One of the annoying aspects of working in IT is having people attack your decisions for specious and irrational reasons. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that this is simply how business gets done these days, and that you have to be ready to deal with the abusive Bobs in your company.
My youngest wants to get a Nokia phone running Windows 8 the next time we upgrade our handsets. We’ve been an iPhone family since version 2, and have been looking forward to getting everyone in the family onto the same generation of handset for the first time since ever. Still, if my boy wants to swim against the tide and experiment with a Windows phone, I’m all for it. It’s something different that we haven’t been able to play with before, and I’d like to know more about it. I have a personal iPhone and an Android handset for work, so, sure; why not add a Windows model? We might discover something cool. Or we might not. We won’t know until we try it.
I brought this up with a friend of mine recently, and was treated to an earful of anti-Microsoft, anti-Windows Phone barbs. ‘They have less than 3 per cent of the market,’ this particular Bob said. ‘You can’t synch a Windows 8 phone with anything but Windows 8. They don’t have any cool apps. You’d have to be an idiot to use one of those pieces of *#&$.’
I suspect that all these years of writing for a British company has subtlety rubbed off on me. This fellow was insulting my son’s intelligence to my face. Instead of treating Bob to a sound kicking over his insult (a proud Texas tradition), I simply raised an eyebrow in incredulity and let his remark slide.
My refusal to argue with Bob could also be the result of way too much time spent fighting in the IT trenches. Argumentum ad hominem attacks are common arguments against new technology rollouts. When a person can’t muster a logical, fact-driven argument to express their position on a subject, they tend to skip over the inconveniently difficult fact-gathering phase and make petty, groundless, personal attacks against anyone taking a different position. It’s moronic, but it’s standard operating procedure for a depressingly large number of folks.
I suspect that this boorish phenomenon has grown out of a larger cultural trend that values stylish insults over practical substance. My Sunday paper this week featured an expose by Bloomberg News’s Mark Drajem about American public relations sensation Rick Berman. The TL;DR synopsis  of the article illustrates how Mr. Berman doesn’t bother to try to make his unsympathetic clients (like the hydraulic fracturing industry) more sympathetic; instead, he attacks the character of his clients’ opposition by smearing both the other side’s activists and the donors that fund them. From the Bloomberg article:
‘Berman’s opposition researchers, who Hubbard called the best in the nation, dug into the finances of board members of those groups and issued ads, both online and on billboards, mocking them.
‘One billboard in Pennsylvania showed a picture of actor Robert Redford, who’s on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and stated: “Demands green living. Flies on a private jet.”
‘Another shows anti-fracking activist Yoko Ono: “Would you take energy advice from the woman who broke up the Beatles?”’
I get it. I don’t approve of it, but I understand it. Attacking a person for their actual or implied weakness suggests that their argument or cause must also, by illogical extension, be flawed – and, therefore, should be discounted. This approach is irrational to the core, but it often resonates with listeners who already hold strong opinions that have never encountered an actual fact.
I confronted this behaviour quite often when I was running IT shops. In one memorable incident during the Dot Com Bubble era, the manager over our company’s marketing department demanded that we (IT) scrap all of the brand-new Power Macintosh G4s that we’d bought for the marketeers and replace them with Windows 2000 machines like everyone else in the company was using. When I asked the angry fellow why he felt this was necessary, he snarled: ‘Everyone at Apple is gay, and we don’t need their gay computers in a God-fearing Christian company.’
The man’s argument was, to say the least, stark raving bonkers. Breaking it down into components didn’t help his position any: First, Apple Inc. was not populated entirely by homosexual employees any more than Compaq was populated entirely by heterosexual employees. Second, the orientation of a company’s engineer has no bearing at all on the quality or value of the engineering products that they design or manufacture. Third, the company where we were working wasn’t a Christian company by any stretch; it was a commercial business that included multiple flavours of theists, as well as atheists and undecided employees. The gentleman’s argument collapsed under the gentlest caress of logical scrutiny.
It took about twenty minutes for me to get the angry fellow to explain what was actually bothering him about the workstations in the marketing department: they weren’t able to receive his written diatribes via the company e-mail system. Fine. No problem. I placed a call to Microsoft and got ahold of the Macintosh OS version of Outlook, installed it on all the G4s, and connected them to the Exchange server. Problem solved. 
