The IT Samaritan is a helper in the field, someone who stands a foot taller, knowledge-wise, than most of those around him.
The helper is that spare set of semi-savvy eyes you're glad to have around when users and customers run into lingo barriers with the technical staff. He'll volunteer to run beta software, he'll pitch in on load tests, and he's always eager to lend a hand when asked. You'd never guess it, but that's where the trouble starts.
A tech-savvy person who's close at hand and shows a willingness to assist and advise will be pressured into doing some of IT's work, but without the wait, political red tape and attitude that IT brings to its tasks. When the helper alters anything that isn't his to alter, when he installs a single application or resets the clock on a system he isn't authorised to control, he has graduated from helper to fixer, and fixers you do not need.
The fixer is the toast of the department, the floor or the branch office because he'll make things right without telling anybody you screwed up. He'll get that virus scrubbed from your machine before the boss finds out. The boss gets the month's numbers recovered from that password-protected drive he wasn't supposed to take out of the office.
External partners love having the direct-dial number of a fixer who will jump on a console to nudge one of their remotely submitted transactions through the queue.
For its part, IT secretly loves the fixer. He's a remote console that operates by voice command, and wherever he roams, open support tickets magically close. "Is Ted in his cube?" becomes the first question the helpdesk asks if the nearest fixer's name is Ted. What did Ted do to fix the problem? Who knows? Ted closed the ticket. Ted's a hero.
It becomes the fixer's goal to leave no problem unsolved. He comes to see every call for legitimate support as his personal failure. He gets addicted to being so needed and celebrated, and IT becomes just as addicted to the fixer as a labour-saving device. No one who benefits from his existence worries about the fixer's power to shortcut not only process but policy.
By the time the first problem is spotted, the damage is already widespread. Licence audits reveal twice as many installed copies of a costly application than are licensed. The bootable CD the fixer created is passed around to create unauthorised backups of desktop drives. The employee who got the fixer to hook him up with an FTP account decides, on termination, to use that account to host a publicly accessible library of ripped DVDs. The well-intentioned guy who just likes to help out is a one-man back door for every foolish or malicious user who wins his trust. And guess who gets stuck holding the bag?
People helping people is laudable. Having more knowledgeable users snug cables, snap leaning monitors back onto their bases, and print up keyboard shortcuts for Word is just what you want in a healthy organisation. It's a manager's duty, however, to make helpers understand that when they touch a user's keyboard, no matter how much coaxing and pleading they get from the user or from lazy people inside IT, they become fixers.
Fixers are responsible for everything they leave behind even if it's not their doing. That kind of accountability is usually more than the IT Samaritan bargained for
Yager is technical director of the InfoWorld Test Centre