Enough with the IT Cowboys, Firefighters and Heroes

IT CowboysWhen will we decide as a profession that we have had enough of the IT cowboys, firefighters and heroes? Isn’t it time for the sheriff to run every last IT cowboy out of town with orders to never show their face around here again? Isn’t it time for us to employ those skilled in fire prevention instead of a bunch of smoke jumpers that parachute in to save the day?

Selfish Reasons

I am thinking as I write this that I should not use the collective ‘we’ in this post or pin this on the ‘profession’. I should be direct and ask you, as the CIO or senior IT manager, why you tolerate IT cowboys and firefighters in your organization.

Your answer is probably for purely selfish reasons? You probably enjoy a certain personal benefit from calling up your favorite IT cowboy or firefighter to be dispatched to a situation you want to be handled expeditiously.

You know it destroys every bit of work you have put into creating a mature service delivery model capable of controlled and predictable delivery. You know IT cowboys and firefighters can destroy employee morale and team cohesion which comes at a significant price.

And yet you do it anyway. Every time you call your personal hero to fix your email on your iPad instead of calling your own help desk. Ever time you look the other way when you need something done but don’t want to wait for your own governance or process to work ts course.

Cowboy vs Gunslinger and Firefighter vs Arsonist

So you have made a conscious and measured decision to allow a certain amount of cowboy to exist in your organization. Perhaps you even have your spurs and six shooters proudly displayed behind your desk.

Just remember there is a fine line between IT cowboy and gunslinger. If you like sports you might appreciate the comparison of a Brett Favre to a Peyton Manning. As a Packer fan I can attest to the excitement of having Favre as your QB but I don’t appreciate all the drama that comes with it or not winning games.

The distinction also exists for the firefighter that might be getting rewarded for putting out his own fires or the ones he could have prevented.

Nip it in the Bud

Every time you don’t fire your cowboys, firefighters and heroes for not following your own processes the problem only worsens. It will also get harder to stop your cowboys from becoming renegades capable of taking you down with them when it all blows up.

The only way to deal with IT cowboys it to not allow them in your shop in the first place and to let them go at the first signs they just don’t want to get with the program. This isn’t always easy since we can confuse people that like to keep to themselves as not being team players.  But being a loner is not the same as being a cowboy.

IT Cowboy Managers

Take everything you know about IT cowboys and multiply it times 10 if you have an IT cowboy in a manager role. That’s because cowboys and firefighters hire and reward cowboys and firefighters which only leads to no good.

The cowboy manager is easily confused with the one who takes decisive action and cuts through the red tape which you probably put there for good reason. The cowboy managers are also the ones that require a small army of trail hands to clean up behind them.

The real issue for CIO’s is to recognize the distinct possibility that no one will tell you about all the trouble your IT cowboy manager is causing. That’s because your cowboy probably enjoys a certain protected status which every cowboys is acutely aware of which only fuels their hubris.

It’s Your Mess to Clean Up

The only way to clean up an IT department of heroes, cowboys and firefighters is from the top-down. The CIO must personally lead the transition to rewarding fire prevention and controlled delivery.

You may have to sacrifice some immediate benefits for the sake of longer term gains. Gains that you probably never thought possible because you haven’t experienced working in a mature and orderly IT department.

If that’s the case, consider hiring someone to work with you behind the scenes who can coach you through the transition and help you take on your cowboys.

This entry was posted in IT Governance, IT Performance Management and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Enough with the IT Cowboys, Firefighters and Heroes

  1. matt mccormick says:

    Firefighters are the ones leading fire prevention in their ‘downtime’. The only time firefighters get noticed is when something is burning. For the most part ‘firefights’ are a small % of job, the rest of their time involves pre-planning, inspections, visiting schools for fire prevention, fixing/repairing gear, training, etc.

    The same applies to IT. IT pros only seem to get noticed when things break. No one cares that they are training, planning, auditing, testing new upgrades/equipment, etc.

    I’d suggest you figure out what your people actually do before advocating dismissal.

  2. The Higher Ed CIO says:

    I agree with everything you have said – but – there is a difference and I think most IT pros know exactly what I am talking about. The celebration of the firefighters that worked all night fixing a problem they themselves caused. Often due to unwillingness to properly test their code or changes or follow the defined process. Instead, we should be celebrating the people who’s stuff never seems to break which the organization quietly enjoys.

  3. The Higher Ed CIO says:

    Not withstanding my earlier comments. I took a quick tour of MTU’s IT department Notices site(https://status.it.mtu.edu/). And not to be impolite, but I did not see the evidence of fire prevention. I counted 10+ events in January ranging from unplanned downtime and service interruptions. I am sure the people that put out those fires got lots of praise but what about the other staff who’s stuff didn’t break or give you any unwanted phone calls?

  4. Dr. Laura says:

    I think part of it is the rewards system (the informal one) that we have. The cowboy is rewarded with adrenaline and recognition for fixing a big problem. So there is little incentive to avoid it if there is little reward.

    When my dad worked at a coal mine, at the entrance to the mine was a sign that said “it has been XXX days without a lost-time accident.” Everyone at the mine got safety awards (mugs, jackets, etc) at a mark of X months or years with no accidents. Perhaps we should go to the same idea in which we celebrate “XXX days with zero (or a reasonable goal) downtime.” The individual could still shine if we have competitions among the major systems architects for the uptime, rather than the firefight. Make it tangible as there is little adrenaline when systems are operating properly, but it need not be much.

  5. The Higher Ed CIO says:

    Dr Laura – that is a fantastic comparison and one that applies to so many situations. In fact I would like to address that directly in the next day or so.

Comments are closed.