The Challenge

In which Phil is challenged to organize a concerted beer drinking session in an establishment dedicated to beer manufacture.

“Look here, Phil”, said the Editor, “we’ve had some emails of …er… complaint from some of our American readers. They say they can’t understand a word you say. They come to the site for tips on setting up high-availability databases, advice on making backups from clusters, that sort of thing, and here you are rattling on about Pubs, Cockney Slang, Gothic cloisters, village fetes in the Shires, and Essex men.”

“But it’s the reality of my life!” Phil squeaked protestingly.

“And another thing, let’s have no more of these subtle literary parodies either, or your P.G. Wodehouse impressions”

“I say, dash it!”

“No, Phil, it is time to be relevant and contemporary.”

Jon was a quiet, almost introverted DBA who lurked largely unnoticed in the IT Systems department, tending Oracle databases for procuring materials that were needed to assemble prototypes. One Friday afternoon, he returned, rather flushed, from a liquid lunch at the Old Nag, a delightful nearby country pub run by a toothless crone with a knack for laying down good beer. Jon had, it seems, injudiciously and uncharacteristically, consumed four pints of a rich Stout called Mauldon’s Blackadder. He burst into the office with noisy bonhomie and, before we could restrain him, lurched next-door into the Facilities Department, and proceeded to flirt outrageously with a secretary called Sharon, before the full force of the beer kicked in and he hurriedly retired to the toilets for the duration of the afternoon (Ed: Phil, is there any chance this yet another story about pubs and beer?)

Sharon’s manager, a moody middle-aged Scotsman called Wilson, took the incident badly. He lectured me, as Jon’s manager, on Jon’s lapse as if it were I who had done the fell deed. He threatened the ‘nuclear option’ of reporting Jon to the universally loathed HR department. Fortunately, Sharon took pity on Jon, and was also rather flattered by his attentions, so she refused to make a complaint. Wilson subsided into snide remarks about the inability of effete IT people to hold their drink. The banter between the two departments became edgy.

Things came to a head at an inter-departmental meeting. We had perhaps been a bit careless with the installation of a new database costing system and were receiving a wrathful lecture from Wilson on our incompetence, lack of coordination and general poor hygiene. We were taking our reprimand in mute acceptance when Wilson suddenly banged the table and shouted:

“You and your f___ IT Department couldn’t organise a pissup in a brewery!”

(Ed: “pissup” is some sort of cockney slang forconcerted drinking session”. This really is mainly about beer again isn’t it, Phil?)

He had gone too far. I stood up abruptly and, adopting my best ‘Lee Van Cleef’ posture (difficult for one as well fed as I), barked back:

“Just name the day!!”

“Next Friday!” snapped Wilson, barely flinching.

There was a hiss, caused by a sharp intake of breath around the table. Hastily, I reverted to wobbling my jowls like Orson Wells:

“But, but, now hold on…that only gives us a week….”

Catching the malicious gleam in Wilson’s eyes, I quickly regained my composure, smiled confidently, and sealed the deal. The Facilities managers stood up and marched proudly out of the room in unison, followed rather more hesitantly by the development team.

The IT Director, who had been present throughout, immediately cornered me in his office. “Getting a bit above yourself there weren’t you, Phil? You’ve put the honor of the department at stake. I’ll have to involve our best people.”

“Look, I got us into this. Just leave it to me….”

“No, no. I said ‘Best people’, our ‘A’ team. I want one of our young graduate hot-shots to show his mettle”. I gave him my “Van-Cleef death stare” and left him to it.

He rallied the troops and the whole IT department became a flurry of activity. Over the course of the next few days, strategy documents and positioning papers about the impending event flew back and forth over email. There was much talk of ‘we must do x y or z’ or ‘there is a need for a, b and c’. By Tuesday, while nobody could decide who should actually do the work, at least we had some impressive lists of tasks, resources and timelines.

