Ask LH: How Can I Survive A Job That Makes Me Use Outdated Technology?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


    The OP doesn't say what their job is. If it's not in IT, it may be debatable that s/he needs a state of the art laptop anyway.

    I've worked successfully for decades without work email on my phone. Are they a heart surgeon or police negotiator? They can probably survive without. If it's really important, get the bastards to call you on that slick smartphone.

    I'm betting Gen Y? The entitled generation? ;-)

      Working in IT doesn't mean you need the latest and greatest, sure, I sometimes test new devices before we roll them out for our users.

      But I could do most of my work from a 6 year old junker if I needed to, luckily I don't have to.

      Frankly, I think this whole "I am in IT I need the newest stuff" is a poor attitude.

      Test new gear, but get new gear to users as soon as is feasible, nothing makes IT look worse than them playing with shiny new toys while users have to struggle with relics.

      And yes, I am an IT admin, not a standard user, just before my opinion gives you a contrary idea.

    Show how smart and flexible you are by using whatever tools are to hand effectively?

    Be happy that you even have a job?

    Don't be a crying entitled baby?

    Time Warped;
    You have three choices here:
    suck it up, and go on about your daily business
    become a change initiator, or
    find another job that let's you play with cool toys.

    Honestly, from an IT perspective, we do what we are told to do, not what we'd like. These decisions are handed down from on high and we have to suck it up too. I have learnt in the 30 + years I've been doing this that businesses can get by without a bunch of toys distracting staff from their role of making money.

    If you want to make changes in a company, become the innovator and change agent. Help the business understand the benefits that you can get from updating the technology. Greater mobility, more sales, better bottom lines, better closure rates, etc, not that we'll have more toys.

    You still may not get what you are after, but at least the business knows that you are trying your hardest to make them more profitable and that often, but not always, stands you in good stead. Make sure that if you do go the change agent route that you get buy in from your manager, and from their manager.

    If you don't get this buy in, now is the time to plan your departure time frame and strategy. Stay your two years, learn what you need to learn and then move on. Eventually you'll have a great skill set and you'll find that place where you can fit in and make a real contribution.

    It may take you 30 years but you'll get there in the end.

    I work in IT for a big company. I just started a few months back and I got a laptop that is getting close to 3 years old. Did I complain? No, I can do what I need to do and you usually get what you need to do your job. What you want and what you need are usually 2 very different things.

    That being said, the tips here are pretty good. If someone treats me with respect and has a genuine interest in testing something I will always do my best to get them in the pilot groups.

      What's the battery life like on your 3 year old laptop? Or do they buy new batteries regularly?

    In my case, the corporate standard for a 1500-person company (I no longer work there, but did) is XP. This was partly due to scared, low-skill IT staff not knowing what would break for 27 of the 1500 users if they moved to Win7, and partly due to them knowing at least one important application that was (so far) incompatible with anything after XP. As in, they claimed that application wouldn't even run in compatibility mode. Not authed to run Win7 on their network, I couldn't verify this, so I have to assume it's true. The incompatible product: A multi-million-dollar government management pacakge in some no-longer-marketed 4GL that more than half the staff used daily, developed by a vendor who hired lots of kids just out of school to write and maintain their data entry screens and reports. The vendor had been in the process of converting it to something more modern (java?) for over a year, last I heard, but were still months or years away.

    And yes, when I controlled access to non-Blackberry mobile devices, the people who were interested and willing to spend time testing the things I was most interested in testing are the people who tended to be issued them. :-)

    I honestly don't get some companies - proportional to wages, a new machine is a small expense. Some of the above posters are saying, 'I didn't complain when I got a three year old machine.' I wish it was only three years old, that would be considered new at a lot of companies I've been with. I've had machines that were closer to ten years old. These old, bloated machines hurt productivity, even for people that just want to do word processing. Most days, I'd come in, boot the machine, go and take a dump. Then I'd come back, boot excel, and went downstairs to get a coffee. At about 9.30, I'd sit down and actually do some work. I pointed this out to management, and they replied that other employees were getting by. They were too, by using the same schedule I was, by bringing in their own machines when they actually decided to do some work, or by leaving the machine on overnight (though a reboot was necessary most days anyway). The whole situation only made sense if you think your employees time isn't worth anything.

      i agree, being in IT and noticing this issue i had a plan in place to replace 2 computers a month to get everthing up to scratch but we got bought out by a bigger company and I now need to fill out a form justifying why a computer needs to be replaced and why the current one isnt working so now we are stuck with whatever we can get our hands on.

    Slow moving companies are what made me come to despise working in IT. I couldn't deal with supporting another computer running Windows XP and Office 2003 with Internet Explorer 7 on a network which only supports old blackberry's. Every time any new software was needed it would have to be totally ruined to get it working on this crappy network just so some areas could keep using their old legacy apps.

    A fellow XP user!!
    I wasn't particularly happy about using WinXP again, but I've made a few workarounds that make life with it pretty comfortable.

    I love being able to search for programs from the start menu with Windows 7, and to get that working with Windows XP I installed Launchy, which can also do basic calculations.

