What do you do when you work for a small-ish company relying on patchwork solutions and outdated technology?
February 26, 2004 5:00 PM   Subscribe

"My thang won't print!" What do you do when you work for a small-ish to smallish-mediumish company (say 125 users) and they rely on technology in every aspect of their business but are unwilling to spend/grow? [much more inside; apologies for this post's length]

I'm the sole tech-anything person (this includes voice), the first they've employed, and I've been on the job not quite two years. This company is really four companies, one recently acquired, all humping one another's legs incestuously and quartering my salary. There are three geographically distinct locations, and everyone is on different ISPs. Everyone has different hardware and software--stuff that was picked up by various accountants who did some computer stuff on the side. There are all manner of Windows boxes and a SCO server for the COBOL-based in-house accounting software everyone Telnets into. Office workers, road warriors, at-home workers, notebooks, desktops, and both, different manufacturers, no two printers or systems alike in any way, et cetera. 75% or more of the software is not legitimate. Nobody has any training, and there is no time to provide any.

So they have all these long-term projects planned out (writing a Goldmine clone in my free time, for example) and I am finally realizing, after two years of pissing on fires, that in this situation pissing on fires is all I will ever be able to do (I think). Even trying to do something like routine data backups or antiviral measures turns in to a nightmare, and that's not including trying to do something for a remote branch.

They won't pay for unification on any level. Example: They won't even for a second consider OOo for an office suite, but they won't pay for licenses for Office 2003, either. Ditto operating systems.

I love what I do in some ways--lots of variety! I've learned network cabling, making custom cables, Cisco configuration/administration, PHP, MySQL, Apache, troubleshooting out the ass, and on and on . . . but I feel perpetually drained and scattered and without direction and guilty and unproductive. It's "What is this email I got? Is it a virus?" to "How do I make Excel keep my headings at the top of each page?" to "My thang won't print!" to "How come these transactions don't match?" all day, every day.

The question: Is this the situation everyone is in who works for a company like this? I am more than adept at fixing everything that's been thrown at me, but . . . should I be worried that while becoming a Jane of all trades/master of none I am also falling far, far behind the curve technologically speaking? Am I doing something wrong? Are there things I can do to make things better that I am not thinking about? I guess I'm looking for something along the lines of "That's just how it is--either settle in or buff up your portfolio." and/or concrete ideas others have used to make things better: "I finally figured out I could administer all those 'Doze boxes with a Redhat box and ChuChu Rockets."

[Again, I apologize for the length of this post--I felt the information was important, and I guess I'm hoping some of it will strike chords for people who are or were in this situation.]
posted by littlegreenlights to Work & Money (14 answers total)
 
Your post can be summarized in three letters: TCO (total cost of operation).

As the billpayers see it, paying you to keep everything working is cheaper than upgrading. You have to show them in detail how upgrading (and still keeping you on staff) will save them money. To do that, you must first determine whether or not upgrading actually will save them money. Have fun! ;-P
posted by mischief at 5:25 PM on February 26, 2004


The future of employment will depend on multitasking jobs. I am the IT/Webmaster/graphic designer/Marketing/Production guy at my job. I've survived layoffs here and at other companies because I am able to do many things. My advice is to absorb the all the knowledge and be helpful around the office. If you are learning and helping other everyday, you have a job 99% of Americians envy.
posted by Macboy at 5:28 PM on February 26, 2004


Not that I think this will help, but that sounds almost exactly like the job I got just out of college. I was incredibly happy to get a job, and I thought I could do great things. Eventually, I woke to the realization that I would never have time to do the things that I knew would be profitable, exciting, interesting long term for the company, because I was spending all day, every day doing every small technical task -- since I was the sole technology employee. So after a year of working there, I started looking for another job, got lucky after 4 months, and left. Best thing I ever did. I can't even begin to explain how much happier I am now.

