Don't worry, the halo won't fade from the IT dept when this pandemic is over – because it was never there
But let me tell ya, technology work is better than diggin' a ditch
Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you the reader choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you're in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.
It's up to our writers to convince you to vote for their side.
This week's motion is: The pandemic improved the status of the IT workers … forever.
Whether tech workers saved the world during the pandemic or whether we should thank health workers and researchers is one for another day. But tech workers certainly kept business and the public sector going, helping organisations pivot to online and by allowing employees to work remotely. But a year on, has the hero effect worn off? Or can they, should expect permanently elevated status. Four highly qualified observers will give their perspectives through the course of the week. But it’s you that gets to decide.
Our second contributor, writing AGAINST the motion, is Anne Currie, veteran techie and author of the sci-fi Panopticon series.
There's no doubt that in 2020, the tech industry saved the world. Do I think the halo will wear off? No, because there never was a halo. We saved everyone, but they didn't notice.
Miraculously, lockdowns controlled a global pandemic. They weren't a laugh a minute, but they did apparently buy time for Bill Gates to come up with a vaccine that simultaneously stopped a killer virus and persuaded us to upgrade to Windows 11, and that was no mean feat. So, why did everyone calmly wait at home for Bill rather than the usual – throwing bricks through the window of the nearest liquor store?
The reason was the internet. it stayed up, and as Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming observed: "It's hard to imagine another utility (say electricity, water or gas) coping with a sudden and continuous increase in demand of 50 per cent."
The internet survived and so did society. Even though we didn't have time to lay any new cables, through a mixture of CDNs, cloud architectures, service downgrades, and efficiency improvements made by techies all over the world, the internet rode it out. However, even most folk in tech can't grok how that was pulled off, so why on Earth should the general public?
On the positive side, since they never knew what we did, people won't gradually forget, leaving us sad we're no longer the centre of attention at parties. We can imagine that we would have been, had there been any parties – we were in lockdown after all – but we'd be kidding ourselves. As far as society was concerned, tech remained invisible throughout and deep down we all know it. None of us joined the tech industry for lines of people waiting to talk to us at glitzy shindigs, and that turned out to be fortunate.
If we're being brutally honest, the pandemic was our brief moment to shine. It played to the strengths of most tech departments. Keeping systems alive was a goal everyone could sign up to, and terrified CEOs were likely to back off and let everyone get on with it. Generally, that meant a break from demands to revolutionize the business model overnight using some dodgy tech they’d just read about in Forbes.
It would be nice to believe those CEOs had learned a greater lesson: that teams are more creative when you give them a problem and let them work out the solution. Maybe even with some staff training to help them come up with options. However, I suspect not. In 2020, IT departments demonstrated that faced with a clear existential threat they could be the heroes rather than having to drag in some external consultant, but have companies grokked that? Let's not go crazy. Of course not.
The tech industry knows where we all stand in society's pecking order. If most people are thanking anyone for the fact they got through 2020, it's probably the cast of Grey's Anatomy, which bizarrely was one of the most streamed shows on TV during the lockdown (under no circumstances attempt to watch it). How McDreamy got into peoples' houses for the ten-thousandth time remains as much a mystery to them as ever. We know at least half of the true story is CDNs, buffering, and QoS management, but let's face it, for most people the two cultures extend no further than medicine and abs.
Although not all heroes wear a mask, most of them do, and your average techie is a social pariah. That's not going to change.
There's no point in moaning about our lot. I was chatting to a neighbour across the garden fence during lockdown who, the previous freezing winter day, had been patching up a sewer pipe under six feet of water. I thought, my job is bloody cushy and I'm grateful. I don’t ask for social acceptance as well. Every day, I just thank Cthulhu I haven't been run out of town by anti-5Gers with pitchforks. ®
Cast your vote below. We'll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate's progress here.