Monday, November 8, 2010

The Cousin Jimmy Syndrome

I have great respect for my colleagues in the IT industry.   It's a challenging profession that requires a mixture of technical knowledge, people skills, and the emotional stability to deal with customer dissatisfaction when technology fails.

However, there's a downside to being an IT professional.  No matter how much expertise you have or what your reputation may be, many customers will not be able to distinguish between a polished industry expert and a self-promoting IT groupie.

I call this the "Cousin Jimmy Syndrome".

Here's how it happens.  You join a meeting to discuss a major IT project.  You talk about issues such as security, disaster recovery, change management, training, and support.

Then someone says, "Oh yeah, we've got 'Cousin Jimmy' doing that."   Or Bob who lives in his parents' basement.   Or Carol who knows how to use Excel and serves as the go to technology guru.

Unfortunately, when Jimmy, Bob, or Carol have an opinion, their colleagues trust them over you, since professional IT organizations may appear less nimble, less focused, and less accommodating than dedicated local experts.

Not to imply that IT professionals in large organizations are perfect, they have their flaws.  However, good management and oversight usually creates a culture in which there is division of labor, escalation, and few single points of human failure.    Cousin Jimmy does not know what he does not know.    His solutions may be fast or cheap but ultimately they are unsustainable, unmaintainable, and unsupportable.

How should the IT professional deal with Cousin Jimmy Syndrome?

1.   Let Cousin Jimmy fail - it may take a while, but eventually there will be a major outage, security breach, or data loss.   Although this may transiently feel like a win, it's really a loss for the customers.    It's a win the battle, lose the war tactic.

2.   Make Cousin Jimmy part of your team - this sometimes works and it's worth a try.   Success has a 1000 fathers, so if you can create a sense of team in which Jimmy gets all the credit but others do all the work, so be it.   The customers win.   Of course, it's hard to let Jimmy take the credit for what you've done, but I've learned over the years that anything is possible if you are willing to give others the credit for success.

3.   Offer a service so good, so inexpensive, and so reliable that eventually Jimmy moves on - this works much of the time.   I believe that hard work, innovation, and honesty eventually pay off and win the game.   True, sometimes politics triumph over expertise but you can outlast the naysayers.   By selflessly focusing on the customers, the technology, and your staff, you'll end up with a service that's really hard to beat at any price.   Jimmy may be omni-present, but he'll have a difficult time keeping up as technology evolves.

So, when the meetings are awkward, keep your composure, stick to your principles, and put the customers first.   Nine times out of ten, you'll eventually beat the Cousin Jimmy Syndrome.

If you need inspiration, you can always watch Verizon commercials in which the polished FIOS engineer wins over the meddlesome Cable Guy.  Next time you're debating technology with Cousin Jimmy, just think of him as the cable guy!


e-Patient Dave said...

Couldn't agree more, John. To some extent I think this is an essential part of human nature - it aligns with some of Susannah Fox's research about people's trusted sources for health advice. Friends & family rank far higher than their credentials might suggest.

Otoh, I suspect this problem's different: people who make buying decisions can tend to be careless, thinking "Oh yeah, I heard of that issue" without digging into requirements, not to mention modes and costs of failure. And THAT is (imo) simply insufficient, irresponsible management - it's the manager's job to know what issues need to be (um) managed, and to git 'er done effectively.

I'm not faulting people for being human - live, learn, share, as you did with your famous network outage article long ago. Things do happen. BUT, if Cousin Jimmy isn't up on his profession and never HEARD of that article, that's a different level of oops.

p.s. I love the term "Cousin Jimmy syndrome." Catchy, memorable.

Donald Green MD said...

Skepticism should be a customer's regular approach to any new or changed service. Caveat emptor should be the watchword for anyone selecting a program to use. To do this takes some intellectual push ups to educate oneself on how to evaluate what they are about to buy. It is well worth it.

Large organizations as well as smaller ones, even those charged to put a stamp of approval on a product should be questioned after proper research(e.g.remember Moody's AAA rating of worthless securities). The biggest urge to be avoided if one wants success is "Let George do it."

Stephen Buck said...

what's the ICD-10 for cousin jimmy syndrome?