% fortune -ae paul murphy

Discussing corruption

As a consultant I've been asked for kickbacks a couple of times, but the overwhelming majority of the corruption I encounter among IT people is simple venality: agreeing with the guy you report to (or the people who control the local IT market) on something you know is against the interests of the organization paying both of you.

Even the simple stuff, however, quickly devolves into shades of grey when you look at actual cases. Thus the classic Nurenberg defense: following orders; seems perfectly adequate to cover contra-indicated actions taken as a regular part of your job, but the corollary about obeying those orders only when you don't know they're morally and legally wrong can kick in very quickly.

What, for example, should a fairly junior sysadmin, personally a Linux user, do when ordered to replace the OS and applications on twenty racks of Wintel servers with Red Hat equivalents if he knows that the order results from the boss's amorous adventures with a Red Hat Consulting representative?

Look at a few real situations like this -and particularly the claims and counterclaims about nearly everybody else's venality that go with a long term project collapsing into a blizzard of legal filings- and I guarantee you that you'll soon be longing for the clarity you get with things like the traditional freezer full of cash or Holder's use of his office to quash ACORN and voter intimidation prosecutions.

One example I've been thinking about recently is subtle, but carries a moral I thought worth sharing - it's about a decent guy who simply didn't know what he was getting into.

This guy (and like all my imaginary stories I've changed all the facts here except for the facts) has something over thirty years of "progressively more senior" IT experience that started as a COBOL programmer right out of college. In his penultimate job he was in charge of a fairly decent sized IT group babysitting a couple of z9s, the usual business applications clusters, and the thousands of pieces of wintel and PC networking junk that bigger organizations seem to accumulate.

But then he became a consultant, a senior "rent a manager" kind of guy who would (or so he was told) pop into a company or government group for a month or two at a time to straighten things out or keep them on track while they replaced some dearly departed. As he told me at the time, he wasn't getting along that well with his wife, his kids have teenagers, and the freedom he saw in the lifestyle had appeal.

Four assignments and nearly a year later he found himself between rocks and hard places. On the positive side he'd found hotel living rather less fun than expected and was working at strengthening his bonds to home and family, but when he talked about the job every second word was about some moral dilemma or other.

What had really happened, of course, was that it had taken him three clients to wake up to the obvious: his employers didn't see his job as providing services to clients, they saw his job as providing services to them through the sale of their products and services to those clients.

It was the third assignment that did it - his employers asked him to introduce and sell as the permanent IT manager an individual he believes had engaged in serious fraud a couple of jobs back and had since been traded around from one job to another by people whose primary concern has been to leverage loyalty to the same large hardware and services vendor he usually bought from for their own benefit.

According to him, he did the job; with success if no enthusiasm; got a couple of weeks off at the end, and then went to his fourth assignment with his eyes opened to the real nature of his employer's expectations and a deep personal commitment to sending out resumes.

Since then he's been benched for several months - with no new assignments, no job offers, and a pretty direct hint from the guy he reports to that employers who turn down his resume for interviews aren't going to buy him as a high priced trouble shooter either.

Now he's unhappy and unproductive, both unable to work in his field and unwilling to step out of it - but the moral of the story is, I think, quite clear: he should have terminated the relationship as soon as he understood it, because getting along by going along with moral corruption is a metastatic process: like a cancer, you either cut it out on detection, or it eventually kills you.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.