Phil Factor on how to get through the sandstorm of waffle that blows over the desert of the IT industry.
Should IT managers understand technical issues, or is a full appreciation of the technology somehow unworthy and unnecessary for senior staff? In such a rapidly changing industry where fortunes are made and lost by attempting to exploit gaps in the market too thin to see with the naked eye, the answer would seem obvious. However, I have repeatedly come across amazing gaps in the technical knowledge of managers.
Developers, programmers and designers tend to be deeply geeky types, immersed in the minutiae of the technology. In stark contrast, many IT managers appear to have difficulty working the remote controls on their television. This cultural gap between the foot soldier and officer classes of the IT industry can have interesting consequences. It can also, of course, be exploited. I have done so several times in my career. Sometimes, it’s essential to find ways of bypassing the management level in order to find out what’s really going on…
I once suddenly found myself appointed to be the IT director of a City of London company developing internet-based trading systems. Like many such appointments, it was rather a suicide mission. I arrived at a crisis point: a sizable part of the IT effort had been outsourced to a software house that didn’t seem to be delivering. After going through the paperwork, I asked the CEO to delay announcing my appointment as IT director for a week whilst I investigated. I gave him a brief outline of what I planned to do, which while broadly accurate was slightly economical with the truth. Once he understood my strategy, he gave out a vague and minor announcement that I’d “joined the company”.
I was determined to tell no lies, but merely to encourage the wrong assumptions. Borrowing an old car from my secretary’s daughter, and wearing a shabby suit that I was using for gardening, I made a visit to the software house, explaining that I’d started work for the company and wanted to get up to speed on what they were developing for us. I stuck a row of biros in my jacket pocket, put a notepad under my arm, and shambled in to meet them. Their office was one of those strange glass constructions near Staines, beloved of IT companies. The MD, looking immaculate in charcoal grey with gold specs, nodded distantly at me, his lips curling in a slight grimace of contempt, and hurriedly passed me on to an amiable programmer. I didn’t see the MD again, or any other supervisory staff, which suited me just fine.
We talked happily for a couple of hours about the intricacies of messaging in a distributed environment, and the architecture of the application that they were writing. The programmer then ran through the work that had been done – and they hadn’t done very much. Considering the man-hours they’d charged for, things just didn’t seem to add up.
Over a rather uninspiring canteen lunch of machine tea and egg sandwiches, he waxed garrulous, and I responded at my cynical and jaundiced best. We reminisced about the ups and downs of a career in IT and swapped tales of our years spent in front of terminals. Suddenly he was singing like a canary, and leaking like a sieve.
He explained how the expensive database designer for whose services we were paying was actually just a friend of the MD’s wife who was doing a Maths postgraduate project. It was her first database. Although we were being charged for the full-time services of five programmers, the team of three were being constantly pulled away to do other work.
What I was hearing confirmed what I had begun to suspect earlier: the expenses bore no relation to reality, and the project was likely to slip disastrously. After a short while, I’d heard enough. No triumph, just sadness and revulsion. I tried to steer the conversation back to safe technological topics, but once he had started, he was like the Ancient Mariner who “stoppeth one of three'” to tell his epic tale. I discovered that the technical platform was chosen because the MD’s chum had just got the dealership for the hardware. Also, that they had taken open source modules that specifically forbade free commercial use and had deleted all copyright and authorship messages. They’d then charged us as if they’d been written for us.
And so it went on. Like the Ancient Mariner he had to get the whole story out to assuage the guilt-by-association he felt. It was just rather unfortunate for the miscreants that I, the IT Director of the company they were defrauding, was the “one of three” that he stopped.
What happened next is tangential to point I’m making, which is that the only way to get through the sandstorm of waffle that blows over the desert of the IT industry is to talk technical to technically competent people. And that, once talking at the technical level, the truth will out. Suffice it to say that the information blurted out to me proved to be entirely true, and extraordinarily useful to know. I confess that I will cherish the memory of the look I saw on the face of the MD of the software company when he walked into my office, with his hand held out in hearty welcome, to “meet the new IT Director”. I must admit, too, to savouring the process of introducing him to our corporate legal team.
Phil Factor (real name withheld to protect the guilty), aka Database Mole, has 20 years of experience with database-intensive applications. Despite having once been shouted at by a furious Bill Gates at an exhibition in the early 1980s, he has remained resolutely anonymous throughout his career.