Tuesday, August 11, 2009

High-Tech Worker In A Low-Tech Company, Part Three - The Final Chapter

My good friend Billy Shakespeare dressed weird, but he really knew how to string words together. I sometimes wonder what he would think of blogs, facebook and twitter. I suspect he would have made some hilarious youtube videos. But I digress...

This is the third installment in the continuing remembrances of a high-tech worker in a low-tech company. The first and second chapters were very fun to write, and I hope they were just as fun to read. I suspect this will be the last episode in this theme for a while. As time goes by, the memories (and my brain cells in general) of that period are fading, and quite frankly, I'm simply ready to move on and put that horrendous experience where it belongs - swirling down into the cesspool of my past.

But that's the bad news. The good news is that I *do* have a third episode for your consideration. First, the standard disclaimer:

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, I present the finale to this trilogy:

Doing Nothing *Is* Sometimes The Best Move
The Accounting processes used by corporations can be a bit complex - and that's why they spend millions of dollars to purchase and maintain expensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, and also why they often have large staffs of trained accounting clerks whose sole job is to use the ERP system to perform the transactions for purchasing, order entry, accounts payable, accounts receivable and all the other financial processes needed to run a $2B+ public company.

Or, you could do what my company did...

The primary requirement to be a member of our accounting staff seemed to be the inability to have any desire to learn. These departments included some of the longest tenured employees in the company - including several people with over 30 consecutive years working at the same jobs. I would like to be able to say that this long experience made them valuable members of their departments - but alas, I can't. What it did was make them completely impervious to any attempts to train them on changes to the systems and processes they used every day. We once needed to make a significant change to the ERP system that included several changes to the processes used by the Purchasing department. As part of this project, we partnered with an extremely experienced group of consultants who were experts in the ERP software we used. One of the first steps in the project was to have the Purchasing department step us through all of their key processes and use the existing ERP system to demonstrate what they did on a daily basis.

During one of these sessions, a Purchasing clerk was going through her operations and came to a step that involved submitting a job to be processed and then waiting for it to complete before moving on to the next step. After the job ran, she started to move to the next step, when one of the consultants suddenly said: "Wait - can you please go back and open the log file from the job you just ran?" The Purchasing clerk had a bewildered look on her face and said "What?" After explaining exactly what the consultant wanted the clerk to do, a file was shown on the screen that contained only one line of text. The consultant said: "That's what I thought, you don't need to run that job, it doesn't do anything." The Purchasing clerks (and their manager) were completely befuddled.

The consultant then went on to explain: "Look at the line in that file. It says 'No records found.' That means that job didn't actually do anything. That is exactly what it should say, because that job doesn't need to be run - it is useless." The Purchasing clerk then said: "But I always run that job, that's the way we've been doing it for years." But, she had absolutely no idea why she had been told to run that job, or what she thought it was supposed to do - all she knew was that it was step #10 in the process and she had been doing this dozens of times a day, every day, for 10 years. If we had not needed to make the system changes, she would *still* be running that job. True story!

Be Prepared!
Has there ever been a medical event as completely oversold by the media as the H1N1 Swine Flu? According to the news reports, we were on the brink of a disaster the likes of which had not been seen since the Black Death. Luckily for the human species, the wildfire has not materialized. In fact, to put the H1N1 pandemic into perspective, the CDC says that in a typical year approximately 36,000 people in the US die from flu-related causes - this is for ALL types of flu. To date, 320 cases of H1N1 have resulted in death in the US - much lower than many other strains of flu. Hmm - that doesn't quite sound like the level of mass carnage the media prepared us for during night after night of hyperbole.

Don't get me wrong - I'm very happy that the disaster has not materialized, and I'm all for the CDC making sure we are fully informed - even if the press completely misinterprets the data and turns it into a hype circus. But, the folks in leadership positions at large corporations are smart enough to cut through the BS and focus on the facts, right?

Then there's the company I worked for...

In the midst of the H1N1 media frenzy, I received an email from one of the mindless butt-kissers that was also my peer in middle management. The email wanted to know if we had developed an emergency IT response plan for the Swine Flu. Emergency IT response plan? WTF? Why would a company that runs restaurants need an "emergency IT response plan" for the Swine Flu? What was this, a scene from Andromeda Strain?

Now, let me be clear, the company operated and franchised restaurants. Those restaurants were essentially autonomous - the franchised restaurants could operate indefinitely without any support from the corporate office, and even the company operated restaurants could (and did) easily operate for days or even weeks without any IT support from corporate. But, apparently, a couple of attention whores in the corporate "risk management" department decided this would be a perfect opportunity to boost their own careers by capitalizing on the media hysteria surrounding H1N1. Like Alexander Haig, they wanted to assure the people that "they would be in control" during this time of crisis.

