Friday, July 17, 2009

The High-Tech Worker In A Low-Tech Company

It's my birthday, and on this auspicious and historically significant day, I am taking the opportunity to vent a little. Given my luck, *this* will probably be the post that causes my career and life to go up in smoke - but what the heck - it's my birthday!

My career has taken me into both high-technology (aerospace & electronics) and low-technology (restaurant) companies. Although they each have their challenges, I must say that being a high-tech worker in a low-tech company was without question the more frustrating experience. There were many days when I was ready to pull out what little hair I have left. I didn't realize how many assumptions I was making on a daily basis until I was faced with an entire industry of people who had zero experience and understanding of the technology surrounding them. It's not that they were stupid (well, not most of them) but they were ignorant - and they were making just as many assumptions about my world as I was about theirs.

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, for two entries from the all-star list of forehead slappers from my 5+ years as a high-tech worker in a low-tech company:

Shortcut To Nowhere
I'll start with one my favorites - the infamous desktop shortcut to nowhere incident. One of the accounting clerks was responsible for verifying that a step in the monthly close process had completed successfully. The verification consisted of opening a report generated by the ERP system and making sure the totals tied together. She wasn't responsible for running the job that created the report - just for reading the report and verifying the results. She did this process on the third Tuesday of every month, and had been doing it for over 10 years.

However, on this particular third Tuesday, she had a big problem. We received a frantic phone call from her manager that the ERP system was "messed up" and that we couldn't complete the monthly close. Oh crap! She said she was getting an error message saying something about a file being missing, and she wanted to know why we had deleted her files. Wha??

We checked the server - and everything looked fine. So, we visited the user. After enduring the typical "Why do you guys always change things without telling us?" (we don't) and "If you don't fix this you are in big trouble!" (what else is new!) She finally showed us her problem. She went to her desktop, double-clicked on a Windows shortcut and got a Windows error. "See!" she said indignantly, "It does that every time!" After pausing for a moment, I said "Umm, you aren't in the ERP system? What is that shortcut supposed to do?" She looked bewildered, then said "What's a shortcut?" OK, obviously I wasn't going to get anything else useful from her!

The shortcut pointed to a file located on the shared file server. That file wasn't at the location specified in the shortcut. The user said "It always worked before". We now started a search of the file server to see if we could find the file - and we also began questioning other users about the file.

Eventually, we pieced together the answer. The missing file was an Excel report created by a batch job in the ERP system. That job is manually run on the third Monday of every month by another accounting clerk in a different department. She was sick on Monday. Her manager had submitted the job, and had run the job with incorrect inputs and the job had failed. Since the job was written to first delete the old file then create the new file - well, you can guess the rest...

That batch job had been written by a developer who had left. The accounting department ran the job but they had no idea what the job was supposed to do. An IT tech had created the desktop shortcut to the report many years ago because the accounting clerk kept forgetting how to open the Excel report. She had no idea what the shortcut was for, all she knew was that she was supposed to double-click on that icon on her desktop on the third Tuesday of every month. True story!

Executive eMail
My second story moves up to the top of the food chain to a CEO. You really can't get any more low-tech than this senior executive. Can you imagine someone in business today who doesn't use a computer at all? No email, no web - nothing. Oh, you can send the CEO an email, and you may even get a response - but the CEO didn't use a computer or Blackberry or any other electronic device to do it. Here's the process used by an industry leader running a $2B+ company:
  • An email arrives at the CEO's inbox.
  • One of the CEO's two Executive Admins located at the corporate office opens the email and prints it out.
  • The printed emails are then delivered to the CEO - and since the CEO is often traveling, the printed pages are usually delivered via overnight shipping to wherever the CEO happens to be. If the Admin determines it is an urgent message, the email may be faxed to the CEO, or even read over the telephone.
  • The CEO receives the stack of printed emails and hand writes a response on each page. It is not unusual to see her reading and writing responses during meetings.
  • The stack of responses is shipped back to the corporate office via overnight mail.
  • One of the CEO's Executive Admins reads the handwritten response and types and sends a reply email.
  • You receive your reply "from" the CEO.
The number of things wrong with this picture are simply mind-boggling. That quick note you sent to the CEO resulted in a piece of paper being flown across the country and back again! So much for email being a greener alternative to the paper memo! Did you really believe the confidential email you sent the CEO was private? Guess again - it was also read by at least one Executive Admin and whoever else handled the printed email and the written response. Did you think sending an email might get the information to the CEO quickly? Nope - your email is subject to the whims of the shipping companies - and the location of the CEO and the weather along the route. But even more than these practical aspects - this is just wrong - a low-tech zone has been created around the CEO like a protective bubble. The rest of the world is rushing forward to make electronic communications faster, more secure and full of rich media - but this CEO is pretending that the technology clock has stood still since 1978.

What chance did an IT professional have in a company run by this CEO? How could an ERP upgrade or an increase in data bandwidth be explained such that this senior executive would understand the importance and impact to the company? The answer is 1) none, and 2) you can't. True story!

Trust me - these two stories are just the tip of the iceberg. I think I'll save the rest for future posts - this garden is simply too fertile to harvest all at one time.

There are plenty of corporate IT stories about silly users on the web. But why? The personal computer has now been around for 30+ years. My 90 year old father reads email and can use a laptop touchpad well enough to play solitaire. And yet, there are still professional employees in large corporations who avoid technology whenever possible and see absolutely no reason why they need to do anything differently than they did before some IT geek placed a PC on their desk. Is this only a phenomenon of the low-tech business? No, of course not - but in my experience a company that has a large number engineers & scientists has much less tolerance for this kind of nonsense. There were plenty of challenges for an IT professional working in a company full of techies, but at least I never had to worry that my users didn't know how to use a mouse.

So, call me a typical arrogant IT geek - but if you were able to logon to your computer, start your browser and read this story, then it's a good chance I'm probably NOT talking about you!

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