% fortune -ae paul murphy

Scorpions, Frogs, and Trench Warfare

Sometime before history started this distribution company bought a proprietary database machine with software originated by a comparable business out of Detroit and then added to and modified by others - including both a financial software house and the hardware vendor. The system worked, the company prospered, and nobody really cared about IT except at budget time when all agreed the system cost too much and did too little.

But that was then; a long way closer to now the company acquired a new executive vice president, IT consultants recommended by the auditors, a customer logistics committee, and who knows how many other players and agendas all of which eventually birthed an effort to clear out the boring old IT stuff by ringing in commodity computing, exploding productivity, and ever decreasing cost.

Great! Except, every time they had the new stuff working; it didn't - and the solution always took time to find and money to implement: another FTE, more software licensing, more consulting, bigger racks, and new weaknesses in the company's ability to hold and defend its data.

So eventually different consultants appeared muttering into their collective beard about clustering and scalability and packet filtering and "automatic intelligent data verification" and who knows what other drivel whose net effect was to reduce listener resistance while achieving pretty much exactly nothing in terms of getting anything to actually work.

Eventually the CFO ran for his career and the person left holding the bag resurrected the former IT head in a new role: consultant, now representing the company he used to buy from. After considerable cogitation (and 18 fully billable days), this worthy opined that maybe the whole thing was a mistake and they should just get a shiny new exemplar of that same proprietary database machine from his employer, have him assist first in hiring a new IT head and then in moving the old software from the now long obsolete box still running the business, and finally forget the whole thing ever happened.

And that's just what they did -well, except for the "forget the whole thing" part. The formerly new executive vice president wasn't about to wear the horns for spending almost six years, and nearly thirty million in actual checks written, to cause 40% annual turnovers in purchasing, warehousing, and financial management while angering every customer they had, every supplier they bought from, and every trucker they used - no, all this was someone else's fault and by the time the company was done suing everybody in sight, it would be obvious to even the most benighted that he'd earned his promotion to the presidency through the pure brilliance of his efforts in keeping the company afloat through it all.

Now, this story is, of course, entirely fictitious -but on a personal basis I'd like to mention that even trying to imagine reviewing several inches of J'accuse, all in absurdly repetitive eight to ninty page clusters with cute little blue corners or other disfunctional fasteners, greatly decreases the will to live while giving rise to homicidal fantasies involving a lot -a lot- of screaming.

The company tried to hold the consultants and suppliers responsible, but I'm pretty sure the suppliers sold what they were asked to sell and that consultants hired for their flexible opinions did exactly what such consultants do - much like the scorpion in the story of the frog and the river.

So what really went wrong? I think the company put in place a person with a change agenda driven from a personal need to make bones - and that person not only decided to make that change by taking out a system that worked; but also decided in advance of any discussion and apparently mainly on the basis of drug store flyers and rumor, on the replacement technology.

Worse, senior management failed to stop it - none of them met their responsibilities in this context: not the former president, not the CFO, not the board: everybody knew the change wasn't working, everyone could see costs mounting and middle managers bailing out, but not a single one of them stood up for the company, its customers, its employees, or its shareholders.

That, I think, was the critical failure here: because this was a story of escalating commitment by a naked emperor - a story with a simple lesson: if the first million (or, in Pelosi's case trillion) leaves the kind of smelly hole you get from pulling down an in-use outhouse, everyone remotely involved has an absolute duty to scream in protest before the next millions get dumped down the sewer.

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.