David Mytton, founder and CEO of Server Density, explains how to take better care of your staff.
The tech world has always been preoccupied with getting things done quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget that when something breaks there’s someone making sure that the problem gets fixed. Unfortunately this often means they will have had to work long, disjointed hours.
This on-demand culture has created significant health and morale challenges for employees in the IT industry. Unpredictability is a part of life in the industry - an on-call worker never knows when they’ll be called to fix an incident - it could be a convenient time, but it could just as likely be 4 in the morning. Errors and delays cost millions, but financial costs aren't the only downsides. This unpredictable lifestyle negatively impacts employee health and well-being, making the industry unappealing - so how can we fix this?
Bringing empathy to IT
‘Move fast and break things' sounds great in the abstract, but in reality this expectation of rapid patch releases and continuous delivery models have placed strain on enterprises seeking to improve their products. Understandably, many companies are looking to DevOps practices to ease this burden and modify their team structures so that development and operations are working together in a more efficient and agile way.
These changes may affect productivity positively, but they’re not the only thing that needs to happen to make sure people are working effectively. Managers need to stop focusing solely on team dynamics and focus specifically on the individuals involved and their personal well being.
It may sound shocking, but many managers don’t take into consideration just how taxing operations and sysadmin roles can be, crucially those that involve on-call work. It sounds simple but it’s worth highlighting - if you’re woken up at 3 am to fix a server issue, of course you’ll struggle at work the next day. In fact, the research shows that interrupted sleep can be worse than no little or no sleep. The problem here is the expectation that sysadmins and on-call workers are switched-on and available at all times, including overnight. Often, IT workers feel like they have to live up to “superhero” standards.
The impact of stress in IT often affects more than just employees’ personal lives - it can affect the company. Employees with low job satisfaction will often leave their job sooner, and according to some figures replacing them can cost as much as 21% of that worker’s annual salary. This could have a huge impact on businesses and their bottom lines. People will always be a critical part of any complex infrastructure and even when they’re well looked after within an organisation that has good operational practices, human error is still a possibility. The recent AWS cloud outage proves this, so imagine the risks for companies not thinking about this in as much detail and investing less i.e. pretty much every company!
I speak from experience, as I used to work on-call at the beginning of my career. At the time, I had my own company, but that didn’t mean it was easier to manage being called away from my evening engagements. This takes a toll on your social life, your family life, and your personal health. This pushed me to figure out a way of making on call work easier, brainstorming how the industry can come together to make a change.
How can we change?
It may seem odd for me to be writing on this subject considering I am the founder of an infrastructure monitoring company. My software sends out alerts at all times of day and yes, will sometimes wake people up. But it is because of this that we’ve taken the initiative to bring in more responsible practices within IT. At Server Density, we call this HumanOps.
HumanOps is based on a variety of principles, but the one that appeals the most to me is to remember that human health affects business health. A key example is Google, who after years of trying to figure out how to boost their employee productivity, realised that all it took was for there to be a culture of kindness at work. In Richard Branson’s words, “if you look after your people, your customers and bottom line will be rewarded too.” If businesses focus on human development, everything else will follow.
This is all well and good in theory, but in practice it can be difficult to prioritise human development under pressure. Sure, businesses want their employees to get a good night’s sleep, but if there’s a crisis, your people will still need to be on-call. One easy way of making sure better practices are implemented is having developers work directly with their managers to implement feedback systems. These practices allow for reevaluation of how issues are escalated, who they are escalated to, and who has the final say on workload. Following this, internal protocols can be built to make sure that every avenue has been explored before calling someone to come in.
These aren’t the only steps that can be taken towards a more empathetic IT workplace. Policies like blameless postmortems can be put in place in order to avoid the same issues in future. It’s also key for everyone in the organisation to understand the impact of sleep loss. One interesting way of helping everyone understand how stressful it can be in systems management is getting the manager to join in with on-call work. I’m sure they’ll remember the stresses of on-call work in no time!
Software companies need to make sure that their products work as advertised, but this needs to extend to their staff, ensuring they are working in healthy and happy environments. Monitoring metrics like time spent on call per employee, the number of alerts triggered out of hours, and interruption cost in human hours can give managers insight into where the biggest problem areas lie within the company’s systems maintenance.
DevOps is an area of IT that is fast growing, and so many people feel positively about it. This is great, and long may it continue, but there’s so much more that could be done to improve the way that people in IT work together. Companies need to refocus on their most important assets: not their servers or their systems, but the people on the front lines. If your staff are happy, better system maintenance, higher quality products and happy, paying customers will follow.
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