Emil Imarietli, 123RF

Emil Imarietli, 123RF

Getting Past the Passion for Passing on Dysfunctional Practices

Article from ADMIN 15/2013

Every IT shop has its quirks and anomalies. Some idiosyncrasies are worse than others, but the one consistent thread is that every generation hands down its poor practices to the next. The only remedy for this multi-generational dysfunction is a bit of house cleaning and a lot of training. Too often, though, the acceptance of tradition, even failed tradition, is stronger than all the logic and prevention a single voice in the wilderness can muster.

There's a famous story of a young bride who cooks her husband's dinner, a roast with all the trimmings, as their first meal together as newlyweds. The wife proudly delivers the meal to her anxious hubby, when he notices that the roast's ends are cut off. He asks her, "Why did you cut off the ends of the roast?" "Oh," she said, "My mother always cut off the ends, and so I do too."

The husband puzzles over this for a moment but eats the roast without another thought on the matter. Upon the couple's next visit to his mother-in-law's house, he politely inquires as to why she cuts off the ends of the roast, to which she promptly replies, "My mother always did it."

The husband now has his task before him to uncover the answer to this mystery. After a few weeks, the opportunity presents itself when grandmother visits the newlyweds. "Grandmother, we'd like to know why you cut off the ends to your roast before you cook it." Grandmother replies without looking up from her knitting to say, "My roasting pan is too small for a whole roast."

I hope the point of this story strikes you as obvious in the context of system administration. Some traditions hold no validity when put to the test. You'll find many IT shops whose leaders foster the "We've always done it this way" method of perpetuating many pointless, or even harmful, practices as acceptable. They are not.

That is not to say that all IT traditions are bad, but you have to use your powers of discernment to decide which are valid and which are bogus.

Most of the failed traditions I've seen surround the creation of "gold" images or the deployment of new systems in general. The practice of doing it wrong filters through generations of administrators. The reason this happens is that, as organizations grow or turn over, one generation trains the next in the ways and mores of the previous generation. Poor practices combined with inexperience and the inevitable trend toward best practice complacency always ends badly – for everyone.

IT folk, yours truly included, hate bureaucracy, paperwork, and the drudgery of having to "hurry up and wait" on approvals, procedure drafts, tickets, and project manager involvement. The dilemma is that order and procedure are good things, and the powers that be have put them into place for a reason: dysfunction prevention. Paperwork and bureaucracy don't cure all of our ills but they do prevent haphazard support scenarios. Bureaucracy is the bane of our existence. Its purpose is noble. Its execution is often flawed. It is an unavoidable necessity.

Beware of the mavericks and cowboys who charge headlong into troubleshooting scenarios with "guns a-blazing." They are the perpetuators of dysfunction. They are the carriers of the multi-generational poor practices syndrome. They are the killers of the Service-Level Agreement. They are the ones who will cost you money. Genetic cleansing in the form of a proper paper trail is the best answer we have. Good IT practice is less costly, less stressful, and far less dysfunctional than the alternative. You should only break the rules as a rare exception – so rare, in fact, as to match the rate of positive mutations in any population. Don't allow exceptions to become the rule. End the dysfunction now and conform to a standard. Future generations will thank you for it. Pass it on.

Ken Hess * ADMIN Senior Editor

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