On Looking and Acting the Part

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A neighbour of mine blamelessly became unemployed at a dangerous age. In some desperation, he took a job as a driver for a firm of undertakers. Though good humoured, and the perfect companion for an evening at the pub, his looks are dark, taciturn, sad. He drove in sunglasses, enhancing the effect, and was habitually solemn whilst driving. His rise through the ranks of undertaking was meteoric. Soon he was a pallbearer and leading a team at funerals. In no time, grieving relatives asked for him specifically. His face, his demeanour, was perfect. To his surprise, a shining and lucrative new career now lies ahead of him, for as long as he wants it.

I thought of my friend when advising someone who wanted a career as an IT consultant. I recounted the hard lessons I'd learned whilst working as a database consultant over several decades, advising banks, large corporates and government departments. Your face must fit. You must look and act the part. If you do, the work is easy because the muddles that large corporates get themselves into with databases are almost always technically simple, but all attempts at resolution become gridlocked by human nature, preconceived notions, embedded interests and persuasive false prophets.

The ideal consultant first gets a clear idea of the nature of the logjam by listening, and then facilitates a resolution while humiliating nobody and convincing everyone that it was their own skill that fixed the problem. This requires a straight face. I have seen the careers of rookie consultants die in front of my eyes, as they throw themselves back from their workstation laughing and bellowing, 'who the hell wrote this garbage?' Technical competence is insufficient for the role.

There are certain disadvantages to being self-effacing. I once dealt so successfully with a sticky database problem within a government department that a couple of years later, they asked to have me back. However, I'd been so anonymous the first time around that they'd forgotten my name. The agency, in their usual amoral way, said they didn't know either and offered them someone cheaper who happened to be 'on the books'. I only heard about it later.

Appearance works both ways. Now that I look like Grandpa, the sort of Grandpa that has to be told how to switch on a mobile phone or use a handset for the telly, I encounter a sense of disbelief, in most of the workplaces I visit, that I could possibly know anything about technology. Youngsters often feel obliged to explain simple database concepts to me.

I could no longer do consultancy. Ironically, I know far more about databases now than I did then, but on the other hand, I'd stick out like a sore thumb, looking absurd in a suit and grumpier when confronted with foolishness. Much of IT work is less to do with the technology and more about working easily in a team. Perhaps a career in undertaking beckons, but I'm not sure that, even there, a role can be found for someone who looks like a biblical illustration of a vengeful Jehovah.

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