Two things recently appeared on my radar which got me thinking about the IT Hero culture. One came through the vExpert slack feed and later followed up by a blog post and the other was through a conversation with my sister. In both instances the people suffered health issues due to undertaking too many hours at work in a condensed time period. Following this I began thinking about the issues IT employees face when it comes to time management and finding a balance between keeping systems online 24×7 and actually having a fulfilling life outside of work. The whole IT Hero culture has been an issue for me for a long time, particularly since I suffered from it a number of times myself. I ended up sacrificing family time to work on numerous occasions and only in hindsight did I really see it as being a problem. Before proceeding however I’d like to point out that I don’t have an issue with someone putting in extra time to learn something new, provide shift work support or ensure life-saving services remain online. Or in the rare case that there’s a critical issue that needs to be resolved quickly. There’s also people that want to operate their lives putting more emphasis on work than home life and that’s fine too. My particular problem is more around the perception that you cannot be replaced and that you have to be seen to do extra work all the time in order to show value in your position.

There’s a real problem in IT where employers expect more and more of an employees personal time in order to keep systems up and running or to complete projects. Usually this aligns to work cultures where anyone seeing to leave at a regular time every day is judged to not be part of the ‘team’ despite completing their workload within the allotted time. It is particularly noticeable at smaller consultancy firms but the big ones are just as guilty. But the truth is that it’s not all down to employers. As the employee you really need to set the boundaries and expectations with your employer and more importantly advocate for yourself and your needs. However that contradicts the predominant IT culture of employees that put themselves on a pedestal as the saviour of the day. The combination of lack of boundaries, employee advocacy and embedded perception of self-importance leads to what I think is a negative work-life balance. 

IT Hero

The myth of the IT Hero:

  • You’re a saviour
  • No one else can do it
  • You earn respect
  • You “must” do it – or you’ll be fired
  • Your reputation is at stake

The reality of the IT Hero:

  • You’re no saviour
  • You’re family is impacted – you lose perspective
  • You are not that special, really
  • You are not respected
  • Your health is impacted
  • No one cares, except the person pocketing money for the services you provide

IT Hero culture is not just a not just a temporary state. In short term exposure it can lead to immediate but not long lasting health issues and neglect of family responsibilities. Working long term is this type of culture can lead to burnout. Physically and mentally your body just can’t take it. There’s additional stress which can wear you down over time. Regular occurrences of burning the candle at both ends will take its toll and and you will burnout. Once this happens your only real outs are to go on leave for a while, change jobs and have a deep conversation with your managers about your role. For most people this conversation is the really hard as it means confronting a situation head on. There’s also a power dynamic that exists which would need to change and your manager may not be able to understand, appreciate or accommodate that. One other thing, there’s a high chance of feeling like you can’t succeed at either work or home and a sense of losing control can in turn potentially lead to depression. As the root cause fix requires a cultural change in your workplace don’t expect a quick fix.

Where does it come from:

I will categorically state at the outset that I’m no sociologist or psychologist and that these are just observations. For me, there’s a few reasons as to why we have the hero culture is particularly strong in the field of IT.

1) Strong bro-culture

There’s a strong bro-culture in IT just as there is in a number of other working environments. I’m not going to go into a discussion on the effect of patriarchy within business but there’s a major correlation which cannot be denied. There’s this idea of showing how committed you are and “manning-up” that people feel they need to abide by, where you constantly have to beat your chest about how great you are or the need to get into a pissing contest about your level of technical knowledge. There’s also as mentioned earlier an issue where people that do not stay back all the time or leave to pick up their kids from kinder are not ‘part of the team’. You’re seen to be outside of the ‘wolf-pack’.

2) Desire to not fail or underperform

Let’s call a spade a spade here. In general there’s a huge number of introverts in IT. While this can represent itself in many different forms there is a general commonality among introverts to aim to please others. From business related personality tests such as Myers-Briggs or DISC those that are introverted are also more empathetic and have a desire to not fail or not let others down. This is ok as long as it doesn’t cripple the individual. But it does lead to those that work in IT with a strong need to overwork to meet the workloads they face and underpin the whole IT Hero culture.

3) A Badge of Honour

This comes about due to a number of factors, most of which I’m not going to delve into, but for most IT people it comes from having to prove yourself early in your career. In order to move up the ranks, you need t be seen to be putting in the effort and doing the right things. Given that the breadth of IT is huge there’s a heavy requirements to constantly be working even when not at work, whether this be actual work, study or professional development. There’s a feeling that you are constantly trying to prove your worth. Some move on from that, others don’t.

4) Lack of understanding of the business

I think some of the responsibility for this always-on culture comes down to businesses and management not really understanding that IT systems need to be patched, secured, moved, migrated, transformed, whatever. Every time a business says they can only reboot their systems between 2am and 3am on the 3rd Thursday of the month and only when there’s a full moon and a virgin gives birth because “critical” systems need 100% uptime there’s a human cost. That “critical” system is not necessarily that critical, no-one has bothered to assess it’s importance and risk to your business and generally the business is being totally unrealistic with their expectations. Some poor sucker is going to have to get up at 1am to prepare for that work and check everything is online again afterwards. And in most cases the same poor soul will be in the office at 8am to deal with any issues that arise as the first people enter the office and begin to test things out following the changes. For outsourced IT departments this is a major issue as the management for the service provider or consultancy don’t set realistic expectations and it’s the employee that suffers.

