IT Nincompoops

Some readers may be aware of my day job: I help administer some of my employer's computer systems, including those that handle incoming and outgoing e-mail for our domain. Here at Pun Salad, I usually refer to my employer as the "University Near Here", more out of habit than from any intention to obscure. Interested readers can figure it out (hint: from the initials, add dot-e-d-u.), but I can't imagine why anyone would be that interested.

Based on years of experience, I've come up with a saying: "Any idiot can set up a mail server. And I am living proof of that."

So I was intrigued by the provocative take on the Hillary e-mail imbroglio coming from Steve Landsburg:

If Jeb Bush is elected president and appoints me Secretary of State, the first thing I will do is set up a private server to handle my official email correspondence. This is not because I expect to have anything to hide, but because I expect my email to be important, and I do not want my service to depend on the whims of the sorts of aggressively incompetent nincompoops who, in my experience, tend to populate the IT departments of large institutions.

Steve is Professor Of Economics at the University of Rochester. So, while he's not talking specifically about me, he's talking about people like me.

So my first thought was a reflexive Why, I oughta…

But my second thought was: Hey, you know, "Aggressively Incompetent Nincompoop" would have its advantages as a job title. Currently, I am officially an "Information Technologist", very vanilla and vague. Being an "Aggressively Incompetent Nincompoop" would get people's attention and (even better) might lower their expectations. All good.

And then I thought some more. Herewith, my brain dump.

Please note that my comments do not reflect on the IT department of the University Near Here. No nincompoops here, let alone aggressively incompetent ones. We're all darn competent, organized, helpful, cheerful, etc. (And at least some of us are smart enough to not claim otherwise in a public forum.)

Nevertheless, I understand at least some of the dynamics that might have caused Steve's critique.

  • IT departments are bureaucracies. Scott Adams got rich pointing out their funny-because-it's-true follies. Also applicable:

    Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

    My guess is that the University of Rochester is well along this evolutionary path, and that Steve may be dealing with a lot of the second class of people.

  • The higher-ed environment makes things worse, removing a lot of bottom-line scrutiny that might likely be applied in the more market-driven private sphere. (I might have heard speculation that "CIO" stands for "Commissar of Information Oligarchy". But you didn't hear that from me, comrade.)

  • I don't know for sure the sort of IT people that Steve deals with, but IT front-line support can be… well, speaking of people that got rich via funny-because-it's-true caricatures:

    And (it gets worse) the IT people on front-line support tend to be on the bottom of the totem pole, in high-turnover. positions. In an ideal world, they should (at least) have good people skills, even the occasional high-maintenance faculty member. But we don't live in an ideal world.

  • And finally, the services provided by IT must needs be scalable; there's no way to cater to the special needs of each individual service consumer, because resources are simply too scarce to allow it.

    This implies strongly that IT-provided services will be uniform among broad classes of clients, which (unfortunately) also can be characterized as "one size fits all" and "lowest common denominator".

    Corollary: this can easily irk people (like Steve?) who have higher demands and expectations. (And for whatever reason, people tend to expect more of IT than they do of other service-providing departments; nobody demands that Payroll print their paycheck on different color stock, perhaps with an infused cinnamon scent.)

All that being said, however…

I might grant, for the sake of argument, that an all-around smart guy like Steve Landsburg has set up a mail server providing better service than he would have obtained from the University of Rochester IT Department.

I might even grant Steve might do a better job than the State Department's IT gurus. I don't know them.

[It's worth pointing out, however, that Hillary's private mail setup was almost certainly less secure that what she would have received from State: see here and here, for example. Steve would probably do better. It would be hard not to.]

But even though Steve might do a better job than State's geek employees: that's not the way to bet. Why not?

  • Administration of critical IT infrastructure is not a hobby, or even a part-time job; it's not something you do to unwind after a tough day of negotiating with Putin.

  • So Steve would need to delegate. But that assumes that he would have access to non-nincompoops to whom he could delegate. If he knows those guys, why not simply install them at State's IT department in the first place, problem solved.

  • Note Steve's use, in the quote above, of "my", as in "my email". That's a problem: in an employment context, that might not be entirely accurate. For example, my employer's policy explicitly states that "all records" resident on its servers are "owned" by (guess who) my employer.

    My guess would be that State has the same verbiage somewhere. (And obviously, if my guess is correct, Hillary ran afoul of that policy.)

Bottom line: I can't agree with Steve here. But (as always) he gives me a lot to think about.