“I hate shadow IT” And for good reason
The dilemma faced by IT workers every day and the management that enables it
Why can’t a complex Wordpress site spill its data into an Excel spreadsheet? A friend who runs an IT-adjacent department within a federal agency faced such a demand by an internal client — despite his having no hand in building or maintaining that up-to-then covert project. It’s one example of many that drive him to say, “I hate shadow IT.”
He’s forced into a dilemma, to do his regular work or help with the emergency. Any reasonable witness to such drama would ask why people charged with running an organization’s information technology — the organization’s brains and prey of hackers everywhere — have to face such a dilemma.
Shadow IT is an everyday symptom of disfunction. The Wordpress site had been built by a contractor with no involvement with IT. The site had issues from the start, my friend said. (I’ll call him “Fred,” and the agency will go unnamed.) The contractor’s customizations somehow thwarted updates, and it broke down almost every day. Fred spent hours on the phone with the contractor troubleshooting it.
Fred describes the Wordpress-site owner as “one of those really bright people who thinks, ‘Oh, I’m an attorney. I can do anything.” As smart as she may have been about some things, she had no apparent engineering insight. “I really tried to explain it to her. [Putting the data into a spreadsheet] wouldn’t make the sense that you think is going to make. And she said, ‘Oh, you just think you're smarter than I am.’”
“I showed her a database with a bunch of tables and store procedures and all these things,” he said. But she insisted on getting a simple spreadsheet. He could do that, he said, but he’d have to build it and that would take time. But he consented. When he took a close look, he saw that the database was a mess and that it had to be built all over again. He hired a competent Wordpress developer, but IT still had to help.
“This was time, quote, off the books, dealing with the product that we didn't create, and we had very little knowledge of,” he said. “When it doesn’t work, it suddenly becomes ours.”
Interns are much more savvy than the Wordpress site’s owner, he said. “But they also want all this weird stuff and think that because they’re working for an executive that all they have to do is bring it to us. They say that it works at home but it doesn’t work here. Fix it.’”
When an intern says that, he smiles and tells them it’s not supported. Then say, “‘What do you mean it's not supported! This is perfectly good software. I've been using it in my home for blah, blah, blah." If they want us to support it, that's another ticket. It's very bureaucratic, but you have to put reins in on these guys.”
“Working on this stuff they bring in is like asking the mechanic to work on everything from a diesel tractor to a stopwatch,” he said. When you give them something new to them, it takes a long time to fix it. And that takes a lot of time away from other things that they could be doing that are a lot more productive.
The reasonable witness still wants to know why. Why does senior management let this go on? In this case, it’s a federal agency, and most people have a canned response: “That’s how government is.” But that’s a lazy explanation.
There must be a few organizations with wiser or more capable management. Someone a few weeks ago hinted at one, DHL. Whoever or wherever such an organization may be, I’d like to hear the story. The search goes on.