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What is Your IT Legacy?

Level 17

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Where are you in your career arc right now? Trusting simple statistics, I can say that the majority of you are either just starting out, or somewhere in the middle. Relatively few of those reading this essay will be at, or near, the end (whether that means retirement is on the immediate horizon or you are looking at pivoting into something completely different).

So, for that majority of you who are not-done-yet, I want to ask you: what will you leave behind? How are you planning for your graceful exit? How are you ensuring that your colleagues (those who also aren't-done-yet) will continue to be successful without you to call on?

To be honest, this wasn't a question I’d considered very much, until I met a very special person in the SolarWinds booth at Cisco Live! last year.

He had clearly been around the data center a few times, about a decade and a half ahead of me, career-wise. We spent a few minutes amicably playing what I call "IT sonar"—where you get the depth and breadth of someone's experience by reminiscing on the tech you've seen come and go.

But then he turned to the demo station, because he had a few questions. The things he wanted to know were interestingly specific. They didn't center on the latest-and-greatest. He'd heard about our most recent features, and he and his team were using them. He was at Cisco Live!, and knew about THEIR most recent announcements, but wasn't particularly concerned about how WE could monitor THAT.

This was notable because, if I'm being honest, people visiting the SolarWinds booth usually fall into three categories.

  1. People who want to know about our stuff.
  2. People who want to know if OUR stuff can help with this OTHER stuff they just heard about and/or are buying.
  3. Fans who just want to say, “HI,” bask in the orange glow of #MonitoringGlory, pick up our latest buttons or stickers, and pose for a selfie.

Curiosity piqued, I asked him what was up. What was he REALLY trying to do? His answer came as a surprise, "I built this thing, but I'm going to retire one of these days," he said.

By "this thing" he meant all of it. The whole IT environment at his company. He took them from dumb terminals to PCs running Arcnet to Novell servers on Ethernet and all the way to today. He had a hand in all of it. He knew where the important bits were and where the cables were buried.

What got me most was the WAY he relayed this. He wasn't bragging. He wasn't justifying himself. He wasn't bringing up long-forgotten accomplishments as a way of proving he was still relevant. He was calm, confident, and clearly didn't need to prove anything. He told me he'd found his niche at the company long ago, and worked hard to gain and keep the trust and respect from both management and his peers. This gave him the freedom to make decisions in his lane, as well as reach out and help folks whose work fell outside that lane. He also described how he had worked to keep his skills sharp through the successive waves of IT trends, without falling into the bad habit of chasing the latest fad.

The problem, he told me, was that he realized there was no way to teach his coworkers—some of whom were young enough to be his grandchildren—everything that was in his head. And he realized it would be a waste of time to do so.

"There's just stuff," he said, "that isn't worth anyone's time to learn, or to carry around on the odd chance that it will be important a year or three from now. But even so, that stuff is still running. And it's going to break. And they'll need to know about it when it does."

I started to make a joke about documentation, and he told me that was just as bad as trying to teach it to somebody. Burying a piece of information, whether in a binder on a shelf or on a page in a labyrinthine SharePoint site, is a great way to feel good about knowledge that nobody is ever going to read.

He explained that his idea was to replace historical knowledge—what he called "tribal memory"—with tools that would keep track of the "what" (the devices, applications, and elements); handle the "when" by notifying the right people at the right time (meaning when something had gone wrong); and then point them in the direction of "how" by including links to walk-throughs, diagrams, or even just having very clear descriptions in the body of the alert message or ticket.

His job was to understand the "which." Which of the tasks and technical areas under his purview were repetitive busy work that could be automated (mostly) away, and which were skills that he needed to ensure the team acquired.

I joked about how the cool kids today would call it “technical debt.” He took that gag and ran with it, explaining that his goal, like lots of folks contemplating retirement, was to pay off his entire technical mortgage and have a title-burning party.

With that frame of reference, we had an amazing conversation. I'd like to think I was able to help him out a little.

But when he walked away and I started scribbling the notes that would eventually turn into this essay, I could think of just one word to describe what it all represented: "Legacy." For IT practitioners, that has some very specific connotations—technology from a bygone era that’s still around, still requires support and maintenance, but is no longer a platform on which new solutions can be built.

But of course, there’s the more universal meaning to “legacy:” The things (whether physical or intellectual) that we leave behind after we’re gone. And I realized that our documentation, our code, our integrations, and our installations are no less a legacy than the money, photos, investments, homes, cars, antiques, artwork, or businesses left to others when we die.

