Asleep on the Job

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Neil was a typical IT guy. When I met him, he was doing some ops work with an old mainframe, in the vast IT department of a major manufacturer. I first took notice when I was told that he'd learned how to sleep with his eyes open. I'd never previously considered this as a major IT skill, but it seems that he had a rather demanding social or family life and took advantage of the warm, quiet, and undemanding environment of work to catch up on his sleep.

To his supervisor, Neil was an enigma. Neil always had a thoughtful, intelligent, look on his face whenever he passed by his terminal, and yet often produced very little. Baffled, he decided to monitor the serial line from his terminal to the mainframe. Neil got wind of this, however, and somehow trained himself so that, in his sleeping state, he would occasionally tap the Caps Lock key.

I was fascinated by this skill to the point that, at the IT Department Christmas dinner, I asked his wife how he did it.

"Ah, you've noticed. When he is asleep is really the only time that he looks intelligent. In fact, the only way I can tell that he's awake and listening to me is that a look of innocent foolishness comes across his face."

The ability to look intelligent and attentive whilst asleep is a rare and valuable talent, and one I was keen to exploit. If your role requires you to attend endless presentations and meetings, particularly with sales teams from vendors, you quickly reach a point of presentation fatigue, becoming irritable and fidgety, and drawing unwanted attention from the presenter.

My own preventative strategy is to keep a few programming problems to hand and work them out in my head while pretending to listen, but I recognize a master when I see one. I recruited Neil to my team, and he needed no urging to his task. He sailed through even the most tedious meetings, always looking wide eyed and attentive, and nodding wisely, while in fact just taking a cat nap. So successful was he that presenters soon started to address their talks straight to Neil. We could then relax and pass the time as we saw fit.

Years later, I had to participate in an inquiry into UK government computing. On a visit to one of the august departments of government, I was introduced to the head of IT. To my surprise, I found myself shaking the hand that possessed that magic "Caps Lock" finger. Neil looked innocent and foolish, so I knew I'd caught him in one of his wakeful moments. That look of intelligent attentiveness during somnolence had since matured into that of a spiritual Bishop and had electrified his career. His promotion had been rapid. IT management is, perhaps, more like theatre than technology. If you look and behave like a geek, you stay a geek. However, if you can look wise and thoughtful even when you're just wondering what's for dinner then you can really get ahead.

For more reminiscences about the life of an old IT manager, check out Confessions of an IT Manager.

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