It’s fairly well-known that I use an Apple Macbook Air laptop when I’m on the road. I’m frequently the target of friendly jokes about it, which is fine. But I’m also frequently put down by people who claim I’ve “spent too much” on it, and who insist they can get “the same laptop” for much less.
(As an aside, I always find it odd that many of these folks drive fairly expensive cars instead of a cheaper model that does the same thing – drives them to work.)
There are two reasons for their comments, and it’s important that you be able to recognize both reasons, both in yourself (so you can knock it off) and in others (so you know what you’re up against). This is as true in professional IT as it is in your personal life, although the professional consequences can be more dangerous and annoying.
The first reason is justification. If you make the same decisions I make, then I was right; if you make a different decision, then I might have been wrong, and I hate being wrong. Americans in particular have got real problems with diversity. We tend to migrate ourselves to communities where folks feel more or less like-minded, and we’re not often confronted with radically different things. When we are confronted – well, you only have to turn on cable news to see how well we don’t deal with it. Technology is no different. I spent almost half an hour one time, whilst setting up for a lecture, listening to a guy harangue me about how I’d spent too much on my laptop (he clearly had access to my credit card statements). He argued dollar-per-GHz, dollar-per-GB, you name it. He was pushing hard to have me “admit” that I’d made the wrong choice – thereby justifying his.
The problem is that you can be right without other people having to be wrong. My choice in laptop is driven by some very specific factors and compromises that are important to me; that choice won’t necessarily hold true for someone else. For example, my laptop is literally my lifeblood. It’s my only computer, and it’s where all of my work happens. I need it to be reliable, and when it breaks I need reliable service. I’m tough on a computer: in the past, I’ve ruined HPs by running too many VMs too often, causing the CPU to overheat. I eventually got those laptops to the point where they could barely run at all. I also personally dislike cheap, plastic-y laptops covered in manufacturer logo stickers (“Intel Inside”). That’s not a functional choice; it’s aesthetic. I like my aluminum laptop. It feels sturdier, and that makes me feel more confident. I also compromise entirely toward portability. I don’t need 16GB of RAM; I need a laptop whose weight is measured in ounces, not pounds. I travel up to 40 weeks a year, and I feel every single ounce. So I have the 11″ Air, despite its lower hardware spec.
None of those reasons might matter to anyone else. They might prefer a glossy black plastic laptop with a 17″ screen and shoulder-destroying weight – that’s fine. I’m happy for their decision and wouldn’t dream of convincing them otherwise. But that’s the trick with justification: you need to recognize when someone is doing it, and dig into why. Why do you feel your solution is best? Do your reasons apply to the current situation? In business decisions, how many of your reasons are aesthetic, and does that really matter to the overall direction?
The other reason is fear. People dislike change, and as a long-time advocate of Windows PowerShell I can assure you that many professional IT people loathe the idea of having to learn something new. So they’ll often campaign for solutions that fit within their existing scope of knowledge, or they’ll stay willfully ignorant of other solutions. For example, I help run PowerShell.org, and it’s based on a LAMP-stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) web server running in Azure. That shocks folks… but I love LAMP as a web stack. I understand the alternate WISA (is that a thing? Windows, IIS, SQL Server, ASP.NET?) stack, but it wasn’t the best tool for a WordPress-based site. I could have made it work, sure, but it would have involved a lot of hackery up-front and ongoing. Azure, happily, doesn’t care what I run with it, and the Azure folks I know were happy to help me get my CentOS server up and running. They believe in the right tool for the right job, too. I don’t know Linux terribly well, so I had to learn a lot in order to get things configured properly – and it was kinda fun. And now I know a bit more about Linux than I did.
There’s a trick in “right tool for the right job” that a lot of folks don’t get, which is that you need to (a) know what the job actually entails and (b) know what all the possible options look like. A lot of folks fall down on (a) and most fall down on (b). If you don’t know Linux, for example, you might argue for Windows simply out of ignorance. That’s willful ignorance, because the resources certainly exist for you to inform yourself. I would never, ever, ever choose or recommend a solution without learning as much as possible about all the choices – that’s one reason I enjoy heading up the research paper projects my company produces. I love learning about new tools, and figuring out their strengths and weaknesses.
Both justification and fear are often wrapped up into something we colloquially call “religion,” as in, “I’m a religious fan of Windows.” Formal religion, for some folks, certainly has aspects of justification and fear. Many religions are evangelistic, meaning they seek to bring more people into the fold – that’s not entirely like someone trying to convince me I’ve picked the wrong laptop. Many religions are also resistant to change, and to incorporating new elements. Many religious adherents are also willfully ignorant of the “competition.” As a kid, I spent a lot of time learning about different religions, because I simply didn’t want to live in a world where I knew nothing about what the rest of the population was thinking. Knowing didn’t necessarily change my choices – but at least I made informed choices.
And that’s an important note: simply because you know about choices doesn’t mean you won’t make the same decision you would have made before knowing. For example, in an organization with zero Linux expertise on staff, the WISA stack might be the right answer simply because there’s nobody to support the LAMP stack. If we needed to roll out something fast, it might be worth hackery (if needed) to run on Windows, because we’d have the hackers lined up and ready, as opposed to having to spin people up on Linux skills. That’s definitely a consideration. It isn’t the consideration, though. It’s one of many, and in some scenarios it might be outweighed by others, and someone might be tasked with coming up to speed.
Regardless of your personal religion, when it comes to professional IT, you should lose your “religion.” Your only truth should be, “the right tool for the right job,” and your crusade should be to clearly define what the “job” is, so that you can best select the tool that goes with it. If that means you have to learn something new… well, so be it. Hopefully you got into IT because you were excited about constantly learning new things, not just because it offered a bigger paycheck in the mid-90s. After all, the more you know, the more situations in which you can be useful – and that’s just good career advice.
We’re coming up on the new year. Consider making a resolution that, in 2014, you’ll never make a recommendation or product/solution argument without being fully informed about the requirements and about all the possible choices. Be an analyst, a consultant. Recommend things that you might need to learn more about. Be flexible. Not “religious.”