And as I was scribbling my notes, I thought about making THAT the end of this essay—something like, "What will be left behind when you leave? Will you leave your inheritors saddled with your technical debt? Are you thinking about how that legacy reflects on you?"

But then it occurred to me that, as impressive as the tools and automation this guy was building was, it wasn't the most important thing he was leaving his team. That wasn’t his legacy at all, not by a long shot.

I remembered the impression he left with me: calm, confident, not needing to prove anything... of having found his niche... of having gained and kept the trust and respect from both management and his peers. Recognizing how to make decisions in his lane, and using his secure position to help others.

Maya Angelou famously said,

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So NOW I will ask you, all of you "not-done-yet" readers as well as the "almost-there" ones, to take a moment before you close this essay and ask yourself, "What is MY legacy going to be? What am I doing, today, that will be left behind when I leave?"

32 Comments
Level 14

Fantastic article adatole​.  This illustrates that staying humble and being open to learning can bring opportunities for personal growth, if you allow it.  I entered the IT field right out of high school, when I started college.  With that being said, I am 16 years in so far.  Unfortunately, I feel like I've been held back a vast majority of it, and I only just now feel like the damage that has done has begun to be repaired.  I am also still relatively "young" and would like to say that I feel like I am near the bottom of an upward curve on my personal arc.  I have no idea what the future holds but I hope that I can continue to learn from mentors and follow a path that leads upward in my arc. 

Great essay, adatole​.  I've known some "old-timers" like that in my day; guys who wear suspenders and have beards longer than my right arm, who can bang out UNIX/XENIX code in their sleep and still have time to say "Have a wonderful day!".  The quote from Angelou is spot on and it is similar to a phrase that I have heard over and over in the sales world: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care!

I am 51 years young and my wife is 13 years my senior, so she is on the verge of retirement.  I would love to retire in the next two to three years and when I do, I want to make sure that I leave behind good feelings, not just good documentation.  That is why I adopted a habit long ago of asking folks "How may I serve you today?"  Besides throwing folks totally for a loop, it will often make them stop and say, "Hey, I appreciate your attitude!" before launching into the description of their problem.  I have also found that having a servant heart can totally diffuse people's anger (which, BTW, is NEVER, EVER, EVER, NEVER, NEVER, EVER directed at you personally!) and helps to establish a rapport that allows us to work through problems and find solutions.

If I could leave one impression with folks, I would want it to be that I was a good person with whom to work.

Level 13

Really interesting post adatole​.  Being on the back side of my career, I've been working on my exit strategy for more than a year now.  My current plan is to not retire for another 5 or 6 years, but life is like a roll of toilet paper - it goes really slowly in the beginning and flies by at the end, so it's not too early to start. 

The hard part is knowing what bits won't be relevant.  Some technology comes and goes like the wind, and others seems to linger long after it should have been replaced.

I certainly don't want my successors to dig through piles of documentation (mostly rubbish) to find the stuff they need, and although we'd all like to be missed, I won't want to be getting phone calls three years later like has happened in previous jobs.  I have a good memory, but I don't want to have to use it.

My plan is mostly doing my best to make sure the folks who will assume the mantle will *be* the right kind of people, have the right skills, the technical expertise and experience, so that they can tackle whatever comes up.  I'm working to step back and make sure they get the experience before they need it, so when they do they'll be both ready and confident.

I've never thought of work like this, but I've been at my current place awhile. Learned a lot and delivered some value with tools and information, Solarwinds among them. In reality, though, I can't really pretend I've ever been or ever will be more than a ripple in the water of most people's existence, and that's okay. I never really wanted that.

At the end of the day, I just want to be an easy hang - because that's all I ever wanted from others. If I can go through life and never increase psychic weight around someone's neck by my mere presence, that would be really cool. If I can make 'em laugh or forget about their troubles for a hot minute, then even cooler.

I dig what you're talking about, though. Good read.

MVP
MVP

hopefully mine is to look beyond the tech - IT is the thing that helps, never the reason

I've been doing Network Management for twenty-six years, and have been with my current employer for just about sixteen years.  I'm on the downhill slide, looking at retirement and wishing it were here last year instead of in the future.

