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IT Success Is The Product Of Mental Toughness

Whether you're an IT leader or a coach, giving up is never an option.

My son and I participated in a triathlon this past weekend. As soon as we arrived and unloaded the bikes, it was obvious that one of his tires was flat. He was understandably upset, particularly since we had forgotten to bring an extra inner tube, a basic supply. We had some time, so we asked the race organizers if someone might be able to help, and we found someone.

But in a discouraging turn of events, the person who offered assistance spent a tremendous amount of time trying and then ultimately couldn't help us. It was just 10 minutes until the race's start. It would have been easy for us to give up--there just wasn't enough time to find someone, change the tube, and get to the swim start line.

If I had been by myself, I might have given up, but I felt responsible as a father and coach, so I gave my son a pep talk about not quitting, and we charged ahead. Miraculously, we found someone in the race's transition area who had an entire wheel of the correct size, and he changed it in no time. We not only were able to participate, but my son won the event in his age group.

The experience got me to thinking about my professional role as an IT leader. It can be difficult, when you're in the trenches, to keep on grinding in the face of seemingly insurmountable technical and other problems. But we have a responsibility to encourage and coach even when we might privately think that things look hopeless.

Many years ago, my staff came to me in a panic: User data had been lost as a result of a process error. I am a mental case about having good backups. My staff would quote me: "it's the most important thing we do." We had a document management system that didn't keep hard drive copies of very old documents; it kept them on optical media. So we had a manual process to back up the archival optical platters, and it apparently hadn't happened. And we found out that the platter in question had apparently been erased. We were sure the data was gone.

In my mind, I was writing the memorandum to accompany my professional suicide at that organization. But one of the supervisors was a "never quit" pro, and we tried just about everything in the book. Our team used forensic recovery software. We sent the platter to a data recovery specialist. But nothing worked.

Except, when our team got the report back from the recovery organization, the notes said something like: "This media appears not to have ever been used." That statement went unnoticed for a day until our light bulb moment: The platter had been mislabeled. Further review indicated that the real platter was mislabeled as a blank platter, and all of a sudden, our data wasn't gone at all. There would be no professional hari-kari for Jonathan after all.

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Instead of zeros, the team came out looking like heroes. To be sure, there were lots of conversations about reducing manual processes. While the root cause was human, not technical, we applied some automation technology to eliminate part of the problem. But there were also some difficult conversations surrounding this incident, because although our users ultimately were happy, it was an unacceptable near miss.

It's very easy to give up. The thing that separates great IT teams from average ones is often their persistence. And that mental toughness must start at the top--the ability to keep on trucking through potentially catastrophic events in order to deliver good IT outcomes from bad ones.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at or at @_jfeldman.

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