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!


  1. Somebody bumpped you off after the Aug 11 Blog post, eh?

  2. No! What kind of cynic would I be if I allowed myself to be censored? It's just a combination of being too busy and lack of a post-worthy topic. Eventually, a few neurons will bump into each other and I'll get a new idea. I do take suggestions...