Career

Ask LH: How Can I Survive A Job That Makes Me Use Outdated Technology?

Dear Lifehacker, I just got a new job and everything’s great so far. But when I got my laptop, I discovered it’s an ancient hand-me-down from another employee! Even worse, it’s Windows XP! I asked about getting my work email on my phone, and they said they could get me a BlackBerry, since they don’t support iPhones or Android yet. Help, I feel like I’ve gone back in time! Sincerely, Time Warped

Dear Time Warped,

Boy, do I feel your pain. I used to work at a company very much like the one you described. “New” really meant “someone higher up had the budget for new hardware, so you get that person’s old gear”. Everyone was using Windows XP long after Windows 7 had been released. Technically, the only mobile devices the company supported were old BlackBerry devices — not even the new ones. It’s a serious pain, and it takes a bite out of your productivity. Luckily, there are some easy and harmless (and some not-so-harmless) ways around corporate IT policies that are stuck in the past. Here are some tips.

Make Friends with Your IT Department

Even if it feels like your company’s IT department are the ones forcing old tech down your throat, your best bet is to make friends with them. Odds are they’re in the same boat as you are, stuck managing old software, ageing gear and trying to squeeze all the life from it that they can. Put yourself in their shoes: You probably love technology and enjoy working with it on a day-to-day basis, but you’re stuck working with obsolete tools when you know there’s better, faster and more functional equipment out there. You’d be first in line begging for an upgrade too.

This is why making friends is important: when the new stuff is available, they’ll probably let the people they trust to give them valid feedback and to test it responsibly know first. With luck, that will be you. You’ll learn a bit about the company’s IT infrastructure while you’re at it, and if there are any tips and tricks to get by, you’ll hear them from the people who know all about them first-hand. It’s a good move in any case to make good with corporate IT, but in a situation like this one, it’s even more important. It would be easy to label them as part of the problem, but odds are they’re working with a budget and mandate from management above your — and their — pay grades.

Offer to Be a Beta Tester

In the same vein as making friends with your IT department, offer to be a beta tester when they consider new technologies. On the upside, you get to play with the newest software and services as soon as they’re available. On the downside, you have the responsibility that comes with being a beta tester. You have to be patient when you run into issues (and understand that you will run into issues), report them, provide all the data required to help resolve them, and wait for people to do the research required to fix the bugs.

In my last job, when we were considering rolling out Windows 7 (of course, this was long after Windows 7 had been released), we sought out some “friends of IT” to be our initial beta testers — people who would live with and work in Windows 7 and use all of our commonly used systems to make sure they worked. When they didn’t work, or something failed, these were people we could trust to properly open tickets and submit bug reports, screenshots, and detail to help us pin down the problem, whether the broken system was something internal that we had built, or some commercial product that needed to be upgraded or just didn’t support Windows 7 the way it should have. Granted, the people who helped us out were the first ones to get Windows 7, but they also got a lot of responsibility and some headache in the process.

Try Your Gear Anyway

In some cases, it’s possible you can get what you want, you just can’t get help with it. “Unsupported” and “non-functional” are different things. In this case, just because your company doesn’t support iPhones and Android phones doesn’t mean that they won’t work on your company’s Wi-Fi network, or that you can’t get your email on them. If your company’s mail server has IMAP enabled on it, you can get your mail on your phone. Here are a few tips to get the info you need to support yourself:

  • Level with your IT department and be honest. If the issue is one of support, let them know that you won’t need their help with your phone or tablet, and don’t expect them to manage it for you. Ask them if they know how to set it up, and can forward you instructions (or give you the information you need to set it up yourself). Let them know they’re not on the hook for helping you out afterward — and stick to your word.
  • Ask the right questions. Ask questions like “What other email clients can I use? Do you have instructions on how to set them up?” In our smartphone example, all you really need is a server name (accessible to the internet) and some basic information, and you can do the work yourself. Want to use your own laptop? If everything you use at the office is software and web-based, you may just need access to the installation packages for the apps you use. When it comes to email, ask questions like “Is IMAP enabled on our mail server?” or more simply, “If I wanted to check my email on my computer at home, is there a way to do it?” Again, level with your IT department and let them know you’re willing to try your own gear to see if it works. They may have policies against you using your own hardware (usually for security and liability reasons), so keep that in mind — they may not take too kindly to you bringing in your own laptop and plugging it into the company network. Then again, if you work for a public institution or organisation, they might be delighted. In either case, be prepared to support yourself if you go vigilante,and bear the consequences if something goes terribly wrong.
  • Ask around. Odds are you’re not the only person stuck in this situation who would rather not be. Ask around your office and your new coworkers. See if any of them are proudly carrying a new Android phone or a shiny iPhone 5. Either they have found a solution to the problem you’re having, or they’re carrying two devices (or they just don’t bother with a work device at all). They may be able to give you some pointers based on what they’ve learned, or point you to someone who’s in the know.

Work from Home

One of the best ways to avoid the technology restrictions that come with an office is to set up your own at home. At my last job, all I really needed was a VPN client (provided by the company) and my own software and I could be just as productive at home on my custom-built PC as I could on the slow, ancient laptop they issued me when I arrived. Granted, my home computer had to meet some requirements before I could log in successfully, like having an updated (and approved) antivirus tool installed and the most recent software updates for my OS, but that was about it.

If there are programs or services only available on your company network, VPN should take care of them, but if you run into problems, see what solutions your IT department has for people who telecommute. They should have something available. They may support remote desktop into the office network, so you can turn that on on your work computer and connect directly to it whenever you want. If they don’t, an app like GoToMyPC, TeamViewer or any other similar tool might do the trick. Again, be careful that using these doesn’t run afoul of your company’s security policies — some of them might.

Deal With It

Sometimes slow and steady pressure is the way to get what you want, whether it’s a new laptop or for your company to acknowledge that iOS and Android exist. You may just have to deal with the gear you have at work and use what you want in your free time to stay productive, or if you bring your own laptop, tablet or smartphone, use it as a peripheral or second device alongside the one your company has issued you. Then, even though you have to deal with multiple devices, you can use the tactics above to encourage your company’s IT department to investigate new technologies (and make it clear you’re willing to help.)

Like we mentioned earlier: often the reason a company is stuck using Windows XP isn’t because they’re lazy or just prefer it. Usually, it’s because there’s no budget to uplift hundreds of users to a newer version of Windows (trust me, I’ve sat in on licensing negotiations with Microsoft, and they’re not fun), other applications will have to be upgraded as well, users will need training and help getting used to something new, technicians will need training and so on. Even though most companies have come to terms with the fact that their users prefer iOS and Android over Blackberry, once you’re locked into BlackBerry Enterprise Server and the security and remote control it offers admins, it’s hard to give it up.

All of those reasons may be valid, but it doesn’t make life any easier for you, so try to understand their perspective and walk the line between going rogue and using your own gear and just dealing with it as much as possible. If you can find a way to make your own phone and laptop work, you’re OK troubleshooting your own problems, and you don’t cause trouble for your friendly neighbourhood sysadmin (with whom you should be on friendly terms), everyone will be happy.

Pictures: Baloncici/Shutterstock, Chris Evans/Flickr, Carlos Varela/Flickr, David Martyn Hunt/Flickr, Andy Melton/Flickr