Jinx-Free Technology

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IT professionals turn to rituals to ward off bad luck.

Who would have thought that we information technologists are a superstitious lot?

You'd expect that those whose field is based on precise procedural logic to be hardheaded realists. In IT, we routinely measure things to several places to the right of the decimal point. When something doesn't work, we do traces and study event logs to find out why something happened the way it did. This is a field based on the binary system; there are few shades of gray. A simple keying error can be the difference between success and failure.

Yet our superstitions would put medieval wizards to shame. The fact is, most information technologists are fearful of jinxing anything that's going well—whether it's a server that's been up for an unusually long time, a quiet day at the help desk, or initial progress on a cutover or upgrade. The most common technique information technologists use to ward off bad luck is to knock on wood—although it's probably Formica in most cases.

No matter how many times something has worked before and no matter how simple the function, there are more than a few who will react with a sense of relief, bordering on surprise, when it works at a particularly critical time.

Many information technologists have their own quiet rituals that they may not actually believe in but with which they would rather not take any chances.

One colleague keeps a small elephant statue on his desk. It's supposed to ward off bad things—but only if it's facing the door—and he always makes sure it is. I've heard more than one story about IT engineers who will rub a server discreetly for good luck before working on it.

Some will never say—out loud, anyway—that a certain change or task is of negligible risk or that downtime will be minimal for fear that such a comment will be the kiss of death.

There are those engineers who avoid reusing the name of a particularly troublesome server, even if the entire box is replaced.

I know one chief technology officer who had his phone extension changed because a colleague from China warned him that it was unlucky because it contained too many 4s, which is considered an unlucky number in China.

Some experts are advocating the application of feng shui principles to data center design.

If I were a professional athlete, a gambler, a stockbroker or a meteorologist, turning to superstition to help ensure success would be understandable. But even though I'm in IT, I'm one of those for whom knocking on wood is practically a reflex.

Does it work? Who knows? Finding out for sure would definitely not be worth the risk.

Brian D. Jaffe is an IT director in New York and co-author of the "IT Manager's Handbook: Getting Your New Job Done." He can be reached at brian@red55.com. Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community and welcomes contributions. Send submissions to free_spectrum@ziffdavis.com.

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