5) We don’t know when to switch off

In this day and age where work can be done remotely at any time of day or night it’s not too surprising to see this happen. I must clarify that the issue here is not with people working from home, or having to work outside of business hours to fit within their lifestyle. For some the flexibility of modern work life is a huge advantage. But even those that leverage flexible working arrangements should ensure they block out some time where they are not contactable.

There’s a sense that work and home life are inextricably intertwined. It’s tempting to constantly look at the latest email that pops up on your phone at 10pm. But to who’s benefit is that really. Have a look at the article from Yadin Porter de Leon about killing email for a deeper look at responding to emails. Emails can be ignored. We all need to learn that some things can wait and the whole world won’t burn down if you don’t respond immediately. In other generations there was a distinct separation due to lack of remote access options. Working remotely is a great initiative but it’s your responsibility to ensure there’s downtime for your own benefit.

I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to read Ken Hui’s post on Life is too short NOT to Pursue your passion. It touches on this need to block out time and if you read the post in full it may give you some food for thought.

Examples of IT Hero culture:

I mentioned at the beginning of the post about two stories that came to light which sparked some further thinking on the issue. So here they are.

I’ll start with the one closest to me, my sister. She works for a telecoms company as an engineer and does a significant amount of out of hours remote support. The advantage of this for her is that her time is her own, she doesn’t need to spend 90 minutes on her commute to work and for the most part she’s the manager of her own destiny. So far so good. Recently my sister was responsible for out of hours upgrades that ran in the early ours of the morning and in addition to this she was also performing support throughout the day for existing customers. In total over a 3 day period she had just 9 hours sleep. Immediately following the completion of the upgrade project she unsurprisingly noticed that she wasn’t feeling well but was rather lethargic and visited the doctor. She had been to the doctor the week before as part of a checkup for another issue and had been weighed. So she unintentionally had a before and after assessment. She had lost 3kgs in a week. And for someone that’s already only a 48kg whippet that’s a massive loss. Needless to say she was told to eat more and put some boundaries on her working hours. Her health problems had been caused by her IT Hero prowess. While I believe the company is responsible for not resourcing their requirements sufficiently my sister is responsible for believing she’s the only one that can do the job and for not monitoring her health or advocating for herself and saying it was too much.

The second incident, and I hope he doesn’t mind me using him as an example,  was vExpert Keiran Shelden. Keiran has documented his work circumstances on his blog post You, Your Health and the Data Center and I’d recommend reading through it if you have five minutes. The synopsis is that Keiran was performing the job of three people and had taken on way more than one person should be performing and suffered for it. His tale is not a new one but in fact a very common one for those that support IT systems. He gives some great advice and tips and the items that stood out most to me were:

  • No project or job is ever worth your life.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Plan to spend time with the family.

In my own case I’ve been guilty of being the IT Hero in the past. Once while working as a consultant I was up at 4am for a flight from Sydney to Melbourne. As soon as I landed in Melbourne I received notification that the backups failed overnight. I had to attend a booth at a user conference so sat behind the booth trying to resolve this issue for 4 hours. Between moments of keyboard bashing I worked the booth and had to switch from technical mode to pre-sales mode. The backup problem was not resolved by the time I got a flight back from Melbourne. Things got worse from there though. A client had an issue with one of their critical business databases and required a restore from the latest backup. This led to significant panic and trying to resolve the backup issue and get a restore working while on the move was fairly stressful. On top of this, the client decided that they couldn’t wait for their data to be couriered so their CIO hopped on a plane with an external drive to collect the restored database at the co-lo data center. Once the CIO was involved the stress was ratcheted up to 11. The CIO brought the data back to the clients site and I then proceeded to work straight through until 2am doing further restores in case the data they needed wasn’t on the CIOs disk. I was up again at 6 to check everything was still ok and confirmed the latest backups had worked. An incident report out was sent to the client by 5pm. This on top of managing backups for 6 clients, handling other client support calls and getting a design out for pre-sales by 10pm. While this was a more exceptional day, it was something that happened on a number of occasions. The expectation was that I would always be available to assist. Thankfully I didn’t have kids at the time and my wife was understanding but it highlights the extreme expectations that are placed upon IT staff.

What are the outcomes of IT Hero culture:

The IT Hero culture can but rarely impacts the business. It impacts the individual. It can represent itself in many forms but the main ones are health, motivation and confidence. Some of the common issues are:

  • Health issues – both physical and mental
  • Lack of recognition for your effort
  • Lack of respect – belittling of claims that you’re overworked, this idea of you being an integral part of the team and without you everything stops. It’s a false economy. If just shows there’s no depth in the business, you’re a single point of failure and gives you an inflated sense of ego.
  • Loss of motivation – work standards begin to drop
  • Overwhelmed – the list of work just never ends
  • Lack of family time
  • Tiredness/exhaustion – you only think about work and are too tired to competently

What can you do?

Need to be aware of the IT Hero mentality – Keep yourself in check. It’s easy to get an inflated sense of self-important. It’s normal, we all like to feel special. Just make sure you’re not being a mug just to massage your ego.

Need to ensure you vet your company during interview – An interview is not just about the company verifying your suitability to their culture but also for you to check that the culture is a good fit for you.

Keep an eye out for dynamics – Once the dynamic has been set it’s very hard or even impossible to change. Management by it’s very nature is master-slave mentality. It’s your responsibility to not be a complete slave.

Advocate for yourself – make sure you speak up and ask for help

Take care of yourself – Enjoy your family time, get out and exercise or just get some fresh air. Treat yourself.

Block out time – Give yourself permission to switch off and enjoy time with family and loved ones. It’ll will re-invigorate you.

Constantly reassess your needs – Make sure to reassess what you can commit to on a work front and reset the expectations when required.

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