God from a Machine

Do you provide unexpected solutions for your customers?

Deus ex machina. Translated from the Latin, the phrase means "a god from a machine." In Roman and Greek dramas, the deus ex machina was a godlike character that machinery lowered onto the stage for the express purpose of getting the hero out of a jam. More recently, the phrase describes a plot device—some improbable thing introduced into a work of fiction or drama that suddenly clarifies the plot line or provides direction to the other characters. Deus ex machina also has a third meaning, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition: a person or event that provides a sudden and unexpected solution to a difficulty.

The Perfect Solution
As the Lab director for Windows 2000 Magazine, I spend a huge amount of time talking to vendors. I often think that these vendors would like me to use the first definition of deus ex machina to characterize them. For example, if I can be convinced to drop a particular vendor's product or solution into an enterprise environment (or at least review it), I will discover that the product is the solution to all the enterprise's problems with (fill in the vendor's niche market here), and all our lives will suddenly be made blissful. Obviously, such a scenario is something I find hard to swallow and is why we actually test products in the Lab. No product is all things to all users, regardless of what vendors would have us believe. And the machinery necessary to lower a solution into our test environment is neither easy to hide nor easy to deal with, and often brings along its own customized set of problems.

I don't mean to say that vendor solutions are valueless. Quite the contrary—many have exceptional value. But vendors often do a poor job of managing user expectations. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a product I've looked at in the past 20 years that didn't have some value to some user, somewhere. If a particular product is the only product that solves the problem you're experiencing, then to you that product is a godsend.

The Sudden Solution
The second definition of deus ex machina reminds me of Microsoft. For example, the sudden introduction of a new technology, such as Microsoft Windows DNA, will provide the direction necessary for the heroes (that's us) to plot the technology course for our businesses and come out of the maelstrom with heads held high and a good idea of where we're going. Of course, Windows DNA is now history, and the latest plot twist from Microsoft is the .NET strategy. Describing .NET as something that has made our way clear would be tough. If the email I receive is representative, .NET has confused quite a few readers. Plenty of Microsoft folks are working to identify what .NET means to every Microsoft OS user, and the more information we receive, the more the .NET strategy makes sense. But .NET is significantly more forward-looking than most of the technologies we use on a daily basis, and it might not solve any problems for us now.

Add the pending release of Whistler (and the much-talked-about Whistler update, Blackcomb) to the mix, and the confusion mounts, especially because a large percentage of you haven't migrated to Win2K yet. Microsoft intends to make Whistler a compelling, if not required, upgrade for business users on Windows 9x, so in at least one sense the company has clarified the path for some OS users. For users still on Windows NT 4.0, a compelling reason to upgrade is so that you don't get too far behind the Microsoft technology and support curve. Of course, you won't necessarily want to migrate, but you might have little choice—which at least makes your direction more clear, if not more palatable. No one ever said you'd like the solution that the deus ex machina lays on you. Its job is merely to provide a solution. I hope that by the time you read this column, the .NET strategy will be clear. (If not, I'll write a column using the Oracle at Delphi as a metaphor.)

The Unexpected Solution
Now we come to the third definition of deus ex machina: a person or event that provides an unexpected solution. Having been in your shoes for a goodly portion of my technical career, I bet that you spend a lot of your time in the role of firefighter—rushing from disaster to disaster, pulling data out of burning servers, and keeping everything running smoothly.

At some point, every IT staff member is tasked to solve problems that he or she could have predicted if there had been enough time to do so. Of course, when these problems appear, they always need to have been fixed yesterday; when you do solve the problems, you're lucky to get even a grudging "thank you" from your users. What you need to do is to be your own deus ex machina. By managing IT-related problems proactively, you can provide unexpected solutions for your customers. If your customers aren't expecting the IT department to be providing solutions to the new problems they encounter, your proactive stance makes you look that much stronger.

To be proactive, you need to be not only heads-down in the operation of IT but also involved in the business processes of your company. Don't tell me that you're just a line IT guy whose job is merely to keep the Exchange servers running or the Web server up. Such might be your literal job description, but it isn't the be-all and end-all of your existence. Every now and then, do yourself a favor and step back from your job. Take a dispassionate look—could you be doing something better, more efficiently, more in line with the company's needs? Feel as if you're too close to your job? Get together with a coworker who has a different area of responsibility. Examine what he's doing, and trade off analyzing how you would do each other's jobs differently. After all, we all know deep down that no one is better at the whole gamut of IT jobs than we are, right?

Don't understand the role your job responsibilities play within the company as a whole? Ask your boss. If she's any good at her job, she'll be able to explain how everything fits. Ask to talk to the staff and managers in the departments that you service. Find out what they need to do their jobs and then identify and apply services from your direct responsibilities to help them. Understanding the process will go a long way toward making the process better. You're the IT experts. If you see opportunities to streamline or improve your customers' business processes, make suggestions. With just a little work on your part, you can be that unexpected source of solutions to their business problems.

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