In my 25+ year career, I had never heard of ANY company having an "emergency IT response plan" for an outbreak of the flu. What's my plan? Well, how about this - we tell people to wash their hands and we muddle through with a short staff for a couple of weeks until the flu passes. There - I'm done. But (of course) it was even worse than this.

Apparently, this was not the first time the "risk management" boys had played this game. They had previously responded the same way during the "Avian Flu" outbreak, and they had actually convinced the IT management to prepare an "emergency IT response plan" specifically for an Avian Flu disaster. It should now be pointed out that since 2003 there have been ~300 confirmed deaths from Avian Flu *worldwide*, and *NONE* in the US. Whew - I'm glad those risk management experts are protecting our company from these disasters!

Good grief - this company had been experiencing declining sales for several years and was bleeding cash while executing a never-ending series of failed marketing campaigns. BUT - they were ready with a plan for how the IT department was going to respond in case 25% of their staff got the chills and diarrhea! True story!

I have no deep-meaning lesson to convey from these two stories. In my humble opinion, these were simply stupid people who were tolerated (and promoted) by equally clueless corporate leadership. I believe it is every thinking human being's duty to expose stupidity. I know it can never be eradicated - but it also should never be tolerated. As Bill Engval says: "Here's your sign."

This trilogy of business brainlessness has been fun - and very cathartic. But at the same time, it makes me incredibly frustrated and sad. Every one of the primary characters in the six stories I have presented is still gainfully employed in the same positions they held at the time I had the misfortune to work with them. As you read this, I'm sure they are merrily committing random acts of idiocy and making some other reasonably intelligent coworker do additional work in order to correct the senseless stupidity. My sympathies go out to those poor souls - I feel your pain!

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Only Constant Is Change

My father recently celebrated his 90th birthday. That in itself is a phenomenal achievement, but when you consider that he suffered his first massive heart attack in 1975, you begin to understand just what kind of amazing accomplishment this is. After a quadruple bypass, implanted pacemaker/defibrillator, angioplasty, titanium hip replacement, spinal discectomy and double cataract surgery - he has had more technology put into his body than went into the Dell laptop I'm using to type this post.

My father was born in 1919. Holy time warp - think about the things that did NOT yet exist in 1919. For example, here's just a random smattering of items that do NOT include many of the really HUGE events of this time period:

And that's only the first 20 years! Senior citizens often say that "everything changes so fast now" - but I disagree - I believe the world has *always* changed, and further, it has *always* changed quickly and dramatically - at least since the industrial revolution began in the late 19th century. There is no doubt that the spread of changes around the world is much faster now - our very quick worldwide communications and transportation systems have enabled that rapid spread to occur. However, just because my father was not aware of Robert Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket flight until several years after it occurred did not prevent that event from initiating huge changes to our society that ultimately led to Alan Shepard orbiting the Earth in a Mercury capsule in 1961. I claim that world-changing events have almost always been happening at a rapid rate - we are simply putting them into the common knowledge base much sooner now than we did in the past.

One of the great challenges of my entire adult life has been attempting to explain to my father what I do for a living. Even back in my aerospace engineering days, he really had no idea what an engineer working for a big defense contractor like Lockheed or Northrop actually did every day to earn a paycheck. My father was a farmer and lived on a farm his entire life. He once asked me "Why do you still need to come up with new things for airplanes? Hasn't everything already been invented?" Wow - that one made me pause. How could I explain the endless ways in which new requirements change yesterday's design, or how even small increments in technology could provide new capabilities that could not previously be accomplished, or made reliable, affordable, etc. But when I compare the changes between, for example, the airplane of 1919, with the airplane of 1939, I see MUCH more change than when I compare the airplane of 1989 with the airplane of 2009. In fact, many of the airplanes built in 1989 are still in service today - and the same could probably not be said in 1939 for airplanes built in 1919!

Electronics and computer technology have certainly changed the world. But, can you honestly say those technologies have changed the world MORE than the electric lightbulb or the internal combustion engine or the airplane? I claim no - computers have NOT.

Humans have an incredibly short time frame of reference. We think 100 years ago is a lifetime (and of course it is - in human lives!). But as I discussed in the previous post on our much more successful ancestor H. Habilis, we are barely a blip in the anthropological time scale - never mind the geologic or galactic time scale. But attempting to think along the scale of eons forces our human brains to eliminate the details - we are forced to abstract the timeline such that only scientists such as paleontologists, geologists, etc can do better than "time before the dinosaurs", "time during the dinosaurs" and "time after the dinosaurs". Our puny brains have a terrible time visualizing and understanding anything that can't be measured by our own 5 senses.

But, I really wasn't intending to veer off into the murky subject of our place in the cosmos. Suffice it to say that I follow the Douglas Adams view: "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." We should remember that when we start thinking our own pitiful few years of existence are really critically important.

