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The IT Professional's Industry Almanac

Industry commentary from the IT trenches

The IT Professional's Industry Almanac by Eathen Anderson takes no prisoners. A 10-year veteran of the IT industry, Anderson has written an honest and critical commentary from the trenches. His audience: the fearful and unemployed IT workers. His main preoccupation: the dysfunctional interface between technology and business. Neither is spared, but his analysis leads him to an unexpected conclusion.

First he explains why IT pays so well - because it's boring, and Americans have "itty-bitty" attention spans while needing everything now. Technology, even as it develops rapidly, requires patience to understand and use correctly. Anderson suggests that the dot-com boom/bust of the late '90s led directly to the outsourcing fad favored by corporations today. Somehow we IT folks overpriced ourselves and are now paying with fear and redundancy. This is fair enough, and many fortunes were made during the boom, but I remember it was business that started the gold rush and the biz dev guys were the first to get fired.

Now, it's true that programming and support services are going overseas - nominally because it is cheaper, but really because corporate executives do not have to interact with foreign geeks or worry about five years down the line. Anderson is particularly scathing about the poor treatment of the help desk, which is most concerned with human management of technology. The problem with American business is that it is more interested in making money than saving it - homework for the first chapter will bring a smile to most IT faces.

It's not just business philosophy, but marketing and the media that overhype products. Anderson claims that 50% of software and hardware products do not work to the manufacturer's specifications. He has much experience with Microsoft OS's; if you buy a new PC loaded with Windows 2000 it will need 27 critical updates and service packs.

There's a brief commentary about boot camps and certification. Anderson explains why MCSAs are more popular than MCSEs (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator and Engineer, respectively). He also mentions both the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) and Linux+ certifications, but I suspect without knowing much about them, and there is the dire warning, repeated several times throughout the book, that Unix is cryptic. The chapter "Hackers, Viruses and Security" is weak - the bottom line is that the hackers (or should that be crackers?) have better tools - most of the top five hacker tools seem to specialize in Windows OS's, which figures, I suppose. But the idea of a global Internet cop shop is just silly; the U.S. Government seems to be doing a sterling job making e-commerce safe for the rest of us.

Enter Our Hero - the network admin, a role that bridges the gaps between software and hardware, end users and geeks, and ultimately business and tech. It should come as no surprise that this is the author's speciality, and Chapter 4 - "The Strategy Chapter" - is an illuminating and detailed case study of the trials and tribulations of one such person.

In the final chapter Anderson features some survival cases, one of which depicts the rather enigmatic fate of a certain network admin. There is a novel in here somewhere. The book is self-described as "a computer novel with a serious attitude," but it really is what its title suggests, an almanac full of lists and laws, useful tables, and sage advice. I hope it gets upated annually.

The lists get better as the book progresses. My favorites are the six end-user personalities (Grinch, Flower Child, Engineer, Annoyer, Savvy Annoyer, Uber Talker) and "A List of Common Childhood Values That Should Be Rethought Before Entering a Corporate Environment." The laws vary from the obvious - The Law of Finality, whereby an expensive solution/product is bought and has to be used, however horrible - to the esoteric, such as Eathen's Equation, actually several equations and a spreadsheet based more on experience than theory and all the better for that.

Anderson expounds at length on his preferred management method, a combination of R&D and ROI analyses. The R&D aspect is particularly important in such a rapidly changing environment as tech: one must avoid "redundant and frivolous tech reading, seminar hopping, or exuberant gadget play" and be able to calculate both the necessity and severity of need for new tech. The example he uses is the installation of a Lindows environment in a 35-person company. This has to be a reaction to years of frustration with the Microsoft OS's - ME and XP both make it into his Top 10 Over-Hyped Technological Inventions of the Nineties list, while Red Hat Linux (no version) makes it into the Top 11 Technological Inventions of the Last Ten Years list (along with Windows NT 4.0 SP6A and Novell 5.0).

Anderson's not a true believer in Linux and open source. Perhaps he's just not tried installing, say, a recent Novell SUSE LINUX distribution, which detects peripherals better than XP and defaults to an eminently usable GUI. Having said that, it is important to separate his legitimate concerns from his Microsoft-marketing-will-prevail cyncism. In fact, his concerns seem to boil down to three:

  1. Unix is a rigid system that does not play well with proprietary software (try telling that to Pixar).
  2. It's not really a GUI so simple stuff takes longer and is not user friendly (first is not true - Command Line Rool! - and the second is, well, not true either).
  3. The open source OS is not immune from viruses, which is true, but as a Perl hacker once said, a closed door is preferable to a locked one.
If you're down in the trenches, slapping your fellow grunt's back is okay, but you shouldn't be afraid to look over the parapet or maybe just up at the wind blowing the clouds. Happy minds create beautiful (and useful) things...back to cynical reality. There are some contradictions in this book, stemming from the author's desire both to give survival advice to IT folks - "Let managers manage" - and his critique of existing business practice. He concludes correctly that the MBAs, which lead to CXO (CEO, CIO, COO, etc.) roles and high incomes, should not displace the real business experience that we mortals understand and practice every day. Of course, unfortunately they do.

In the final chapter, "The National IT Dilemma," Anderson details corporate wages from the front desk to the CEO. He is not so much against the pay differentials for different roles (when the company is making money) and in fact feels it necessary to deny he is a socialist (why are Americans so worried about this label?). However, he ends with a final theory - Passive Unionism - and two recommended URLs: www.techsunite.org and www.cwa-union.org. Anderson sees himself as a cop, an aggressive linebacker worried about national security and waste. But I think ultimately he'd like to be part of the Union.

More Stories By Tony Kirman

Tony Kirman discovered Linux at the same time as the Internet, and has never looked back. He has worked as an itinerant programmer in the content management field for many years, watching as expensive solutions come and go. He is a firm believer in open standards and free software, free beer too when it's available. He has a website - www.Los.org - untouched for a while, and can be reached at tkirman@panix.com.

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