But having seen others leave various organizations that have employed, their legacy has covered the spectrum:

  • "He was awesome, and I wish we hadn't lost him"
  • "He was nuts and shouldn't have been hired in the first place"
  • "This [insert name of current problem project or hardware or technology] belonged to such-and-so; it was a mistake to have it then, and now we have to deal with cleaning up after it today."

Throwing an ex-employee under the bus each time there are problems with a legacy system or app or bit of hardware seems the standard.  After all, blaming an absent employee sometimes seems easier for some folks than falling on their own sword and admitting and accepting responsibility for mistakes they may have made, or for issues of which they were aware but did not address.

I am the "Holder of the Tribal Knowledge" simply because I've been here so long.  I know why things were done one way instead of another "back in the day"--only because I was here when the technology was implemented, the equipment was installed, the project charter accepted, and the funding allocated.

Maybe I made the decision, or influenced the decision, or even disagreed with it.  But I can pull up fifteen years of Change Management records and e-mail conversations and use the documentation to help our hindsight understand mindsets and foresight (or the lack thereof) in many projects.

My legacy might be no worse than "He knew the old systems, and helped us get them replaced or aligned with the new way of thinking.  I wish he were here so we could ask him about (insert project name, technology, hardware, firewall or VPN rule, wireless configuration, DHCP implementation, DNS solution, SolarWinds deployment or SolarWinds product, etc.)."

Hopefully they don't throw me under the bus for any problems remaining after I retire.  But they probably will.  I'll smile when I feel my ears burning and think to myself "The documentation I've made available to all is the 'Get Out Of Jail Free Card' for everyone to use.  I'll hope they assign responsibility with accuracy and discretion.

Level 14

adatole  Leon... great timing on this for me.

I am only 2-3 years away from hanging them up. Then off into my truck with camping trailer attached. Then wife and I will be touring the USA and Canada. (maybe even find some of rschroeder​ 's favorite fishing spots! )

I am also starting a new adventure at another institution after the first of the year. It will allow me to move closer to where my wife and I want to put down roots when I retire.

So now I am passing along my documentation to those who are here after my departure. I want to be remembered as the person who did the right thing and passed on the tribal knowledge. I've always done that, mostly because I have been brought into too many circumstances where this was not so. I am not wired like that so I do my best ot pass along any/all knowledge I can.

As far as my career. I want my legacy to be the guy that:

1. Was always helpful.

2. Went above and beyond.

3. Made technology work for people and companies.

4. Mentored (even when they didn't realize it)

5. Made work fun for others.

6. Did the right thing for my teams

7. Had fun. (life is too short).

If any of these are a reality.. I can walk away a happy man.

George, we may be retiring at similar time frames.  If you've any interest in fishing & boating adventures in northeast Minnesota or southwestern Ontario, contact me.  Maybe we'll run into some personal best fish!  If the fish don't bite we might each come away from the experience with a new good friend.

Yours,

Rick

Level 14

Will do!

Level 20

For me one of the big changes was helping Toyota move from IBM token ring to Cisco and ethernet (which had a bad bump in the road called 3Com and rebadged 3Com which changed the superstacks from white to black with an IBM logo on them).

My legacy will always be searching for answers in technology and after finding them... always teaching them to others.

Good old SuperStack II switches!  I liked their 3300's.  But I came through their entire product line, starting out with 10 Mb managed hubs used to build computer labs in a public school system across 33 buildings.  The Desktop Switch was the ugly one for a public school's budget, running between $1500 and $2000, where our IT budget for all sites combined was probably less than $2000.

3Com filled a need for getting one's toes into the networking and Internet waters, but the company left me high and dry when they dropped out of networking to focus on cable modems and NIC's.  That was a bad feeling, and I searched long and hard for an alternate company that would never do that.  I migrated all the schools out of 3Com and into Cisco, simply because we couldn't afford to face another Network company pulling rug out from under us.

These days I drop $75K on a single Cisco 9448 chassis switch and may have to purchase a dozen or more in a season, I'm happy to be out of the public school environment's poor funding situation.  Folks who vote for people that cut taxes have little idea how negatively their votes impact the funding of our kids' education.  And we can't afford to be running schools on 10 Mb half-duplex managed hubs from 3Com if we want our kids to be safe and competitive.

Level 13

I've been thinking about this some more.  What I would like my legacy to be?

To come back in 10-20 years and find the group of folks I've mentored be

not only be professionals I can be proud to have played a role in their growth, but

also be passing along what they've learned to the next generation.  I've got 4

or 5 I'm really proud of already, but I'd like it to be more.