The next morning I opened my inbox and quickly realized that the early enthusiasm was waning. I had mails from several developers stating that the timescales were simply “impossible”. To complete the project to any standard would require moving the delivery date out by “at least six weeks”. The strategists were in general agreement, though they suggested that with a tweak to the project scope – arranging the piss up in a hotel rather than brewery – it may just be possible to complete the project within two weeks. The sysadmins, sceptical from the start, washed their hands of the whole thing and refused to help in any way. All agreed that their current workload made any real contribution from them impossible.

By midday on Thursday, with a mere 24 hours to go, the recriminations and infighting began, with more or less everybody trying to disassociate themselves from the project.

I strolled over to the IT director’s office. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked casually.

“Fine” he muttered, though his ashen face and middle-distance stare told the real story.

“It is a shame that I’m not in your A team.” I started. “…because I just happen to be great friends with the head brewer, Bob, of our local  brewery. We play in a jazz band together. And he owes me a big favor.”

“Well, coincidentally”, said the IT director, sporting a sudden ingratiating smile “a position just happens to have become vacant as the head of our A-team!”

“Just call me Hannibal…”

I picked up the phone at 2.30PM and by 4.30PM everything was in place. I even called in a favour with our Financial Controller and persuaded him to write the entire event off as a “team-building exercise”. At 5PM I composed an email to the Facilities and Development teams inviting them on a “tour of the manufacturing facilities of a small local business” at midday the next day. I clicked send and slipped quietly out of the office.

At the allotted hour the next day, a gleaming coach arrived to take us to the brewery. Even now, I glow with pride upon recalling the open-mouthed surprise of, well, everybody (though on later reflection most of IT came to the idea that their contribution had been vital).

For half an hour, Bob the Brewer gave the group an expert tour around the glorious East Anglian brewery, amongst the mahogany and stainless steel. The tour ended in the packing shed where two pipkins of beer were set out, with lots of pint glasses. Bob led the Facilities men towards one of the pipkins and the IT department were encouraged to try the other. I suspect that I may have absent-mindedly specified an eight-percent beer for the facilities people and a mild summer-weight brew of scarcely four percent for IT.

Although the party started off in a rather restrained fashion, it soon became extraordinarily lively, ending in lengthy ribald singing about some Eskimo lady with a dubious past. There was some difficulty in getting the Facilities men back onto the bus, not only due to their inebriation, but also their insistence in smuggling the remainder of their pipkin of beer onto the coach, in case of a sudden thirst on the trip.

I was quietly mulling over the days’ success on the homeward journey, travelling next to the driver on the coach, when I was surprised to see that a car with flashing lights and klaxon was overtaking us. It flagged us down. Surely, they hadn’t heard the festive noises coming from the back of the coach?

I won’t go in to all the details of what transpired, but suffice to say that, in later years, Wilson was able to offer the following sage advice to his grandchildren: If, at any time, you feel tempted to moon (Ed: expose one’s bottom) to traffic out of the rear window of a coach, try to make sure that one of the following cars isn’t an unmarked police car.

Despite this, the event was acknowledged by all to be a grand occasion. Jon and Sharon held hands on the way back, and muttered sweet nothings to each other, a symbol of the new spirit of harmony and good-will between the two departments. There were no more jokes about the IT Departments inability to hold their drink, and IT was never again accused of being unable to organise a pissup in a brewery.

“Well, what do think?” asked Phil, proudly “I took to heart all of your advice and this is what popped out…”

“Phil, call me over-sensitive, but… did you really listen to a word I said? This is mainly about beer, cockney slang and Essex again, isn’t it?”

“No, no…well, yes, it might have slipped out here and there…but it also has meaningful and relevant things to say about the dynamics of IT departments, and honest advice to give about the need to maintain strong personal networks in order to succeed in IT…and besides, I have a poetic license don’t I?

[Sighing wearily] “Yes, yes, I suppose you do. Let’s run with it…”