The Whipping Boy

Talented and highly-valued IT professional or convenient corporate whipping boy? Phil Factor walks the line...

Have you ever been given cause to ponder your true role within a company? Phil Factor has…

When working in IT, one often makes erroneous assumptions about one’s role – assumptions that are not borne out by experience. Like a dog that mistakenly believes his true role in life is to rush up and down the garden fence barking furiously, I have always foolishly assumed my true role in an organisation to develop IT systems that meet their needs.

One experience particularly sticks in my memory. I started work at a small start-up telecommunications company, at a time when the data-side of the enterprise was seriously deranged. The company had been a startling success and usage of their service for making phone-calls had shot up. It had all been too sudden, and the small, inexperienced IT department were bewildered by the demands being placed on them. They were producing invoices for their customers but little else. Corporate management was defined by the sort of instinctive, high adrenaline, caffeine-fuelled style that I dub the Smouldering Underpants technique.

The IT director was a charming, urbane Indian who read poetry constantly, and smiled sweetly whenever possible, which was not often. When I first met him, I was slightly puzzled by the way his eyes lit up as I walked into the interview room. I have to admit that I assumed at the time that he had somehow instinctively recognised my splendid abilities where so many had not. Now, I’m not so sure.

On my appointment as ‘team leader’ in the department, I was shown into the open-plan office. The team, who were tenderly referred to by the IT director as “My Boys”, gazed with frightened eyes from behind their terminals, like small feral creatures spotting a potential carnivore. I soon realized that his was due in no small part to the MD’s habit of sporadically rushing into the IT department with his face flushed with righteous anger, gesticulating, and haranguing one of the poor IT staff for being an idle and incompetent.

Despite this atmosphere of palpable fear, I settled down to the work with gusto. My first task was to get live monitoring of the call traffic working as soon as possible, and tie up a number of loose ends. The salesmen weren’t being monitored properly, fraud couldn’t be tracked, and usage couldn’t be counter-checked. Even the production of monthly invoices, and therefore the revenues, was on a knife-edge.

I spent a wonderfully hectic few weeks getting an emergency system in place. I crawled around the data centre in the semi-darkness, looking for that vital serial port with the live traffic reports. I got a SQL Server system in place that succeeded in getting estimates of the costs and revenues on a daily basis, to check for fraudulent traffic, and to check the output of the billing system. I managed to wade through the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ source-code to the billing system, written in MS Access, and correct the most obvious mistakes.

The first time I was called into the MDs room, I thought it was so they could make a little speech of thanks, tearfully pat me on the shoulder, and shake my hand in gratitude. I was somewhat surprised to receive, instead, a glowering and grim-faced dressing down. The MD waved his hands excitedly and the IT director nodded soberly and looked suitably crushed. Various managers and visitors looked solemn. I did what all seasoned contractors do in the circumstances, which was to calculate, on the hourly rate, how much I was being paid to be there in the room. It never fails to cheer, especially if you visualise five-pound notes floating lazily down from the ceiling.

After the meeting, I apologized to the IT director for letting him down, though I admitted to not quite understanding how, or in what way, I’d done so. I offered to waive my notice period if he wanted to be rid of me. He was horrified and begged me to stay. To mollify me, he showed me his holiday snaps from visiting his parents in India, and even read me one of his own poetic compositions.

The IT department was a shambles and the working day of a DBA was defined by a frantic, desperate urgency. Management were snatching systems out of our hands before we could finish developing them. The sacred division between development and production ceased to exist in the scrabble to keep things afloat and get that vital information. I remember literally running down the corridor grasping the latest report.

Despite my best efforts, however, my mauling at the hands of the MD proved not to be a one-off. I’d be summoned and, as soon as I stepped into the room, accused of all manner of professional inadequacies. I would never argue. I would just adopt a vaguely contrite demeanour and drift off into my usual reverie of working out how much they were paying me in order to harangue me. The IT director would look solemn and agree with the MD with discreet nods of his head. After the meeting he would be paradoxically friendly, and appreciative of my efforts. The only upside to this, I noticed, was that the MD no longer practiced his bizarre and distasteful incursions into the IT department to harangue the team over their shortcomings.

