Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

I read this article about taxi drivers in Chicago over the weekend, and it really made me think. Here’s a guy (go, read the article first, or this won’t make sense) who’s done nothing his whole life but follow the rules – even though those rules don’t always make a lot of sense. He’s done well for himself and his family, but now, late in his life, it’s all starting to crumble.

Anyone could end up in this spot – you just have to learn to see how and why.

The taxi industry in many cities is one that’s suddenly suffering from major disruption. Services like Uber and Lyft are providing a more market-driven experience, and they’re not playing on a level playing field. Now understand that I have not been a big Uber fan. I didn’t like how they sailed into a city, flouted its laws, and simply expected to be accommodated. But I’ve come to feel differently, because in Las Vegas (where I live) in particular, our taxi industry is largely rotten, corrupt, and almost malicious; our laws are doing nothing to change that, and are in fact protecting something that runs completely counter to the public interest. Flouting laws is the way you get them changed, by forcing court reviews of those laws.

And that’s where this guy in Chicago sits. Let’s abstract the conversation away from Uber and Lyft and taxis just a little bit, by drawing some parallels. Let’s also forget whether it’s “fair” or “unfair” that this guy, and others like him, are in this situation; in nature, there’s no “fair,” there’s only “survive.” Complaining that something is unfair will demonstrably not make it go away – and indeed, there’s a lesson here about not relying on “fair” to protect yourself.

So let’s have story time.

Dan is an IT administrator for a decent-sized company. Dan is mainly a Microsoft guy, because that’s what his company uses. He knows his companies IT management processes to a “T,” and knows how to follow them exactly – and does. Dan keeps his hands off things like network infrastructure, databases, and code because in his company, those are separate silos. His company is pretty intense about the separation of duties in those areas, and it isn’t worth Dan’s time (or his job) to go wandering into those areas. Dan’s done well for himself. He’s pulling down $140k a year as a senior engineer, he’s got a full benefits package, and he and his family have a pretty Good Thing going.

Dan’s company runs into an expansion opportunity in a related field. Dan’s thinking, “great! Growth is awesome!” But the new opportunity entails bringing in some new software to help capitalize and manage the new line of business. That new software is Linux-based, and uses an all-new software stack that the company’s never had before.

I know you think you know where this is going. You don’t.

The company has no problem with Dan remaining in his current position. After all, none of the stuff Dan does is going away, and growth means the opportunity to bring in new headcount. So the company brings in a couple of Linux people to manage the new systems. Dan especially likes one of them, because they like all the same sports teams.

But the new people don’t follow the rules as much. They’re accustomed to having more control over their connected network infrastructure. They’re used to managing their own databases, and used to having a more tightly-integrated management process. In fact, they’re not entirely fans of the company’s laborious management framework.

They start breaking rules.

Yeah, at first there’s some scuffling about the rules bring broken. In some cases, the newbies even suffer some downtime, mainly because they weren’t following the in-place change management practices. But dammit, they sure do get stuff done. Management slaps them on the wrist here and there, but management spends a lot more time marveling at how quickly things are moving.

Mind you, what management is marveling at is how inefficient their own processes are. This is not fair, because Dan was simply following the rules. These new guys are disrupting the rules. But it turns out that, even though management put the rules in place, management didn’t really like what the rules delivered.

See, this is a lot like that taxi driver’s situation. He never put the rules in place – the “people,” through their elected representatives, did. But the people – and even their representatives – didn’t really like what the rules delivered. Yes, we all want frequent vehicle inspections. We want background checks on drivers. But we don’t want government-mandated fares that feel suspiciously high. We might be willing to compromise a bit on things like inspections and drivers if we could get a more affordable, more market-based service.

Back to Dan. Management is starting to wonder why all of their employees can be as self-sufficient and go-getting as these new Linux studs. They start to look at how much overhead IT represents (because they’re poor managers; IT is never actually overhead if you’re doing it right), and they decide on a reorganization. They start looking at everyone’s skill sets and – even though management original hired exactly what they wanted – they start changing people’s positions and even thinking about downsizing the team. They want a leaner, more agile team. They want more “move fast and break things” and less “we move slow and break nothing.” Yeah, that might be more a trend or fad than a long-term position – but that’s not going to matter to Dan when his salary goes down or gets cut completely.

So what can you do?

  • Learn to recognize what your company needs and not what your company wants. This isn’t as easy as simply complaining about all the things you personally don’t like; it’s about looking at the business as a whole and identifying areas of opportunity.
  • While remaining the employee your company currently wants, make sure you’re lining your career up to be someone the company actually needs. Work in a heavily silo’d environment? Train yourself to work across silos, even if you presently won’t be doing so.
  • Think about the ways in which your career could be disrupted, and mitigate that. Don’t rely on the current management structure – which can change – to “protect” your job.
  • Once you’ve accomplished the above, think about moving to a company that can actually use who you are and what you’ve become, rather than working for a company that – in your mind – doesn’t know how to manage itself. Be the disruptor.
  • While still at your current job, start advocating for disruption. You don’t have to be annoying or pushy or snide about it; professionally point out where you think processes could be better, and mention how you’ve got the skills to work more efficiently if you’d be allowed. Don’t expect change; when all we had was taxis, we were okay with them. But start setting up a path for yourself when Uber finally comes to town.

My overall point is that the entire taxi industry should have seen that, for the most part, they weren’t delivering what customers wanted. They knew there was a possibility of disruption, but they didn’t plan for it. Most areas couldn’t even get a decent taxi-summoning app off the ground, or install freakin’ GPS systems in the cabs. When disruption came, all they could do is run to the entity that had protected them – the government – and complain they’d they’d just been playing by the rules. But the government, under pressure from its citizenry, was willing to change those rules.

And it can happen to any of us. So whether your backup plan involves being able to adapt to a new structure at your company, or being able to exit and move on entirely, make sure you have a backup plan. Whatever you think is keeping your job in play today, is most assuredly not doing so. For better or for worse, we all rely primarily on inertia in our careers, and at some point it always runs out. You have the power to keep yourself flexible, to change tracks, and to succeed no matter what happens. Just make sure you use that power.

3 thoughts on “What Your Career Could Learn from a Taxi Driver

  1. Bart Tacken says:

    I’m from Holland and the last few months it really stands out How many mass lay-offs there are at big companies here Due to automation. I think there is a huge wave of disruption coming to us IT folks like Don talks about. That’s the main reason i’m learing myself the scripting skill. To become an automator instead of get automated !

  2. Brian Ellis says:

    You can also take this article fast forward x number of years and the company moves the majority of IT assets to the cloud and then not only is the Windows Admin gone. Linux Admin, well he/she is no longer needed. They can also get rid of the IT manager.

    In the end isn’t one of the main goals of cloud to reduce costs? A lot of that savings is seen in head count or what you refer to as overhead.

    I’m 38 and I don’t see the shift happening yet in the industry I support but it is coming. I have a 7 year only son and when he is 38 I don’t think there will be many sysadmin jobs even if the person knows how to automate and is fully on board with PowerShell or whatever is hot at the time. Where I’ve personally seen this already happening is with Exchange admins. Yes, there are still many but the shift is slowly happening. That is just the first of many dominos to fall in my opinion.

    I look at it more like the assembly line workers of the past. Even if the assembly line worker did everything they could to keep up and adapt and learn as much as they could. In the end the job is no longer there period. If the job doesn’t exist automation doesn’t help.

    That may be what you mean when you say “move on and exit entirely”. Find a new career path, do something else. I automate but hopefully I can survive the before the cloud wave hits me.

  3. sysad88 says:

    Great analysis Don.

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