IT inferno: The nine circles of IT hell

The tech inferno is not buried deep within the earth -- it's just down the hall. Let's take a tour

The tech inferno is not buried deep within the earth -- it's just down the hall. Let's take a tour

Spend enough time in the tech industry, and you'll eventually find yourself in IT hell -- one not unlike the underworld described by Dante in his "Divine Comedy."

But here, in the data centers, conference rooms, and cubicles, the IT version of this inferno is no allegory. It is a very real test of every IT pro's sanity and soul.

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How many of us have been abandoned by our vendors to IT limbo, only to find ourselves falling victim to app dev anger when in-house developers are asked to pick up the slack? How often has stakeholder gluttony or lust for the latest and greatest left us burned on a key initiative? How many times must we be kneecapped by corporate greed, accused of heresy for arguing for (or against) things like open source? Certainly too many of us have been victimized by the denizens of fraud, vendor violence, and tech-pro treachery.

Thankfully, as in Dante's poetic universe, there are ways to escape the nine circles of IT hell. But IT pro beware: You may have to face your own devils to do it.

Shall we descend?

1st circle of IT hell: LimboDescription: A pitiful morass where nothing ever gets done and change is impossiblePeople you meet there:Users stranded by vendors, departments shackled by software lock-in, organizations held hostage by wayward developers

There are many ways to fall into IT Limbo: When problems arise and the vendors start pointing fingers at each other; when you're locked into crappy software with no relief in sight; when your programmers leave you stranded with nothing to do but start over from scratch.

You know you're in Limbo when "the software guys are saying the problem is in hardware and the hardware guys are saying the problem is in software," says Dermot Williams, managing director of Threatscape, an IT security firm based in Dublin, Ireland. "Spend eternity in this circle and you will find that, yes, it is possible for nobody to be at fault and everyone to be at fault at the same time."

A similar thing happens when apps vendors blame the OS, and OS vendors blame the apps guys, says Bill Roth, executive vice president at data management firm LogLogic. "Oracle says it's Red Hat's fault, while Red Hat blames Oracle," he says. "It's just bad IT support on both sides."

Michael Kaiser-Nyman, CEO of Impact Dialing, maker of autodialing software, says he used to work for a nonprofit that was locked into a donor management platform from hell.

"The software took forever to run, it only worked on Internet Explorer, it crashed several times a day, and was horribly difficult to use," he says. "The only thing worse than using it was knowing that, just before I joined the organization, they had signed a five-year licensing agreement for the software. I wanted to kill whoever had signed it."

Organizations also find themselves in Limbo when their developers fail to adopt standard methodologies or document their procedures, says Steven A. Lowe, CEO of Innovator LLC, a consulting and custom software development firm.

"Every project is an ordeal because they've made it nearly impossible to learn from experience and grow more efficient," he says. "They spend most of their time running around in circles, tripping over deadlines, yelling at each other, and cursing their tools."

How to escape: "When you're digging a hole in hell, the first thing to do is stop digging and climb your way out," says Roth. That means making sure you have the tech expertise in house to solve your own problems, going with open source to avoid vendor lock-in, and taking the time to refactor your code so you can be more efficient the next time around.

2nd circle of IT hell: Tech lustDescription: A deep cavern filled with mountains of discarded gadgets, with Golem-like creatures scrambling to reach the shiny new ones at the topPeople you meet there: Just about everybody at some point

The circle of tech lust touches virtually every area of an organization. Developers who abandon serviceable tools in favor of the latest and greatest without first taking the time to understand these new frameworks and methodologies (like node.js or Scrum), thereby preventing anything from ever getting done. Managers who want hot new gizmos (like the iPad) and invent a reason why they must have them, regardless of the impact on the IT organization. Executives who become fixated on concepts they barely understand (like the cloud) and throw all of an organization's resources behind it in the fear of falling behind the competition.

"In reality, we all visit the circle of lust now and then," says Lowe. "The problem with tech lust is the accumulation of things. You can get so mired in 'we can't finish this project because a new tool just came out and we're starting all over with it' that nothing ever gets done."

How to escape: It is difficult to break free from the circle of tech lust, admits Lowe. "We all love shiny new things," he says. "But you have to know what's good enough to get the job done, and learn how to be happy with what you have."

3rd circle of IT hell: Stakeholder gluttonyDescription: A fetid quagmire filled with insatiable business users who demand more and more features, no matter the costPeople you meet there: Demons from sales and marketing, finance, and administration

This circle is painfully familiar to anyone who's ever attempted to develop a business application, says Threatscape's Dermot Williams.

"By the end of the project, the specifications, budget, and timescale of the project bear no resemblance to the ones you began with, thanks to users who keep adding in 'just one more thing we should have thought of,'" says Williams. "A developer who has the misfortune to land in this circle will never actually reach the nirvana of being 'feature complete' because the specification itself is never entirely finalized."

How to escape: There is only one way out, and it entails confronting the demons with some hard realities, says Williams. "Escape from this circle is best effected by wielding the magic mirror of painful truth," he says. "This powerful weapon makes the demons look into their own dark hearts and realize that ultimately it is they who have most to lose from feature creep."

