I feel the need to précis the last three semi-connected diatribes before embarking on the fourth and closing chapter of the trilogy. You, dear reader, due to a series of horrendous administrative cock-ups, have been headhunted into MegaGroup Financial Incorporated as their new hotshot CIO and have embarked upon a technology refresh of Herculean scale and ambition. It began with sunlight, trumpet fanfares and high hopes but rapidly decayed into anguish and chaos, and the resulting mess has been savagely amplified by staggeringly poor, wasteful and corrupt purchasing decisions. Now it is clear to all that the whole shebang is in its Death Spiral and needs to be put down. But how does your generic Doomed Massive IT Transformation Programme finally expire and die ? After the Imagineering Workshops, the extensive catering, the bribery, the dodgy deals, the crises, the denunciations and the purges, when it’s patently obvious even to the thickest most on-message arse-licking yes-man that the farrago is fatally boloxed, how in hell do you actually put the ruddy thing out of its misery ? This is trickier than it sounds. In a perfect world, you’d just concede that it was all nonsense and can it toute suite. Like this:
The Royal Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things. More beneficial to humanity than 90% of technology renewal initiatives.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. Nobody, and especially nobody who considers himself to be In Charge, is ever prepared to say they were wrong or face up to the fact that for the last few years they have been wasting their own time, that of scores of their staff, and tens of millions of pounds to boot. No-one in a Senior Management Position can, you see, ever be seen to Lose Face. Therefore you cannot simply come clean and own up that it was a bleeding stupid idea in the first place sorry chaps let’s pack it in I’ll get me coat. You can’t say the planning was appalling as it was you who forced everyone to agree to the road map in all its deranged gung-ho rose-tinted optimistic glory. You can’t claim poor management was to blame as the dopes in charge were you and all your hand-picked placemen. It would be convenient to hold the third party suppliers responsible, but again they were your choices, heavily promoted by you and your stooges as best-of-breed blue-chip enterprise-ready operators with a world-beating product that was used and endorsed by the Fortune 500, the FTSE 100, the G8 and the Temperance Seven(**). And anyway, they greased your palms so heavily in order to get the gig that it would be ungrateful, churlish, criminally risky and financially foolish to drop them in it. A year or so down the road with another employer, once your next foredoomed IT Deathmarch is up and running, you might very well want to arrange another bit of mutually beneficial graft with them.
You can’t in any seriousness argue that the programme could succeed given another few months. It’s already taken twice as long as you said it would at inception in order to achieve virtually nothing and spent four times the original budget in the process. Major continent-spanning wars have been fought and won in less time. There is no easy way to halt the juggernaut and no story that can be spun around its stopping that does not leave you completely discredited in the eyes of your staff, your peers, your boss and the shareholders. Conversely, given the massive shambles your benighted programme has become, your reputation is ruined regardless. You are self-evidently a moron and a bully and either hopelessly naïve or a crook. The latter call of course hinging on whether folk believe the vicious rumours about the hospitality you received from the vendors and exactly how you managed to pay for that delightful villa a few kilometres up the coast from Malaga.
To completely hammer the point into, through, and out the other side, the dilemma you face is that if you do stop, you are tacitly acknowledging that your entire career has been a sham(***) and that you are in truth a charlatan and a complete failure by any benchmark in all departments be it judgement, vision, leadership or administration. However, if you don’t stop, all of the above is still equally and abundantly obvious with the addition that you clearly haven’t wit enough to know when to give up and go home. What to do ? For you, it is an insoluble problem. Happily though, it isn’t a problem that you have yourself to solve. In the case of maritime disasters, women and children are saved first and the captain goes down with the ship. In techno-catastrophes the timing and ethics are a little different. Once it is abundantly clear that the IT vessel is holed below the waterline, listing to port and shipping water faster than the bilge pumps can get rid of it (****), the very next act is to have the commander thrown overboard. Would that this were to a watery grave in the North Atlantic but, happily for you once more, the honourable traditions of seafaring folk do not apply to the murkier and dodgier backwaters of business computing. The board will not want a fuss, they’ll be desperate to avoid creating an opening for legal action, they’ll be keen to choke off as much bad publicity as they can and they will positively definitely want you out the door quick smart. The vehicle for achieving all of this is the Very Generous Executive Level Compromise Agreement. Kerching, kerching and thrice kerching. Your pension pot will be topped up until it overflows. Your tax-free ex gratia severance payment will be calculated from your already lavish monthly salary using such a huge multiplier than even senior officials in the French Civil Service would find it over-generous. Layer after layer of extra dosh will be lumped on top in lieu of notice, in lieu of lost benefits, in lieu of holidays and in lieu of a bonus that was supposed to be conditional on you having achieved what you said you were going to achieve in the first place and certainly not payable in the event of you slinking out the back door in ignominy and disgrace. A final very juicy and lucrative cherry will be placed on top of your ice cream sundae of money in order to buy both your silence and your compliance. The last thing that anyone wants is leaks to the trade press or claims for constructive dismissal. Documents of great length and windiness will be drawn up to ensure this, with lawyers and HR finding no fault on either side but eager to ensure that a smooth transition from inside to outwith the organisation can be effected in order that you may freely proceed to pursue success elsewhere. The short version of all this legalistic verbiage is that they are paying you a shit load of money to keep your trap shut and fuck off quickly.
