Some IT is about someone else's money. Some IT is about keeping people alive. It's different.

Sometimes IT really matters. It feels different.

For much of my career I've worked for or with telcos, banks, manufacturers, retailers and government departments. You're either helping somebody get rich or your helping spend your taxes.

Recently I've had the privilege to do IT work in a hospital and a law enforcement agency. It is different. It matters. Lives are at stake. You don't work, you serve.

Never mind what the rules or policy or SLAs say - sometimes you do what you have to do.

I spoke to a woman who supported a system in the Justice ministry. She got called up on a weekend to come fix an office system that was only supported 9-5 week days. Why? Because in my country the police need a warrant from a judge to shoot someone (that'll blow the mind of a few readers - most cops here don't even HAVE a gun), the local SWAT guys had an armed standoff going on, and for some special reason that day the judge couldn't issue the warrant until she fixed the system. She fixed it.

My service desk team took a call from the hospital asking if someone could go buy a printer cartridge for them at 4:30 one Friday afternoon. Can't they just requisition one from stores? [We're trying to have a beer here after a VERY rough week] Wrong brand of printer. But all printers in the hospital are Brand A. No this is a total system they've bought. What does it do? When they take an ECG inside the ambulance they can transmit the graph back to the printer in the emergency room before they arrive so the doctors know what to prepare for. The nurse who usually gets cartridges somewhere is on leave. We rang around - no-one stocked that model of cartridge. We pulled a non-financially-approved-and-earmarked-for-someone-else Brand A printer out of IT's workshop and ran down there to swap it onto a system that previously we had no idea even existed, let alone a contract or SLA to support.

There are people on the end of the phone whose job is to cut people open to save their life or to save their life when they've been cut open or to try to prevent them cutting each other open while avoiding being cut open (or shot). Some of them don't have much time for helpdesk staff. Or rules. And sometimes it really really matters. So if they are a little brusque you cut them slack. And you always ask "Why do you need this right now?" And when it matters, you ask them what they need and you work out how to deliver. if I had my way they could have anything they bloody well want any time they want it.

It's different.


Public service...

Yes, it is different! I worked in IT in the National Health Service here in Britain for a couple of years, and I really valued that sense of working with people who were motivated by a sense of public service, that they were doing some good in the world, rather than money. Of course there are downsides - the beauracracy, the time-servers, but working with that 'public service' ethos is very inspiring.

that wasn't quite what I meant

Hmmm that wasn't quite what I meant. Most of my experiences of the public service in three countries have been less than inspiring. Lethargic cardigan wearing desk jockeys would describe half of them, system-rorting political animals would cover others, whilst a minority keep the place functioning.

Although they are indeed public bodies (in this country at least) I don't see a hospital or a law enforcer as "public service" though they do have lesser infestations of "civil servants" as above. On the contrary, the majority are up to their elbows in blood and crims. From what I hear the NHS is not exactly a shining example of that...?

London Ambulance Service

I spent my early career at New Scotland Yard and it certainly brings things home to you when you see your systems being used at the front end, though I could have done without the drunks throwing up over me in the back of police cars.

What really brought things home to me though was hearing Paul Williams' brilliant lectures on the London Ambulance Service disaster, and realising how out of touch people were with the realities of delivering life or death services

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