This weekend I ran across a post by Shaun Boyd called Ten reasons it doesn’t pay to be the computer guy [link has gone away]. He begins with the observation that if you’re “the computer guy,” most of your accomplishments are invisible. Nobody consciously notices things working smoothly. In fact, if you do a great job of preventing problems, people will assume you’re not needed. After discussing being unappreciated, Boyd goes on to complain about unreasonably high expectations people have of “the computer guy.”
These are valid complaints. However, they somewhat offset each other. Yes, much computer support work is invisible, but the firefighting aspects of the job are very visible and often appreciated. Other computer careers are less visible than desktop support and do not have the same potential for positive client interaction. Security may be the worst. Nobody ever notices the lack of security problems. The only potential visibility is negative.
I think the problem is not so much a lack of visibility but a natural incentive to concentrate on the more visible aspects of the job. It’s natural to do more of what is rewarded and less of what is ignored. Troubleshooting is often immediately rewarded by the gratitude of clients. (“My computer was all messed up and you saved me. Thank you, computer guy!”) Preventative maintenance and infrastructure improvements are appreciated only in the long term, if ever.
These challenges are not unique to computer careers; cure is usually more appreciated than prevention. The other problems Boyd lists are not unique to computer careers either. For example, he mentions the lack of appreciation for specialization.
There is no common understanding that there are smaller divisions within the computer industry, and that the computer guy cannot be an expert in all areas.
Every industry has its specializations, though specializations within the computer industry may be less widely known. Maybe specializations are harder to appreciate in newer industries; not long ago the computer guy could be an expert in more areas. Another difficulty is that computers are mysterious to most people. They find it easier to imagine why there are different kinds of doctors for eyes and ears than why there are different kinds of computer guys for desktops and servers.
Boyd makes one point that is almost unique to the computer industry: rapid change devalues skills. Every industry experiences change, but few change at the same rate as the computer industry.
Thanks to the constantly declining price of new computers, the computer guy cannot charge labor sums without a dispute. … desktop computers are always getting smaller, faster, and cheaper. It’s possible to purchase a new desktop computer for under $400. If the computer guy spends five hours fixing a computer and wants $100/hour for his time, his customer will be outraged, exclaiming “I didn’t even spend this much to BUY the computer, why should I pay this much just to FIX it?”
When people in other professions complain about how their jobs are changing, they’re usually complaining directly or indirectly about the impact of computer technology. But the rate of change for those who use a technology is usually less than the rate of change for those who produce and support it.