Firefighting & Hedgerows

Over the past month my job has changed quite a bit.  Our IT team went from three members to two.  So I’ve had to transition from simply being a programmer to being a firefighter as well.  During this shake up, the owners decided they wanted me to cross train and learn the networking, phone systems and all the other little bits of trivia that currently only my coworker knows.  He came in on the ground floor and has spent the last few years just getting the company up and running.  But at the same time the owners have realized that having all that information centralized in one person’s brain is not ideal. So several weeks ago, all approved IT tasks began coming directly to me to execute.  If I didn’t know how something worked, I was to ask my coworker to teach me and complete the task.  If it was something I knew how to do, I would hand it off to him.

Writing code is a creative process.  It requires quiet and time to work through logic issues and find solutions.  Fighting fires requires you to drop everything when the alarm sounds.  The constant interruptions make it hard to pick up on your train of thought.  Coding is what I enjoy doing.  I like being given a problem and then solving it.  It’s like a virtual jigsaw puzzle.  Now on the other side of the coin, I have enjoyed learning how our phone systems work and how the network is configured.  But in the end, this just fuels my problem-solving urge.  I begin thinking about how we can improve and streamline our systems.  Then the siren goes off again.

Then there are days that there are only small grass fires and I can’t get my head wrapped around a programming problem.  So I either try and come up with some small fun project that will allow me to experiment or I clean.  We’ve got several rooms full of computers, phones and assorted parts that I’m slowly trying to organize.

The owner and I have discussed how to improve the IT department.  There are so many projects that we could work on but there is so much red tape to go through.  I have used the metaphor of a specials ops squad.  We need the freedom to get in, get the job done and get out.  When we have all these commanders we have to report to or get approval from we just get stuck in stand-by.  I’m reminded of armored units in WWII.  They were having issues with the hedge rows in France.  It took forever to go up and over all of them.  Added to this was when the tanks topped these rows, the unprotected bellies of the tanks were exposed to the enemy.  So some ingenious tank crews started modifying their tanks.  They welded giants forks on the front of their tanks.  This allowed them to bust through the hedge row instead of going over the top.  They didn’t wait for approval or permission from HQ.  They just did what needed to be done to get the job done and get everyone home alive.

We are also wrestling through communication issues.  To continue the military metaphor, we are given an Op without any intelligence or clear directive. So we don’t know what we are up against or how to successfully complete the Op.  Also decisions are made at HQ but not passed along to those in the trenches.

Amidst all these frustrations, I feel as though I’ve gained some influence.  In the past I would share my ideas, but it felt as though they were dismissed.  I think I’ve earned a bit of credibility and some of my ideas have been heard.  I see so many ways to make things better but I’m not in a position to make any changes.  So I just keep throwing out ideas and keep prodding people when I can.  I’m just throwing what I can against the wall and looking to see what sticks.  I have to focus on what sticks and move forward instead of getting dismayed at what doesn’t.  I’m also learning how to properly process the added stress and dissonance of my new position.

There have also been some lessons learned.  I have improved in my communication and conflict resolution skills.  Being a firefighter has gotten me out of my office more and allows me more interaction with my coworkers.  It stretches me personally and professionally.  The jury is still out on all these changes but it’s not boring.