some people automatically assume that managers are incompetent because of our history of not giving managers the tools to be successful managers. But even if managers *do* have the right training and ability, some staff can't get past their assumption that all managers are incompetent because they are, well, managers.

They've been programmed by bad experiences in the past to assume that manager = incompetent. And they can only see the world through their confirmation bias; ignoring information that might affirm that a manager is competent and latching onto information that can be interpreted as proof of incompetence.

In the end it becomes the classic circular argument: you are a manager ergo you are incompetent ergo you are a manager.

And it ultimately becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because they assume management is incompetent, they themselves become resistant and difficult to manage.

All of this is not to say that there aren't completely incompetent and even actively bad managers out there. Hell no. They're everywhere. I've worked for them. Idiots. Micro-managers. Narcissists. The chronically clueless.

And of course, we all love to make fun of management (ever read this cartoon??). After all, they are such an easy target. I'm not gainsaying that.

My beef is with people who automatically assume that all managers are stupid and ignorant and refuse to get past that despite evidence to the contrary. I bet you know a few people like this.

The real point is that these people are not aiding cultural change in IT. They are actively resisting it. And they are not helping your IT organization better serve your university and its students.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

If You Succeed at Failing, are You a Failure or a Success?

OK, I'm really not trying to beat a dead horse here about people's qualifications to manage. No, what I'm *really* trying to do is make plausible excuses for the abysmal job I've done over the past two years.

And the reality is that this situation says as much about how (given budget and resource cuts over the past several years) we've had to make do with the resources we have instead of hiring people specifically qualified to do what we need. Even if we could hire someone, there's no way we could offer enough in either salary or opportunities to complete with the outside world. Instead we have to try to make lemonade from the lemons we have for employees.

Hrm... somehow that didn't quite come out the way I wanted.

Anyway, you get my point, which is obviously "life sucks".

*Ah... FingerPoints. Two and a half years ago, when I wrote the set of cartoons about being put in charge of "FingerPoints" (here's the first cartoon in the series), I could only fantasize about how bad managing the FingerPoints project could be. The reality, it would turn out, was much, much worse. But that's the topic of another TFRL.