Smoke and Mirrors

It seems hard to imagine that a presentation on a new IT application to the directors can go too well. Phil doesn't need to imagine- it happened to him. He winces at the memory.

The directors of the Imperial Bank came into the room, taciturn and solemn, each of them accompanied by a young, brisk, charcoal-suited ‘minder’, a manager in gold-rimmed specs and neat hair. It immediately reminded me of the occasion, many years before, when I was persuaded to sing some songs, accompanied by a banjo, for the local Old Peoples Home.

No. These august gentlemen gave the impression that they ran more to dignity than brainpower. There is a popular myth, amongst those who have never worked in the corporate setting, that the higher up a company hierarchy one goes, the more clever and cultured the managers become, until at the very top one gets to meet a higher entity rather like the sentient beings from another planet one finds in fifties B Movies (‘My name? It is not important’, they invariably say when asked). As I had an uncle who ran one of Britain’s largest and most profitable companies for a while, I had no such illusions. He was jolly chap, the perfect company for a day out at the races, and one of my dearest relatives, but an intellectual lightweight.

‘Right’, I started, beaming at the assembled dignitaries, ‘I shall take you through the features of the new application’. This was a ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ presentation, a preview of how a new application was going to look. It was a crucial new initiative for the great bank, to provide telephone banking. I’d been appointed to design the application that would support the operation.

‘The customer phones in….”

I clicked on a button on the screen and a little animated phone bounced up and down slightly, and the computer gave a ring.

The minders frowned, shocked by the frivolity. The directors were suddenly fascinated. I paused to let the effect sink in.

“Ee’ Lad, answer it. Don’t keep him waiting”.

“No, actually it isn’t a real customer, I’m just showing how the system will work.”

He blinked in surprise.

“..so now I answer the call, and look, we’ve already recognised the CLI of the caller and got all his banking details and we’ve even taken a guess at what he’s likely to want from his previous phone calls.”

The screen showed an impressive form filled with lists, grids, images, and directories. Oh God, how I love designing these demonstration systems.

They goggled in wonder. “I knew it really was a customer!”

I ignored him.

“…and now we find out what the customer wants. If we’re stuck for words, a prompts appears on screen…”. They stared, as if hypnotised. They read the prompt, their lips moving slowly. They were hooked.

I blossom in front of an appreciative audience. I went through the carefully scripted presentation. The ‘Smoke and Mirrors demonstration had enough functionality to take one through a couple of typical scenarios. As I navigated through the banking procedures, the directors occasionally whistled in appreciation. I warmed to the task, like Widow Twankie before a lively matinee audience.

At the end, I paused for questions. The minders looked glum, since they felt that their charges had somehow slipped the leash. The directors twittered amongst themselves like excited schoolchildren on an outing. “Young man,” said one of them importantly. “I’ll be frank; we like what you’ve done. No one can accuse us of being indecisive. We’ll take it as it is. No point in shilly-shallying around. I’m a plain man and speak as I find”.

“Excuse me,” I said, suddenly panicked “It isn’t a completed system, just a demonstration of what the system will look like!”

“Aye, you’ll need to take them bugbears out lad.” Said one proudly, airing his IT knowledge; All his IT knowledge.

“We’ll also have to write it. What you saw was just a simulation of the planned application. There are months of work ahead.”.

They smiled like children being shown a card-trick. “That’s as maybe” one said, winking, “and you’ll no doubt be charging for consultancy too!”. He nodded knowingly at his fellow directors.

These guys could have done the voice-overs for a Wallace and Grommit film.

I explained at considerable length the process of creating an application by creating a series of simulations from which we could get all sorts of data including usability, hardening up on the look-and-feel until it reached the point that we could get the training and documenting started. Only at that point did we build a production quality system. (This was before ‘Agile’ was re-invented). They seemed to take it in, and nodded wisely, but I thought I detected an amused twinkle in their eyes.

It was all decided. We would build the system. When we were three months from release, we would invest in the expensive parts of the project such as buildings, training and staff.. The minders gravely took notes with gold biros.

One after another, the Directors left the presentation room, accompanied by their minders (we called them ‘dog-handlers’ in another international corporate I worked for). One director hung behind.

“Young man,” he said, for, compared with him, I was a stripling. “How do you get into this here consultancy lark? I tell you for why, my grandson is a genius with all this here Technology. How d’you set about it?”

“It is simple really; you just get good A levels, go to a good university, graduate in IT or Computer Science, and get a masters. Then you try to get a job, only to be told you’re over-qualified, too young, too middle-class and so on. Then you get told your skills aren’t current. Eventually you get a job, only to discover that your plumber charges more per hour”.

He looked disappointed. “Is there no other way? Our Eddie isn’t one of those scholars like, more of a practical turn, he is.”

“Well, no problem. He can just flunk all his exams, backpack around the world for a couple of years, and then create a completely bogus CV claiming experience in all the hot technologies. It works every time”

“OhAh”. He said thoughtfully. “There is brass to be made from technology, you mark my words.” Pause “Here,” he added conspiratorially, clutching my arm ” I’m doing a cracking deal which you might want to cut in on. Some foreign gent contacted my by email, don’t know how he got my address. Well evidently he has to get a whole lot of money out of his country like, and he came across my name and said to himself, there is a shrewd sort of chap who could help him out. All I have to do is to allow funds to be transferred to my bank account and….”

I had my mouth open to speak when I happened to catch the eye of the minder. He quietly shook his head, and ushered out the director, still burbling on about the profits to be made from the Internet.

A week later, I discovered that the directors of the bank had spent over ten million pounds buying a building to house the telephone banking operation. Recruitment and training was swinging into action. Somehow the message of my demonstration hadn’t quite got across. A message dropped into my inbox. The IT director wanted to see me urgently. The next few months would not be easy.