Monday, August 29, 2011

The Downside of Ownership

A common term used in organizations these days is “ownership”.  Someone needs to take ownership of a support call, ownership of a project, ownership of a service.  Ownership not in the mode of the box-hugger of old, but rather the term implies a responsibility, or a duty.  A duty to the organization, to the client.  This thing we’ve given you ownership of is important dammit, and you’d better make sure that you live up to your obligations.

And there is the heart of the problem for me.  Obligation.

For a period of years, I had ownership of the network at the educational institution where I worked (and am still employed for two more months).  This was more literal than the term usually implies, because for some of those years, due to budgetary issues, the difficulties of recruiting personnel to regional areas and other factors, I was the only Senior Network Engineer and often the only network engineer period.  I designed and implemented two generations of the network, implemented wireless, remote access services, authentication services, maintained DNS, DHCP and who knows what else.  I owned the network.  Or at least I knew it like the back of my hand – where the old and new gear was, where the single points of failure were, the IP addresses of practically every switch.

As the organizational reliance on the network grew, my sense of obligation grew.  Times were that the old HP router would lock up, and the old hands would wait until after lunch before sauntering over and rebooting it.  Not any more.  The network became critical to the operation of the enterprise, but the budget and personnel were not commensurate to that importance.  Now I could guarantee a phone call would arrive within 30 seconds of an outage.

Now many of my colleagues could simply switch off, deal with the issues in the morning.  “Hey, the organization cares not a jot for the unpaid overtime you do; they will exploit that; you owe them nothing”.  That was something I was not able to do.  I built this thing, I owned it, felt responsible for it.  I felt that an outage was a reflection on me.  Never mind that someone dug up a cable run somewhere, I should have been able to magic up a redundant path for which there had been no budget.  My fault.  The network was critical to operations at the organization.  People started work at 8:00.  So I needed to make sure things were working at 7:00.  So I would need to get up at 6:00 to check things and get them fixed if needed.  What if an alert came in overnight?  I began not turning my phone off at night, despite the dread that the ring tone engendered.  Any hour, the beep that indicated an email had to be heeded and checked.

This began a repeating cycle of stress and health issues.  I was like a deathly ghost haunting the corridors of the IT building at all hours, sending emails to my colleagues at 3 a.m., calling them from my sick bed asking if they had seen the outage alert that had just come in.  For the past several years, my life consisted of waking up at 4:00, checking logs, going to work at 6:00, working to 5:00 or later, coming home, logging in, watching the email listening to the phone, and getting to sleep after midnight.  My ownership of the network was, literally consuming my existence, and destroying my health.  People would tell me that it wasn’t that important, get a hobby, do something else.  But, once you are in that rut, and the psychological pull of the sense of obligation is so strong, it is hard to see a way out.

There are other manifestations, too.  An obsession with functionality; not wanting to make changes lest something break.  This resulted in a type of paralysis which impeded the forward momentum of projects.  An obsession with testing and prototyping and wanting to make any change in the dead of night – heaven forfend that a user was impacted.

This all had a detrimental effect, not only on me, but on the team around me, and on the organization.  Projects dragged, and I could see that people were reluctant to engage with me for fear of making things worse.

Even now, after resigning in April, and five months into seven months of long service leave, the pull of the place is not quite gone.  The sense of attachment is getting less and less, but it is still there, lurking in the background.  The projects I started which I didn’t finish, the documentation I didn’t complete and the knowledge that is locked in my head; all the little details and foibles and twenty years of history.  And it can all come back to the front of your mind when you get the phone call five months into your leave that starts, “Hi – sorry to bother you, but…”   Like it did today.

So ownership is not necessarily a bad thing.  In my case, the confluence of a misplaced sense of obligation to only full-time employer I have known for most of my working life, a proprietary feeling towards that which I built and some underlying personal psychological predisposition to stress conspired to turn that ownership against me.  When I start looking for work again in the new year, I hope that I am able to recognise the signs and guard against the temptations to take ownership too far.

I waited far too long to wake up this time.  I am determined to not make the same mistakes again.


  1. Ownership is the unfortunate side of being the sole person who really knows what they're doing...especially when it was you who made/built/designed a thing. We're very glad you finally saw what it was doing to you both mentally and physically. Shaun and I were definitely worried about you. No job is worth giving up your life and health for and if, for the next job, we see you starting to go down that path we'll say something.

  2. This is the best thing I have ever read. Everything you wrote is so true. I don't know if it is that I'm also like you an network engineer. Greetings from Sweden.