Rabbi Hillel’s Three Questions And Your IT Department

If not now, when?What does a set of two-thousand-year-old moral questions have to do with how your IT department should operate? Hillel the Elder, one of the most important leaders in Jewish history, posed what has become known as his Three Questions about how to live your life.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?

The conventional interpretation of these questions is more or lessLook out for yourself, stick up for yourself, or no one else will; but if you are only concerned for your own selfish interests, you are unworthy; and now is the time to act.

As with all inquiries into the meaning of life, the questions are short but the discussion they spark is long, and the specific applications where they apply are broad. Today, as I was thinking about Hillel’s Three Questions, I was struck by how they can apply to your IT department.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Hillel’s first question is about respecting yourself and having a responsibility to take care of yourself. In the context of IT, Hillel’s first question asks, Does your IT department know what its mission is and does it believe in that mission? The IT department’s job is hard and diverse; it’s often a service role where nobody thinks of you until something goes wrong, and then everybody thinks they’re your boss. The IT department spends its time keeping legacy systems alive with baling wire and shell scripts; protecting your company from mistakes and intruders; managing vendors; and, when they have a spare moment, maybe bringing a bit of innovation to the table to help the business. Is that really the mission of your IT department? If your IT department doesn’t know what it’s mission is, is there any wonder why  your users just want you to fix the printer and then go away?

Hillel’s first question challenges us to know ourselves and be responsible for ourselves. If your IT department, from the CIO down to the first line help desk technician, doesn’t know how how they add value to the business and can’t demonstrate it, how would the rest of the business know?

And when I am for only for myself, what am ‘I’?

Hillel’s second question brings up our relationship with others.  All parts of a company serve the greater interests of the business. From IT’s origins as the priesthood of the mainframe to the Bastard Operator from Hell,  IT has had a long history of difficult relationships with their internal users — their internal customers. If your IT department isn’t serving its internal customers, what purpose is it serving?

IT’s relationship with its customers is being redefined: consumerization, BYOD, SaaS and cloud-enabled “shadow IT” are the biggest game-changers since people started sneaking PCs in the back door. Users now have choice. IT policy can stop an employee from putting confidential information in a personal Dropbox account; it can’t stop a VP from building their next project out in the cloud using external resources and bypassing IT altogether. It’s been suggested that the IT department needs to invest in its own marketing function to help communicate what its offerings are. What would it be like if the rest of your company knew about and in fact was eagerly awaiting the next release of your strategic project? If your IT department doesn’t communicate and doesn’t have the trust of the other employees of your company, can it be trusted to innovate? 

And if not now, when?

Good intentions are not enough. Hillel’s third question compels us to act. Each interaction of IT staff with people in other parts of the organization will affect how they view the IT department and how they will work with it. How can your individual actions today affect the future of your IT department and of your business?

We can also take this bias toward action to our departmental processes. Traditional IT projects, with their focus on process governance and risk mitigation, move slowly. If your IT department can’t seem to get anything done, how can it transform itself so that things do get done?  New agile approaches to IT work like DevOps and the service-orientation of the Cloud are radically altering how IT views itself, its relationship to other departments, and how its projects are carried out. These new approaches are very experiential in nature — the only real way to internalize them and discover how they might work within your organization is to start trying them out on small projects.


And that’s how these two-thousand-year-old questions are worth asking about the operation of your IT department. If your IT department doesn’t know what its purpose is, why will anyone else respect it? If it doesn’t have the support the rest of the organization, what kind of corporate department is it anyway? And if it’s going to get strategic things done, then why not start today?





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