It’s a running joke in the IT operations sector that more technical decisions will be scuttled by politics and irrational decision making than will ever be scuttled by actual technology failures. I’ve certainly found that to be the case. It’s hard enough trying to explain complicated technological decisions to non-technical decision makers. It’s significantly more difficult to secure buy-in for your business case when your audience is fixated on non-technical issues – and it’s darned near impossible when the issues being raised in objection to your plan are blatant attacks on people rather than actual, substantive business issues.
So, how does a good IT leader overcome this headache? There aren’t many effective countermeasures, mostly because it’s staggeringly difficult to convince an irrational person to abandon an irrational belief.
You can try confronting your Bob over the logical fallacies in his argument; deconstruct his statements and show that they’re simply wrong, and therefore should be withdrawn. That might work … if your Bob is mature enough to admit that he’s wrong … and if your challenge isn’t issued in a forum where your Bob feels that he has to defend his institutional credibility … and if you’re sure that your Bob doesn’t nurture grudges. Personally, I only indulge my need to attack crappy arguments when the person I’m arguing with is a known, committed personal or professional enemy and everyone in the room is aware of our rivalry. In those very narrow circumstances, it’s expected that foes will clash simply for the sake of the duel.
Taking a more conservative approach, you can ask to sidebar the discussion and engage your Bob later on when he’s in a better mood, or perhaps when he’s not as likely to feel that he needs to defend his irrational position to the death for the sake of his audience. I’ve been able to talk a few Bobs off the proverbial ledge that way. A few. It’s worth trying once or twice.
You can pretend to withdraw your business case in public – in order to mollify your Bob – and then continue to pursue it in private underneath Bob’s notice. There have been several times where I’ve needed to implement significant technology changes for the good of the enterprise and was blocked by a raving Bob for specious, juvenile reasons. Whenever I could, I carried on with my initiatives covertly, and made things happen ‘behind the curtain’ within IT. The irrational Bobs were none the wiser … and often didn’t feel like re-engaging with IT after they learned that our changes had been implemented as a fait accompli. You have to decide for yourself whether or not this is a survivable tactic for your environment; some Bobs are vindictive enough to destroy you if they discover that you went against their position behind their back. Proceed with all due caution.
You can also re-brand your IT operations with some minor subterfuge. I worked for one staggeringly ignorant Bob who demanded that all Apple products be removed from the company. I discovered on accident that this Bob couldn’t actually tell different brands and model of kit apart, so I peeled the ‘Made for Windows XP’ sicker off of my Dell tower and pasted it over the Apple logo on an Apple monitor. The Bob was thrilled that we’d ‘replaced’ all of our Apple kit with identical gear from a different manufacturer.  I don’t think you’ll be able to get away with this technique very often, but when you can … go nuts. Just don’t get caught smirking at your Bob’s ignorance.
I submit that the most effective tactic: is to simply refuse to engage. Raise an eyebrow in surprise, let your Bob’s ridiculous argument dissipate like a foul smell, and move on. If your Bob insists on engaging you, move on to a new topic or withdraw. Seek out more rational people in the workplace and secure their informed buy-in for your business case. Eventually, someone (other than you) that the Bob trusts and relies on will be able to influence them into backing off their position. I really think that this is the best way to handle it, even when your Bob is viciously attacking you or those close to you: let them display their ignorance and intolerance, and refuse to join them in the mud.
Finally, you can always quote always the classic Dilbert quip: ‘I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination.’ I don’t think it’ll help advance your argument at all, but it’ll feel great. Afterwards, you’ll have the rest of the day free to clean out your desk.
Working in IT operations means that you need to be prepared to get regularly, viciously and undeservedly attacked. I’ve had my professional competence, education, certifications, orientation, moral fibre, and sanity impugned by sneering Bobs over business and technology decisions that had precisely #$&-all to do with me, personally. It’s just something that reprehensible people tend to do. There’s no operating system patch that we can apply to make the bitter jack-wagons that we work with more rational or less abusive.
 Internet shorthand: TL:DR is an abbreviation for ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read.’
 Well, temporarily solved; the angry idiot was only suppressed, not neutralized. He later threw another fit and demanded that all the Apple products be yanked out of marketing. The entire marketing department resigned on the spot, leaving the company with no adverting capability. The idiot got his way, but his petulance helped to doom the company.
 This story is 100 per cent true. I’m embarrassed for all of humanity that this happened.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.