By Felicia King
President & CEO, QPC Security

If you have been in the IT/Technology field for any period of time – especially if you started at an entry-level/help desk type position and worked your way up – you know that because businesses now want access to their files and data 24/7, a job in the IT field is rarely a straight 9-5 position. Responding to client emergencies after hours and general maintenance being scheduled for non‑business hours has become the norm and the line between professional and personal lives has become blurred if not extinct. I say that as an IT professional and business owner, the only one to blame for this new ‘normal’ is ourselves. Culturally, we have allowed this to happen.

Here is why and what we do at QPC Security to ensure that does not occur within our organization:

The Silo Effect

I've been in IT for over 25 years. I have been on call and often was the only person out of 8 senior engineers at a 10,000+ user company that knew how to do something. Being in this position is a cross training issue, and it can be corrected through documentation and processes that create business continuity and serviceability depth. That sounds easy enough, but the reality is that in order for that to be in place, it requires leadership who knows how to do your job. If they don’t know what it is you do and don’t have the first clue on how to do it, they are the problem. Silos are allowed within companies. They don’t just happen under the cover of night. They exist because the corporate leadership do not prioritize cross-training, adequate documentation, and detailed processes.

The Buck Needs to Stop With The Leader

At QPC Security, I can do everyone's job, and no, I am not tooting my own horn here. It is a matter of fact that everything rolls uphill to me, so I am prepared to take it. Too many times I see situations where because leadership does not have knowledge of what it takes to do the job, they tend to succumb to frilly desires by clients who are unwilling to pay for these perks. But as the leader, I am not going to be on call 24x7 nor am I going to call on my team after hours to get them to fix something. I just fix it myself. The only exception to this is a massive incident that requires additional labor but that would be true in any industry and is not just specific to IT. If you really need 24x7, you better staff three shifts and be prepared to pay for that.

A great example of this is service level agreements (which are different than service level averages). Very few, if any, clients are willing to pay for true service level agreements where the provider guarantees very little down time or service interruptions. The cost of the additional infrastructure required to make such a guarantee is astronomical, so they don’t do it. Be careful regarding the claims of 24x7 help desk being a supposed thing that an IT service provider offers. They are probably outsourcing that.

Managing Expectations

If the client is properly managed, you don't have hot emergency calls that must be dealt with outside of working hours. I have been a business owner since 2004 and in all those years, I have received no more than two emergency calls outside of working hours. One of those incidents was caused by the client's in-house IT manager deciding to take a rack apart at 6PM on a Tuesday to reorganize it without prior authorization from anyone. He thought he could get it back together. By 8PM, he realized he was going to get fired the next day unless the cavalry was called. I went there and had it all up and running by 11PM.

Poor management of systems, expectations, and boundaries is what causes calls outside of business hours that someone thinks need to be responded to. Policies as part of the relationship with the client must be in place. Discuss what happens if the client’s IT manager breaks the Exchange server because they thought they were going to save money by patching it or upgrading it on their own. The client needs to be aware of the significant financial consequences they will face if they want us to bail them out of their own bad judgement, especially after hours. The key here is the upfront discussion and agreement. Emotions are high during a crisis. It is much easier to hold the line when policies are already in place and not up for discussion during an emergency.<

Then there are the ‘planned changes’ and maintenance windows. We are doing the work. It is our call on when that work happens. Our policy is that the change happens after hours on our schedule. That is not to say that we don’t include clients in deciding on an appropriate and mutually agreed upon a time. Those times of when people are normally not working are well established ahead of time. It does mean that if a client thinks I or any member of my team is going to be up at midnight to patch an Exchange server, they are delusional. Either the organization has forked up the funds to have a clustered Exchange server if they REALLY need that kind of uptime, or they need to let their staff know that email won’t be available after 5PM on Friday for a period of time.

I often find that people have a disconnect between their uptime expectations and the infrastructure redundancy that those systems run on. If an organization needs a lot of email uptime, then they should be using M365. Many companies charge time and a half or double their normal consulting rate for after business hours or weekends. Clients don’t want to pay that. Their internal employees don’t work those crazy hours either. So again, this is all about managing expectations. Some servers can be patched during the day. Some application servers should only be upgraded during the normal business day because that is when vendor software support is available. I know what it is to do all of this work, so I do not promise things to clients just to please them which result in engineers making personal sacrifices unnecessarily.

What Can You Do?

If your leadership had the guts to have the tough talk with clients to hold the line and engage in proper expectation management and stop being unnecessarily overly accommodative without financial penalty, well, this whole ‘on-call’ thing becomes a non-issue. But that rarely is the case. So, what can you do to make sure you don’t end up in “on call” hell?

Ask the questions upfront about how they manage these situations. Stop taking jobs working for managers who cannot do your job. You need to work for a company whose C-Level is comprised of some hardcore technical engineers. These are the people who have a deep understanding of what it is like to be "on call" or deal with clients that do not have proper expectations in place. These are the leaders that do it differently.

And when it comes to work-life balance, you own making sure that balance exists. If you keep working for these types of companies because you are not putting proper value on the intangible life happiness benefit of working in an organization run by engineers that are not going to sell out to venture capital, then that is on you, not them.

And yes, in case any of this resonates with you and you want to make a change, I'm hiring.