In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, civil engineers were at the forefront in the professionalization of engineering. Structural engineers waxed poetic about the of building bridges, and canal engineers were national heroes in Europe and the United States. This may be hard to believe nowadays, but it was true. Now, of course, civil engineers publish gloomy reports on our nation’s infrastructure which mainly catch the attention of other engineers and those few people who know and care about maters such as roads, bridges, ports, and water supplies. Since few people are passionate about logistics, and since civil engineering is no longer at the cutting edge of science and technology, focus and attention has moved to other areas, despite its obvious and critical importance to survival. As what is practical and what is cool seldom coincide, we must be careful not to let hype govern what is important in life, lest we find out to our dismay that we have neglected areas of importance for those which were flashier.
There is no doubt that IT is a flashy area in our contemporary business world. There is also no doubt that IT is important in setting up the infrastructure upon which business depends–servers, telephony, cloud-based network solutions, and the like. Yet these tasks do not exist for the benefit of IT. Rather, just as the value of civil engineering consists in how infrastructure serves to benefit society at large, so to the benefit of IT is in providing service to the normal business operations, either by helping a company serve external customers, or in the IT department itself serving internal customers by providing what is needed for reporting and operations and marketing and other functions. If what an IT department is doing isn’t making money (or reducing costs), serving an internal or external customer’s needs, or providing status to a customer, they are wasting time and valuable resources on fancy gadgets and other frills by viewing themselves as lords rather than servants.
In practice, many IT departments are not involved in the creation of applications or reports or databases, which belong to other related technical employees, but are rather focused on the maintenance and upkeep and security of networks and computers. Rather than being heroic figures in the development of systems, most IT departments serve as the technical equivalent of the friendly guy who gets an apartment for free in exchange for serving as the general fix-it man cleaning clogged dishwasher drains and unclogging stuck toilets and the like, or are like Paul Blart, mall cop, with a love of fancy machinery but who have delusions of grandeur about being far more important than they really are. Are these tasks necessary? Yes, very much so. Without secure networks and a strong infrastructure of computers and phones and similar technologies, it is hard (if not impossible) for businesses to function.
Yet IT is a support function, and not a directing one. It builds a foundation upon which business operates, and keeps business working smoothly with minimal to nonexistent interruptions into business activities. Its job is to be reliable to the point of being taken for granted by most people, except those who know better. The only time IT is noticed by a normal business user is when something is slow or not working, and while it may be a bit frustrating to be tech support, knowing that IT is a service-oriented department of a company helps focus attention on where it is most needed, on serving internal and external customers by providing solutions that work reliably and provide important and necessary functionality to users. Doing this may not sound very exciting, but it beats being the subject of rants by people whose needs are not being met and who are not being served.
It may seem disappointing to be told that one’s purpose is to serve, but it need not be a degrading or worthless function. After all, in the Christian ethic, true greatness consists in serving, and our Lord and Savior did not come to be served, but to serve others. Likewise, Rudyard Kipling’s foundational writings about engineering focused on the importance of engineers in serving a largely and blissfully ignorant and unaware general public who used the infrastructure built by engineers without knowing or caring about the sacrifices and suffering it required to build roads and railroads and cut canals through deserts and swamps, to build bridges over rivers and straits, and to blast tunnels through mountains. Likewise, people do not know or care about the dangers and vulnerabilities networks face to viruses, or the requirements of applications and software for business use on networks and computers and telephones and copiers and scanners and the like. People just want to be able to work without fuss or difficulty; there is not anything complicated about that. It is the job of support staff, especially IT, to give this work experience to others, and to find joy in serving others as we are able.