    To launch programs using Windows Key + 1, Windows Key + 2, etc, I've made a program in AutoHotKey, I'll show you the first two just so you get a feel for how it works:
    ; Window 1 : Chrome
    IfWinExist ahk_class Chrome_WidgetWin_1
    IfWinActive ahk_class Chrome_WidgetWin_1
    Run "C:\Documents and Settings\zmze\My Documents\My Apps\GoogleChrome21.0.1180.79\GoogleChromePortable\GoogleChromePortable.exe"

    ; Window Shift 1 : Launch Chrome
    #+1::Run "C:\Documents and Settings\zmze\My Documents\My Apps\GoogleChrome21.0.1180.79\GoogleChromePortable\GoogleChromePortable.exe"

    ; Window 2 : Outlook
    IfWinActive Inbox - Microsoft Outlook
    Run "C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office12\OUTLOOK.EXE" /recycle
    sleep, 200
    WinShow ahk_class rctrl_renwnd32

    To maximise to each side using Windows Key + Left & Windows Key Right, again AutoHotKey:
    ; Window Manipulations ;

    ; Get the Monitor Number of the active window ;

    WinGetPos, winX, winY, winWidth, winHeight, A
    winMidX := winX + winWidth / 2
    winMidY := winY + winHeight / 2

    ; Get work area for each monitor (excludes toolbars, taskbar, etc.)
    SysGet, monitorCount, MonitorCount
    Loop, %monitorCount%
    SysGet, monitor, MonitorWorkArea, %A_Index%
    monitorHeight := monitorBottom - monitorTop
    if (winMidX > monitorLeft && winMidX < monitorRight
    && winMidY > monitorTop && winMidY < monitorHeight)
    return A_Index
    ; Return a default value
    SysGet, primaryMonitor, MonitorPrimary
    return primaryMonitor

    ; Win up Maximise ;

    #Up::WinMaximize, A

    ; Win Left 1/2 window resize left ;

    WinRestore, A
    monitorNumber := GetCurrentMonitor()
    SysGet, workArea, MonitorWorkArea, %monitorNumber%
    workAreaWidth := workAreaRight - workAreaLeft
    workAreaHeight := workAreaBottom - workAreaTop
    WinGetPos, winX, winY, winWidth, winHeight, A
    WinMove, A, , %workAreaLeft%, %workAreaTop%, workAreaWidth / 2, %workAreaHeight%

    ; Win Right 1/2 window resize right ;

    WinRestore, A
    monitorNumber := GetCurrentMonitor()
    SysGet, workArea, MonitorWorkArea, %monitorNumber%
    workAreaWidth := workAreaRight - workAreaLeft
    workAreaHeight := workAreaBottom - workAreaTop
    WinGetPos, winX, winY, winWidth, winHeight, A
    WinMove, A, , workAreaLeft + workAreaWidth / 2, workAreaTop, workAreaWidth / 2, workAreaHeight

    ; Win Down Restore/Minimize ;

    WinGet, IsMax, MinMax, A
    IfEqual, IsMax, 1
    WinRestore, A
    WinMinimize, A

    ; Win Shift Up Maximize vertically ;

    WinRestore, A
    SysGet, workArea, MonitorWorkArea
    workAreaWidth := workAreaRight - workAreaLeft
    workAreaHeight := workAreaBottom - workAreaTop
    WinGetPos, winX, winY, winWidth, winHeight, A
    WinMove, A, , %winX%, %workAreaTop%, %winWidth%, %workAreaHeight%

    Personally, I didn't want to have emails sync with my phone, but I kept missing appointments because I was away from my desk. I can recommend that you use Google Appsy Sync for Microsoft Outlook:

    Other than that, good luck!

    I work for a large multinational and we're still stuck with Blackberries, XP and in same cases older laptops or even desktops. But it's what we have to deal with. The trick is to be friends with infrastructure so you can do things like local admin rights, clean your own PC and install alternate browsers (we were still using 6 until recently).

    The other thing to pay attention to is the service period. Most businesses will want hardware to last past the point they're depreciated because they're paid for and continued use is basically free. But the hardware also likely has a service contract attached. So if something goes wrong it can't be supported. This alone can sometime get you over the line for something new - I've known a boss or 2 to accidentally drop an aging laptop or phone for that exact reason.

    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

    Is that some consideration I see *tear in eye
    But seriously, the next time an employee with no IT knowledge laughs at me when I suggest surveying infrastructure before rolling out a new plan, and then proceeds to tell me I'm holding the place back in all its mighty potential...

    Don't ever make friends with the IT department, we hate it when you people try brown nose for better gear or inside knowledge.
    You get what you need when you need it and nothing else,
    Don't pretend you know how the SOE roll-out works.
    Don't tell me about "this mate of your's" that's good with PC's and showed you how to get admin rights (you shouldn't bloody have it).
    Don't ask me for a new monitor because your's looks old.
    Don't assume i use facebook and will want to talk to you about you're boring arse post from last night.

    So shut up, do the job you're being over paid for and deal with the gear you have, and be thankful you're no longer being made to write it all out with pen and paper.

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