4th circle of IT hell: Corporate greedDescription: An acrid forge where piteous creatures drown in a river of molten goldPeople you meet there: Corporate executives and shareholders. Also: Donald Trump

This circle is filled with those who put personal financial gain ahead of the needs of customers, says Anthony R. Howard, author of The Invisible Enemy: Black Fox and a technology consultant for Fortune 50 companies and the U.S. military.

About three years ago, Howard was consulting for a brand-name hardware maker when he was asked to design a new server for one of its clients, a major search engine. Howard's design was cheaper and cost less to operate than the servers the search engine was currently using. The customer was ecstatic and ordered $20 million worth. The problem? It would take eight weeks to build, or several weeks past the end of the manufacturer's sales quarter.

"The manufacturer wanted to report that $20 million sale to Wall Street, and it couldn't," Howard says. "So I was placed under tremendous pressure to convince the search engine guys to forget the new design and buy something we already had."

In the end, however, Howard says he persuaded the manufacturer to accept a smaller purchase order for its current machines to fulfill the search engine's immediate needs, with the promise of a larger commitment to the new design down the road.

"When IT architects are working projects that will bring in tens of millions of dollars, the folks in the ivory tower want that revenue ASAP so they can present it to Wall Street -- and collect their bonuses," he says. "At the same time, customers want everything, including products that don't exist yet. It's a double hell."

How to escape: Political savvy, dedication to the customer, and supportive management are the only ways out, says Howard. "Ultimately it's always about the money," he says. "You have to figure out how to deliver the results they want in some other way. But a lot of people just give into the pressure."

5th circle of IT hell: App dev angerDescription: A fiery pit of smoke and brimstone, where geeks and suits alike grow hot under the collarPeople you meet there: Programmers, developers, C-level executives

In the world of software development, deadlines are constant, pressure is intense, and tempers flare. When things go south, the inhabitants of this circle tend to scream first and ask questions later.

Larry Roshfeld, executive vice president at Sonatype, an open source governance solutions provider, says his team recently worked with a large financial institution to develop custom software for the bank's commercial division. But when the bank's legal team scanned the code, it found hundreds of potential copyright conflicts that would take weeks to resolve.

"The commercial banking team started screaming, 'We need that app now,'" he says. "Another banking team got wind of it and started screaming, 'We need you to work on our app now; stop wasting time on that other app.' The legal team was screaming, 'Nothing gets released until you clean up the license and copyright stuff.' I heard swear words I had never heard before. People were literally foaming at the mouth as they yelled at each other. Last I heard they were all still at war over this."

Brenda Christensen, now director of public relations for Nimble, a Web-based social CRM application, remembers sitting at a board meeting for a software vendor she worked for in the previous century when the company president began throwing objects at everyone else in the room.

"He was a programmer, liked to stay up all night, and didn't care for our 10 a.m. meetings, so he was already surly," she says. "When he found out we were late on a version of the software for Windows 95, he just exploded and started hurling anything within reach. After that, people never knew when he'd go off. It didn't make the culture there very conducive to creative thought."

How to escape: Eventually many hotheads will find themselves forced out of a job. Still, you can avoid most blow-ups by doing a better job of keeping everyone informed at every step of the way, says Roshfeld. "In our example, if the development team had licensing information at the early stages of development, they could have made more informed decisions and averted a crisis," he says. "Learning of critical flaws late in the development process inevitably leads you down the path to the fifth circle."

6th circle of IT hell: Tech-cult heresyDescription: An inscrutable labyrinth where all paths lead to the same destination, lit by the fires of nonbelievers burned at the stakePeople you meet there: Apple/Microsoft/Google fanboys, Wikipedians, open sourcers, and any other member of an IT cult

Wherever true geek believers congregate, the rest of the world is cast into the pit of heresy. Open systems versus proprietary software, Apple versus Microsoft -- it doesn't matter what side you support, there's always heresy on the other side, says David O'Berry, a strategic systems engineer for McAfee and liaison to the Trusted Computing Group, a vendor-neutral industry standards organization.

"People who use custom or commercial off-the-shelf software believe open source is heresy, while open sourcers believe closed systems are heretical," he says. "The reality is that the business world has to leverage a mix of custom, commercial, and open source software, all trying to solve various technological problems in support of the real work being done by the organization."

Sandra Ordonez, a self-described "Web astronaut" and external communication lead for Joomla, the open source CMS, became Wikipedia's first communications director in 2005. She says geeks like Wikipedians often turn into zealots out of necessity.

"When you have a project like Wikipedia that's trying to be a good encyclopedia, you need to enforce certain rules to make sure it stays that way," she says. "The site is harassed on an hourly basis by people who are trying to use it for self-promotion, which makes them much bigger sticklers about enforcing the rules. Wikipedians get a bad rap for being obsessive-compulsive, but that's exactly what you need to be successful."

How to escape: Heresy depends on zealotry and belief in the power of "evangelism," says O'Berry. You can avoid it by keeping your mind open and your eyes on the big picture. "The minute you begin to treat something like a zealot, you reinforce the notion that it's a religion," he says. "It's not religion; it's business. The world survives on compromise. Go too far in one direction or the other and you'll never solve any problems."

7th circle of IT hell: Vendor-on-vendor violenceDescription: A dismal miasma full of ogres with $200 haircuts, wielding Louis Vuitton briefcasesPeople you meet there: Lawyers

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