Once you’ve been offed, anyone left standing can breathe a deep sigh of relief. Well maybe a modest murmur rather than a full-throated primal groan of catharsis, as after any sustained bout of intense transformational mayhem there will be a lengthy period of recovery and rehabilitation as everyone feels their way back to sanity and common sense. For starters, you can’t stop the oil tanker on a sixpence and, to make life yet more difficult for your successors, a whole heap of bad wrongness was locked in way back at the beginning.
One of the basic axioms of a mega-bucks IT Transformation Solid-Gold Shambles is that all the decisions and all the contracts and all the buying have to be done right at the start. No-one knows why this is so. You may as well argue the value of the fine-structure constant(*****); it just has to be that way. Something to do with baselining the budget. Or maybe to ensure that the programme mandate is fully evidenced, or that future earned value expectations can be fully projected. Vaguely along those lines, anyway. Another key tenet of the Classical IT Jumbo Modernisation Farce is that you have to buy everything from a very small number of enormous vendors. Ideally just one. Again, this is non-negotiable and the reasons for it are both self-evident and lost in the mists of time. Standardisation, obviously. You buy all the stuff from the same place, it’ll integrate nicely. Like Apple and all them iThings. Stands to reason(******). Simplifying your supplier relations is key, too, as I remember. You apparently only want to have one neck to wring and one set of balls on the line, or some such gutsy macho gubbins in that general vicinity. Thirdly, as has been expounded upon before, BIG = GOOD = QUALITY. You want the Latest and Greatest, you gotta deal with the Big Battalions and be prepared to pay Best Brass. You can’t get caviar from a kebab van, and you don’t buy a Bentley from a back street chop shop.
Taken together, this means that from the outset you were hitched up to expensive contracts based on precious little consideration with a small handful of the largest, slipperiest, greediest and most ruthless technology vendors in the world. The canny approach is to gather up all the unused useless overpriced junk you bought from those slick, charming, handsome IT salesmen all those years ago, shove it in a cupboard in a damp basement somewhere, lock the doors, and never speak of any of it ever again. The accountants can write off the investment with a couple of tidy Misc. – Other – Incidental Umbrella Repairs Etc journal entries, and it can then be slowly forgotten.
The less canny approach is to think, dash it, we paid out a ton of wonga for this stuff, we did all those months of analysis and user profiling and workshopping and capability mapping, surely there has to be some value we can salvage from the wreckage. The Document Management System, for example. It’s world-leading. Best in class. It was on the cover of Enterprise IT Digest twice. C’mon. There’s gotta be something we can retrieve from this calamity. Hasn’t there ?
No, there isn’t. There really isn’t. Value is one thing, but the price of a commodity is simply the amount that people are prepared to pay for it. If those people were idiots, and the spivs that sold them those brightly coloured glass beads for hundreds of thousands of pounds were Olympic-standard conmen, then what remains is still no more than a bag of marbles. Failure to tumble to this harsh reality can only lead to a Son of Shambles. It should be over a lot quicker than its parent, conceived as it has been amidst collapse, despair and recrimination rather than brainless optimism. Once bitten by this point, and weary of Grand Projects with Sky High Ambitions, a lot of players will be looking for any excuse to wield the machete and despatch the bugger early doors. However, in cases of extreme commercial imbecility, there can be multiple re-generations up to and beyond Great Grandson of Shambles. A corporate fool and his money are soon parted, and to be fair this sort of twittery does keep a lot of us in work, though parenthetically Depressed Beyond Tablets at the trackless wastes of human folly.