So I say start looking. It's not worth feeling smothered -- and you don't have to. Let a college grad do it, instead.
posted by crawl at 5:31 PM on February 26, 2004


Yes, start looking. But there's no reason you have to leave them in the lurch. Tell them you need an assistant or you will leave and/or be unable to take on any of the long-term projects. Hire a gifted but inexperienced person and start training them to do what you do. When the trainee is sufficiently trained, leave.

The future of employment will depend on multitasking jobs. I am the IT/Webmaster/graphic designer/Marketing/Production guy at my job. I've survived layoffs here and at other companies because I am able to do many things.

Multitasking at a decently run company is much different from compensating for the technical incompetence of every other employee at an incoherent company.
posted by staggernation at 6:53 PM on February 26, 2004


Multitasking at a decently run company is much different from compensating for the technical incompetence of every other employee at an incoherent company.

Agreed. But he is also learning alot and thinking fast on his feet. That skill will make him a valuable resource to a company.
posted by Macboy at 8:22 PM on February 26, 2004


I'm in a similar boat to you. I don't do the voice stuff (yet) but I do just about everything else. Personally, I love it. The variety kicks ass. New challenges. New things to learn... etc... What can I say? I have a short attention span and need constant stimulation or something.

A little emotional distance helps. My attitude is something to the effect of "I work hard for 9 (or so) hours every day, and get done what gets done."

So far, this set of talents has served me pretty well job-market wise. In an age when a lot of people have been out of work for a fairly long time, the pure breadth of my experience landed me a job quickly. That is to say -- on that front, you have absolutely nothing to worry about, at least from my experience. If you're unhappy, poke around for new things... there's certainly nothing to lose, especially if you're not particularly desperate. Take the time to find out what's going on at other companies in your area. Network. All that stuff. You know the drill.

I've actually been converting most of the servers to linux boxes at my office, which takes a lot of the headache out of the administration. Little things help - I (finally) got everyone running both the free antivirus software as well as adaware, so they know the folks at work can do the easy diagnosis on their problems first. A small victory, maybe, but it helps.

Really, though, what's helped me the most was the book "The Zen Kitchen of Enlightenment." Kinda silly, maybe, but hey... that's me. Getting paid reasonably well doesn't hurt, either.
posted by ph00dz at 8:50 PM on February 26, 2004


If you're confident that the rampant unlicensed software use really isn't your fault, call the BSA on them. After a raid threat and out of court settlement, maybe your superiors will think of actually paying for software, or investigate free alternatives. (to be taken with a large grain of salt)
posted by zsazsa at 8:52 PM on February 26, 2004


Having been in almost exactly the same situation, I can tell you that being a jack/jane of all trades can provide you with a huge breadth of experience and good trouble-shooting skills that you would never get in a more organised environment - much like the old-time mechanics who had to fix things with whatever was lying around, you become proficient at coming up with solutions that cost little or nothing and at least do the job for now, even if they create their own problems later.

If you have been doing this for two years, though, you have probably reached the burn-out stage where you just cannot stand to cobble together another thing because the boss won't shell out $50 to buy something and where you have just re-formatted three whole computer labs in your own time because the boss won't pay the money to update the virus software and some lame-brained, smartarse computer teacher handed out this great new program she got from her government worker husband to the students on infected floppies and on an on and on. Time to move on, but remember to sit down and think about all the things you have been doing for the past two years and make sure they are all in your resume. Even in the best-resourced organisations, people who can just "do things" when they need to be done are prized.

But to actually answer your questions:
Is this the situation everyone is in who works for a company like this? Yes.
should I be worried that while becoming a Jane of all trades/master of none I am also falling far, far behind the curve technologically speaking? Yes.
Am I doing something wrong? Only if you stay beyond the point where you are not learning and have things down to a routine of "this is broken, OK, I fix that this way every time that happens".
Are there things I can do to make things better that I am not thinking about? Try not fixing the things that are the most troublesome where you can - tell the boss that they are beyond repair and need to be replaced (sabotage them if you have to). This can set up a cycle of needing to replace things because the old crap is no longer compatible with the new stuff.