MVP
MVP

You mention moving Toyota from token ring - I remember one of my challenges many, many years ago was installing token ring at Toyota

Level 14

I'd be happy surviving long enough to retire.  It would be nice if people remembered me fondly but it doesn't really matter.  I probably won't see any of them again (except the ones that have become friends).  Systems that I have put in or managed will all be replaced after a few years or become so unrecognisable that it won't matter what I did.  I just try to make the current stuff work and make my life easier. 

Level 12

I work in an IT department that has been shrinking while our infrastructure and technology requirements have been drastically growing. My network engineer that was here for 15 years just left a few months ago for a job that was not as demanding and treated their employees better. Getting back on topic, most of the people in this IT department are of the "not my job" mindset whenever something comes up. They will do what ever they can to come up with an excuse to pass it off onto someone else. I am of the mindset of "this may not be my job, but let me take a look at it, and if I cant help I will get you in touch with someone who should be able to". I learned this from my network engineer, he was of that mind set. As a result he knew a great deal about a great many things beyond just the network. When he left, he took all of that with him leaving a huge hole for me to try and fill. I would say the legacy he left here was that you should never say no, or not my job. At least try first, and if you can't, then find someone who can. And it's ok to say I don't know, and its ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.

Unfortunately it looks as though I wont have much of a future with this company for much longer. All signs are pointing that our board of directors is going to sell us out wholesale to our minority partner soon. When that happens, I doubt I will have much of a future here as there would be no need for me or my position here anymore. With that in mind, my approach has been to leave the physical infrastructure in the best possible condition I can before the final shoe drops. That means cleaning up cabling in the closets, cleaning up the closets in general. Labeling everything that could possibly require a label, including the cabling inside of the data center. This has been no easy job as I am doing both my job and the network engineers job since he left. But I feel this is important, as when the ownership does change hands, I want them to come in and see an organized well labeled easy to pickup infrastructure. I don't want them to come in and take a look in the data center and think "this guy didn't give a flying F about his job, this place is a mess, and he is a joke".

Level 9

Not everyone is aware of what tax money is being spent on, let alone how and why. This is the kind of stuff that should be taught in schools.

I've worked with so many talented IT folk. I worked in many offices that operated under the assumption, "This place would fall apart without him/her!" Guess what? Him/Her moved on eventually and everything was just fine.

  Don't fool yourself in believing that your legacy is your accomplishments. Chances are they will be replaced in 3-5 years. Nor will it be with who you work with. Churn in IT is a constant. You forge your legacy by becoming a leader... In people, technology, marketing, reputation, and so on.

  So get out there and network, write an article, give a presentation, become a thought leader, attend local user groups. You'll see your legacy grow with each smiling face.

Level 13

been in the industry for over 35 years now. I hadn't really thought about my legacy been too busy trying to pull the company out from their current legacy equipment towards a bright new legacy. I expect I'll still be doing it in 5-10 years.

Level 16

I'm going to leave behind a whole bunch of trained engineers

Monitoring was the starting home for a lot of engineers where I worked. They usually would come out of the ranks of the Help Desk or NOC and get trained in monitoring for a couple years to get the big picture of a large IT environment then go on to be Server, Storage, Network engineers from there. As for me a few short years down the road I will be a full time farmer  

Level 20

Yeah the two factories in Georgetown KY had TONS of IBM Token Ring.  All the CAU's and LAM's lol I'll never forget it!

Level 20

That sounds rough sparda963​ I can really empathize and feel your pain on this stuff... I hope things get better and work out one way or another.  I've kinda been in your situation before and if one things for sure... change will happen.  Hopefully you'll find a better situation at some point.

I inherited several dozen public schools back in the mid 1990's, and soon was tasked with networking them first internally, then to other schools, and finally to the Internet.

One was always problematic until I started tracing data drops up into the ceiling.   There, in the dark, sitting atop a narrow building-block wall divider, covered with a thick layer of dust, was a Token Ring hub, still plugged in, with active links.

The network is gone.  Long live the network!