But eventually the oil tanker will stop, or ground itself, or sink, and life will return to normal. The Enterprise Architecture Scrum will be given their cards, the various Centres of Excellence will be wound up, the Project Management Office will be scaled back to just one bloke from six and limited to three wretched overblown multi-coloured spreadsheets rather than twelve. The Programme Command and Control Suite will become once more a humble meeting room, and its plush leather swivel chairs with built in iPad docks will be shanghaied for his office by whichever of the Execs is quickest off the mark. The inspirational posters, logo-bestrewn stationery, pop-up exhibition stands and video kiosks through which the Transformational Gospel has been so heavily evangelised will be junked or swiped according to desirability. The 6ft by 10ft by 8ft Tactile Interactive Programme Blueprint™ which has been filling Reception for the last two years to the utter bemusement of both visitors and staff will similarly disappear skipwards over a weekend.
Meanwhile, the hated legacy systems that were supposed to be euthanased ages ago will continue to lumber onwards in their unlovely but functional way. They will fall over frequently, and be kicked back into life with patches made of tin foil, bell-wire and bits of cut’n’paste hackery so violently heinous that the engineers responsible have to take travel sickness pills in order to suppress their gag reflex. But useful work will at least be done and some approximation to calm, order and sweet reason will prevail. In fact, life will return to pretty much as it was before the whole heroic expedition toward Digital Eldorado set sail, foundered and finally came to rest at the bottom of a 75 million quid hole in the company’s cash reserves. The one tangible difference will be a few dozen extra racks of kit in the Data Centre. Nobody can quite remember what they were meant to do, if they actually ever started doing it, or, if in the unlikely event that they are doing it, if anybody would really care very much if they stopped. Unfortunately the uncertainty is just sufficient that no one has quite enough nerve to pull the plug on them. So there they will sit for the next decade or two, drawing power and blinking the odd LED in an impotent and even slightly pitiable manner.
And what of you, the formerly visionary CIO ? Well a pleasingly large chunk of that 75 million quid made its way into your bank account from your employer’s, via diverse means both legitimate and otherwise. A sliver of that wedge has paid for the string of piña coladas you’ve been sipping on the sun terrace of the Andalusian villa, which itself consumed a rather larger slice of your ill-gotten gains. Pleasant as it all is, there are only so many plates of tapas one can eat, rounds of golf one can play, big-game sea fishing trips one can take, before a life of ex-pat luxury starts to pall. But very probably after six months or so the phone will ring. City-based executive headhunter. Looking for a heavy hitter to front up a Game-Changing Technology Revivification. Top Dollar for you, eight figure budget for the programme. It’s out with Old and in with the Newest and Biggest and Best – you’ll be replacing an Austin Allegro with a Bentley Continental. Only the very finest will be good enough. You’ve got the track record, you’re a face with form and you’re the perfect fit for values and culture.
Kerching, once more. It’s time to get the old band back together. Fire up the laptop, fish out the old powerpoints, whip out the mobile, pump your contacts. Fill yer boots, it’s Jobs for the Boys again, from your old arse-kissing senior lieutenants right down the line to the greasy code-monkeys, footslogging testers, knuckledragging sys admins, Uncle Tom Cobbley and All. It is an entirely personal choice as to whether one weeps at the limitless repetition of pointless profligate madness, or rejoices instead at the continued and enhanced opportunities for worthless but well-compensated employment.
It does indeed all make work for the working man to do.
– – – Fin – – –
(*) Misquoting W.C. Fields. Drunk, Misanthrope and Great Man.
(**) Maybe not the Temperance Seven. But they did wield a nifty banjo.
(***) To be precise, a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham
(****) Apologies for extended, hackneyed and mixed metaphors of dubious nautical origin but I got swept away on a briny wave of oceangoing cliché.
(*****) α, the fine-structure constant, is approximately 1/137. If it was a tiny bit more or less than that, there would be no carbon in the universe, and so therefore no rice pudding, income tax, or people.
(******) It should be a fair assumption, but it isn’t. Most big IT vendors, being as they are about as amorphous, disorganised and acquisitive as the big combines they sell to, are a massive amalgam of products of varying provenance, antiquity and nastiness with little connection between them beyond the logos on the marketing literature. Assuming that they’re all going to integrate nicely sits at the same level of sunny optimism as assuming that a skip load of leftover bits sourced from a single giant scrapyard will click together as neatly as Lego to make a tidy, economical and thoroughly drivable family hatchback.