I soon realized, moreover, that the theatrical aspect of my dressing-downs was much more pronounced when visitors or particular directors, or managers, were in the room. It slowly dawned on me that I was being used as a ritual ‘ whipping boy’ for all the sins of IT. Of course, this being an IT business, I was effectively the whipping boy for the whole enterprise. When royalty went to school, they were not free from punishment. However, in view of their exalted rank, the punishments were carried out not on the little princes of princesses but on poor surrogate children whose job was to accompany the royal scholar and receive random and unjustified punishments in their place. As the pay and conditions were, for the most part, good there were no shortages of volunteers.

Once I understood my role, I hammed it up a bit more, much to the delight of the MD and IT director. We would head off to a restaurant together after a session and the MD would buy us expensive meals in gratitude. He used this ‘whipping boy’ technique for impressing visiting shareholders, distracting prying government officials, withdrawing bonuses from the sales force, and sacking staff. Somehow, the targets of this neat psychological device, both visitors and staff, found it a huge comfort to see the representative of the IT department getting a dressing-down, with a look of suffering on his face.

Meanwhile, we continued the battle to get the relationship between the IT department and the business on a rational footing. We fought desperately to achieve order and rationality but as soon as we had determined the business structures and processes, management went and changed them. We knew what we wanted, but were forced to make compromises in the face of this grim every-day reality. And reality meant occasional glitches and bugs.

It all came to a head one day when I was summoned to the boardroom to be confronted by the MD, the IT director and a lot of Americans in sharp suits. The MD broke into his usual tirade, and we settled into our usual roles. Suddenly, however, the MD shouted “Phil, you’re fired!” I was mildly intrigued by the unusual passion in his voice and glanced at the IT director. He looked puzzled and alarmed. I shrugged and the meeting carried on.

After the meeting we met, in the usual way, at a French restaurant around the corner.

“Hey,” I said to the MD, “you were going a bit strong then. You had me worried for a moment.”

“Not a bit of it,” he protested “I meant it! It is about time we had a competent man in your position”.

The IT director looked at me like a drowning man. I knew instantly what was going through his mind: if I left, he would once more become the company’s whipping boy, the goat sacrificed as an atonement to appease the angry gods of commercial life. After a pause, in which all one could hear was the rattle of his teaspoon against the cup as he held the saucer in his trembling hand, the IT director spoke.

“Quite right of course, but it would make for a far better hand-over if Phil could work his notice and perhaps a little-bit longer”

The MD thought over the suggestion. The truth was that he had got over-excited by the importance of the occasion and had perhaps improvised too freely.

“What would you have in mind by a little bit longer“, he asked slowly.

“Well, things are very busy, and Phil would be hard to replace; perhaps we can leave it a bit vague…a month… a year maybe?”

“Excellent plan”, he snapped, “and we’ll give you due notice of course.” He then bought us a very nice meal.

After that, the usual routine was re-established with sporadic and theatrical dressing-downs in the boardroom interrupting what I believed was my real job: that of getting the IT department on a footing where it could grow to meet the requirements of the business.

Before I knew it the white-knuckle ride of this young telecommunications company had kept me busy for a year. I hadn’t really intended to stay that long and, finally, I’d had enough. As it happens, it was really not so much the conditions as the travelling that had worn me down. In any event, a better job offer came up and I took it.

I was worrying over how to break the news to the MD and IT director, when I was summoned once more to the board room. This time, when the MD waded into his usual hostile speech, I stood my ground and told him my viewpoint. I gave what I still believe to be a fair and frank assessment of the progress the department had made and the difficulties we’d operated under. I did not mince my words. The IT director backed away into a corner as if I were a dangerous grenade from which the pin had just been pulled. The MD’s face reached parts of the colour spectrum that I hadn’t realised were possible in a live human. When I’d finished, a tense silence filled the room. However, the angry “you’re fired” reaction that I was predicting failed to materialize. After a while, the MD’s colour returned, and he nodded soberly. In a flash, the other managers in the room picked up the altered zeitgeist of the meeting and nodded amongst themselves like a theatrical chorus.

We had been sipping our post-meeting cappuccinos in silence for a while when the MD suddenly announced that the IT director had, for some time, wanted to move to another part of the company…and offered me his job! With a rueful smile, I politely refused and announced my departure. They put up a spirited fight to try to persuade me to stay but I gritted my teeth and held firm.

Still, it made me wonder whether I’d misjudged the situation. A short while later, I walked out of the building for the last time, fortified by a most generous leaving party and clutching a book of poems, pressed into my hand by a moist-eyed IT director, and still unsure as to whether I had been loved for my IT skills, and team leadership abilities, or was merely a convenient and able Whipping Boy.