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Have the Appropriate Level of Terror (ALOT)

By steve - Posted on 30 April 2010

"Put it up to eleven."
--This is Spinal Tap

If you want to be successful in IT, one of the most important attributes you can maintain is to have the Appropriate Level of Terror (the acronym is ALOT).

What I mean is that there are many things you will do in IT, such as software projects, server hardware upgrades, or management presentations, that demand you feel a high degree of terror.

How can terror be good? Well, it injects your body full of handy hormones and neurotransmitters like adrenaline that will heighten your senses, improve your reactions, and even help you see things you might not otherwise see. Terror will cause you to double and triple check your work. Terror will help you come up with alternative and fall back plans. Terror keeps you focused.

Terror in some people can cause them to freeze or stiffen. Don't be one of those "fainting goats" that topple over at the slightest sound--that's not what I'm talking about...

A well-developed terror reflects the reality of what you are doing. Upgrading a server? Installing a software upgrade on a production system? Making a presentation to the management team? You better have each one of these things figured out all the way around and well in advance. Failure to do so makes it clear that you don't know how to plan nor do you know how to handle important tasks.

The opposite of terror is nonchalance. From the French, it means a state of being or of "having an air of easy unconcern or indifference". Would you want someone working on something important with an attitude of nonchalance or terror? I'll take terror.

I think the reason people working in IT don't have enough terror on their side is because of the history around the PC and Windows. While the continuous improvement we've seen since the 1980's has made many things better, there is still this attitude of "reboot, if you have a problem" or "force the PC to power down by pressing and holding the on button", if things go a little awry. Not only has this left the problem unsolved, it has left IT people thinking that you can just try a little this or that and nothing that bad can happen.

So what can you do to make sure you have ALOT? Do a reality check each time you are taking any action or doing something non-routine and ask yourself, do I have ALOT? If it is something new, you may not have enough. If it is something old, you may have been lucky and now's the time you're going to get hit.

Here's a few true, real-life examples to leave you wondering. Some were done by me and some were done to me. All of them could end with, "What could go wrong?":

  • Let's have Microsoft automatically install updates and reboot the servers at 3am every Tuesday, or whenever. What could go wrong with that?
  • Did you verify your backup before you started?
  • Do you have extra hardware, if that server that's been running perfectly for 3 years doesn't come back up when you reboot?
  • Did you really proof your Powerpoint for spelling and grammar or are you going to trust Microsoft?
  • I'm sending this to you to proofread. Obviously, I haven't bothered to.
  • 80gb of data sounds about right for a data backup. We probably won't need to use it. I don't know how much data is really on the server. I'm sure the backup got it all. We're just adding a drive to the RAID array.
  • I'm in a big hurry. I need to get this email sent to the entire company, right away. I think this is the right attachment and with a name like "budget.xls", it shouldn't have any personnel information in it.
  • I ran that document through a format converter. I'm sure it will look fine without a review before sending it.
  • Are three recovery plans enough when you are looking at doing this upgrade? What if they don't work?
  • It's the user's problem, if they don't have a backup. I can do anything I want to their system without worry about the data. They want to get up and running--that's what's important. What could happen to me?
  • I'll just make this one little change to the registry...
  • Are you really going to try doing this on your own?
  • I think I understand what I was told to do...
  • Pressing this button for a few seconds like you told me to didn't seem to do anything, so I just pressed and held it. Why, what does that do?
  • I always work on new spreadsheets without saving them (until the end of the day).
  • What if you got hit by a truck?
  • Should the top three executives of an organization fly together in the same plane?

The Appropriate Level of Terror? ALOT.

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