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In ordinary times, they moved among us largely unnoticed. Now we can’t get enough of them. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust once-anonymous IT support workers into a new role: corporate saviors.

As millions of employees make the transition from well-maintained office equipment to jury-rigged kitchen table setups, information technology departments have been called upon to keep companies online and connected. Requests range in size and scale, from replacing employees’ $5 mouses, to speeding up networks, to keeping multimillion-dollar data centers up and running.

For many departments, the result has been virtually unprecedented workloads. On March 12, Qualcomm told all staff to prepare to start working remotely in three days. Vice president of IT infrastructure, Zeeshan Sabir, and his team then worked about 72 hours straight trying to prepare a lot of laptops for secure, remote access and get other corporate systems ready.

“I just saw heroics,” he said. “I didn’t see a blip of complaint from anyone.”

When the switch happened, though, Sabir’s newly beefed-up call center was inundated with user complaints over slow internet speeds. After more stretches of intense work, his team increased the responsiveness of Qualcomm’s data centers, aiming to overcome the constraints of some workers’ slow home connections. Now, he said, the chipmaker’s 37,000 employees are mostly “back to normal.”

The way most IT departments are set up has meant many directors have been juggling major issues alongside relatively minor ones. At Bay Area transit agency SamTrans, IT manager Edward Kelly got help from AT&T to quickly increase the speed of connections to the agency’s networks once its 200 employees made the switch to remote work. At the same time, Kelly’s team of five was flooded by calls from employees who’d forgotten their computer password and guessed wrong too many times. He said he’s also hoping people learn to use the “reply-all” button on group emails more sparingly.

As many employees’ home computers infuriate them, tensions can run high, said Jennifer Reed, a consultant at IT outsourcing firm Viqtor Davis North America. “Anyone that’s in cloud deployment, network operations, we’re notorious for not getting good sleep in the first place,” she said, referring to the often-stressful job. Under quarantine, “it’s like that on steroids,” she said, citing flaring tempers and frayed nerves.

Still, as IT workers put in overtime, many say their companies have been grateful. For the often-unsung departments, it can even feel like something approaching corporate glory. “People have been really cool,” SamTrans’ Kelly said. “We’ve definitely got a lot of credit, there’s no doubt about that.”

Eventually, IT support workers want to return to their anonymous roles. “We want customers and staff to not notice that we exist,” Reed said. “We’re not seeking gratitude. We just want to keep the lights on.”

Bloomberg News
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