*IF* I have a 90th birthday, it will be in 2051 - 42 years from now. How much will the world change in the next 42 years? Unlike most pronostigators, I will say both sides of the coin are true - the world will change hardly at all AND the world will also change dramatically. I won't try to make specific predictions. The science fiction world is littered with the evidence of the underachievement of human beings. Remember the campy TV show "Space: 1999"? How's that moon base coming along? And "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Don't even get me started. But, absolutely no one predicted a worldwide, internet-based retail ecommerce industry or even internet porn prior to the introduction of the affordable personal computer. I have no idea what the next 42 years will bring!

What I do know is that my grandchildren will think I am a fossil who simply can't comprehend the world of 2051, and they will also be unable to visualize the ancient world of 1961. At the same time, my children will see the world of 2051 as not all THAT different from their childhood in the late 1990s & early 21st century. That ongoing dichotomy is somehow comforting...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Church Of The Corporate Ladder

It's time to take the gloves off. At the request of a few friends who shall remain nameless (cough *gutless* cough) this diatribe is going to be a bit edgy and address one of the verboten subjects of polite conversations - religion. (pause for collective gasp from the blogosphere) No, I'm not going to debate the relative merits of snake-handling versus self-mortification, I want to talk about the hypocrisy of devout religious zealots who also happen to be part of corporate leadership.

So, first, I'll apologize - if you are a very religious person, you may find some of my comments offensive. Please recognize that I'm not attacking your religion - I am attacking the hypocrites who proudly proclaim their religious beliefs, but are also willing to take out anyone by any means necessary to further their own corporate careers. I freely admit that I am NOT a religious person - 8 years of parochial school saw to that - but I hold no animosity towards anyone who actually lives the teachings of their chosen religion. However, if you are just a wolf using your religion to ambush your opponents - then I suspect your God has a special section of the everlasting fire waiting for your @ss.

Religious corporate leaders really are a strange bunch. I have a hard time understanding how plotting and scheming the downfall of your opponents and your own rise up the corporate ladder fits in with God's divine plan. I absolutely understand how it might fit with the person's master plan. Let's look at the advantages the outwardly religious person might have in the corporate game.

First, there is the obvious - the ability to maintain a holier-than-thou attitude over everyone else in the room. *They* know the *right* thing to do, and anyone who disagrees is clearly aligned with Satan. Maintaining a pious and angelic look on their face is very important in order to pull this off. Of course, there is no outward condemnation of the non-believing heathens in the meeting, but a gentle "I'm not comfortable with the moral ramifications of this approach" is more than enough to get their point across.

They also have the advantage of holding everyone else to a higher standard than they themselves actually operate. They can hamstring their opponents by working behind the scenes on evil plans while constantly pointing out and being outraged at any less than divine actions taken by their foes. This continually puts everyone else on the defensive and makes them less likely to attempt their own initiatives for fear that their plans will not meet the moral standards set for everyone except the devout.

Look at one example - let's say in a fit of frustration you send an email to a co-worker complaining about the latest underhanded trick pulled by the resident religious hypocrite. In that email you drop a few f-bombs and point out a few shortcomings in the hypocrite's genetics. If that email were to somehow make it's way to one of the religious corporate leaders (even if it is not the actual target of your wrath) the outrage and retribution will be swift and overwhelming. You will be accused of being "vulgar" and of having morals lower than a crack whore. It won't matter if you have heard many others (including other religious hypocrites) using the same language or expressing the same sentiment - YOU are now the unclean, heathen outcast who will be declared an evil person by EVERYONE who fears they may someday be the target of the Holy Rollers.

I have absolutely no problem with a company being run according to a set of strict religious beliefs - as long as the rules apply to everyone on an equal basis. I may not choose to work there - but anyone who does knows and accepts the culture. What I cannot stomach is the hypocrisy of a company's leadership that pretends to adhere to strict rules - but only when it suits them, or when they know other people are looking.

I wish I knew of a suitable defense against this particular type of slimy corporate toad. However, I really don't have an answer. The best I can come up with is to simply get as far away from that company as quickly as you can. The senior executives CAN minimize the issue - by simply ignoring the sermons and being willing to tell the devout ladder climber to go pound sand. The only thing the halo-wearing scumbags will respond to is realization that their current path does not get them to the next rung of the ladder. However, if the senior executives lack the spine to stand up and tell the righteous reptiles to knock it off, you are screwed and you need to get out before you are branded with a scarlet letter.

It's been said many times that some of the greatest evil has been committed in the name of religion. I would probably modify that statement to say "in the misuse of religion." There's nothing inherently wrong with the vast majority of religions. If they help you get through the day, great. But when religion is used as a political tool for your own benefit, you are a bloated toad who should be skewered on your own pious pitard.

So - how about it? Do you know a particular jackass that claims to be an elder in his/her church, yet is not above bald faced lies and unethical behavior in order to advance their own career? I would like to hear your story of how a religious hypocrite screwed you over during their rise to divine status in the Church of the Corporate Ladder. Leave me some comments!