With regard to the illegal software - to protect yourself, send the boss a memo, itemising as much as you can the software that is illegal and advise him/her of the cost of getting caught as opposed to the cost of buying the software and that it is the person who has legal responsibility for the company who is personally liable, not the person who installed it.
posted by dg at 9:51 PM on February 26, 2004


Just to emphasize: follow the advice in dg's last paragraph. The BSA and their lawyers can be very brutal, and bad managers will often try to push the responsibility down to their employees. If you have written evidence that you notified management of the problem, and they took no action, you have much less chance of personal trouble. Protect yourself first.
posted by fuzz at 3:03 AM on February 27, 2004


I have found that the "hit by a bus" method works great. Next time you are trying to convince the boss to invest some money into standardization, just ask him, "What would happen if I got hit by a bus tomorrow? Who would be able to take over? How much downtime and damage would that cause to the company?"

That will wake them up fast. Because the real problem isn't cost misallocation, it's overdependence. Just like you need backups and redundancy in your data and IT systems, you need backup and redundancy in your labor.
posted by PrinceValium at 4:38 AM on February 27, 2004


i was going to post that you do have another option - if you're convinced that you're vital to the company (and it sounds as though you are) then you can walk out, expecting to be re-hired under better conditions. however, i have done this (once), and while it gave me the clout to make some changes, it didn't help in the long term. if you're at the point where you're considering such desperate measures then things are probably already way too bad for you to fix alone.

so in retrospect i'd say try what people suggest above about toc (and look for people who will support you in this within the company), then, if that doesn't help, look for another job (you'll have a good cv, and if you add in your "aims" that you're looking for less fire-fighting and more organisation that would help too - sounds like the perfect sysadmin cv! :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 5:15 AM on February 27, 2004


I disagree with the "hit by a bus" theory. Everyone is expendable. There are a lot of out-of-work tech workers these days. If you left, your company might go into a short period of "the Computer Guy is leaving, we're doomed!" but they'll hire someone, he'll learn the place, and you'll be forgotten.

This is in no way meant to belittle your skills. I'm sure you're valuable to your company, but don't ever get the idea that they couldn't survive without you. They will.
posted by bondcliff at 7:00 AM on February 27, 2004


Thanks very much for all the advice. It makes all the conflicting voices in my head make more sense in that they are all right on some level. (Multitasking is everything it was said to be above!) I know I will have to move on relatively quickly as it is easy to say or do the wrong thing, despite your best intentions, when you start feeling put upon at work occasionally.

That said, I guess I got enough encouragement here to put some balls in my voice. My boss the VP called me in to discuss new long-term projects (GPS for truck drivers, a consolidated company website, and a color product catalog) and I calmly and slowly explained about the firefighting. I told him I had been feeling guilty and stressed for pretty much the duration of my employment because I had so many projects that I now knew I would probably never be able to even put a dent in. He seemed to understand, and said that if I put together numbers and justification for implementation of some unifying measures, they would go for some of them--not all of them, and not all at once--but he did say they would give them a fair shake.

This is not to say everything is happy in multicompany bastardized network o' random boxes land; I also got up the nerve to start really looking for something else. There is definitely no such thing as being indispensable where I work. They cut people mercilessly, seemingly without thinking, and simply deal with the fallout later. I'm not going to sit here past my expiration date while cutting-edge skills pass me by, only to be surgically removed from the picture later, anyway. Sure, it's great to be able to fix shit, but I want to make some shit, too. :)

So, for the time being, there is a new office addition to wire, and that is exciting and good, but in the meantime, I'm looking. Hard. I'll be loyal as a Golden Retriever while I am still there, but by night I will be Here'smyCV girl, and will move on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky.
posted by littlegreenlights at 7:30 PM on February 27, 2004


excellent. go for it. the best time to look for a job is when you already have one. in a similar situation i started my cv with an "aims" section that said "i am looking for a company where...". i figured that people who were offended probably weren't the kind of people i wanted to work for, and eventually found a place where they said at the interview "hey, this is great, we want to be a company like that!" - best job i ever had.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:19 AM on February 28, 2004


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