Level 14

You wouldn't believe what I have found hidden away over the years.  I once stepped into a contract role where I was to perform a due diligence on the 30 Netware servers the client thought were on their customer site.  I reported on 120 Netware servers all of which were running quite happily.  They just didn't know about them.  It was all Netware 4 except for one Netware 3 server that had been running for over 10 years.  I still have a screenshot of the "up time" screen somewhere.  It ran a ticket booking system for a theatre (so quite important).  They had no idea it even existed.  I also found a Windows server which held the data for the electoral role for a London borough.  It was in the attic above the users but even they didn't know where it was.  I just followed a spurious network cable.  I love IT.   

I do believe you, Peter, and it suprises me not.

I don't know if this was a fable or real-life but I remember reading about a company that was doing an audit of their Windows NT Server environment, and had physically accounted for every server except one: a small, little-used server that sat in the domain and had been merrily chugging along for, oh, about 10 years.  Finally, somebody went on a scavenger hunt for it and found an Ethernet cable that ran into, and through, a wall.  The wall was torn down and there was the server: pearched on a chair with just power and LAN attached.

And the pictures I've seen over the years; of snakes and mice nesting in CPUs, and oh, what they deal with in the Middle-East telecom wise:

Image result for india phone lines imagesImage result for india phone lines photo

In short, nothing really surprises me anymore.  I just shake my head and go, "Yep, that's IT for you!"

Level 16

I used to work in Telecom back in the days of 25 pair cable to a single phone and that's what a lot of telecom closets resembled.

Anyone else ever punch down jumper cables with Tip, Ring A, A1 Lamp Ground, Lamp and then wire up a diode ringer matrix

The OCD side of me cringes when I see sights like that, bobmarley​, and I don't know how you ever kept all that stuff straight.  I came into the telecom world a little after you, it sounds like, so I consider myself fortunate to have avoided such (dis?)organized chaos.  Anymore, if I don't label my stuff and create wire maps, I'm lost.  And Heaven help the person who inherits a scenario like you've described...unless the predecessor was REALLY good at documentation!

Level 16

Haha! Depends on if it was a new account we installed or it it was one we took over. On new installs we labeled every cable, had prints, and key sheets. If it was a PBX or Electronic Key system there were paper copies of the programming kept on site.

If it was a 1A2 key system we inherited then your cable toner and work boots were how you got it done. Toner on the cable, wand in hand walking around trying to find the route back. If you were in an old factory, you might be there for awhile...

A lot of times it was faster to just run new cable and add to the rats nest -vs- trying to re-use an existing one.

Agreed, again.  Documentation and labeling is where it's at.  Best practices everywhere.

And you don't get there without training budget, and spending that budget on EVERYONE equally.

All it takes is ONE person to miss the understanding, to NOT get the memo, to not understand policy and best practices, and you end up with a disaster.

It's why we have GIS--to help us avoid digging where we ought not.  If we don't call before digging--or if someone doesn't record when they laid copper or fiber--it's all going to cause problems for someone in the end.

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Well said, Rick. I work in the O&G industry and in Colorado, as in other states, we have the dialing shortcut 811, which routes to a locator switchboard for OneCalls.  If people are going to do any excavating, they are encouraged to call 811 beforehand and have the locators for the various and sundry utilities (phone, cable, etc.) come out and "tag 'em and flag 'em".  That way, there is less of a likelihood of something happening as is depicted in the above photo.

We have the same solution here in Minnesota.  They call it the "Gopher State One Call."  Call Before You Dig - Gopher State One Call

I'm not sure, but I THINK it's illegal to dig without calling and waiting for someone to get out & spray/flag the buried assets first.

Many mistakes and outages could have been avoided if people would be patient and learn the right procedures.  That's ALSO part of the training budget--getting the right word out to the public, training them to call before digging.  When I can rent a backhoe and tow it to any site and just start digging, what a mess of the public infrastructure I might make.

Level 12

In Sun Prairie Wisconsin, a backhoe hit an improperly marked gas line, blew up an entire building, burned down several more, and killed a firefighter. In the end, an entire city block was destroyed by it.

https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/elections/2018/09/07/no-answers-two-months-after-deadly...

This is a really nice photo.

About the Author
I grew up in Forest Lake, Minnesota in the 1960's, enjoying fishing, hunting, photography, bird watching, church, theater, music, mini-boggan, snowmobiling, neighborhood friends, and life in general. I've seen a bit, have had my eyes opened more than once, and tend not to make the same mistakes twice. Reinventing the wheel is not my preference, and if I can benefit from someone else's experience, that's good all the way around. If someone can benefit from my experience, it's why I share on Thwack.