Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Something Corporate Down With The IT Jobs

My ex-boss is in Las Vegas this week, checking out a technical show. That has absolutely nothing to do with anything, except that I often wish I had his kind of job. Which is ironic because when he was my boss, I often told him I didn't want the job (that he had at the time). One day he called me into his boss' office where they told me and a couple of other employees they had just resigned from the company. I stood ready to deliver on my oft-spoke promise to resign on the spot, because I did not want to become the IT director.

Instead, he spent his two week exit period persuading me to stay and try to make a career path for myself into the parent company. I had no ambition to move up to the parent company. I was happy where I was. In nearly 30 years of working in the computer industry I had seldom worked for people I really wanted to work for. Most of my past bosses are genuinely likable people. But they just had so many bizarre traits or made weird judgement calls, I couldn't find a place where I was happy for long.

One guy literally pulled a chair out from under me so he could give it to a girl who was protesting that her chair was just fine. She gave me back my chair after the boss left. She was extremely embarrassed by the episode. I was already thinking about what it would take to update my resume. I don't care how cute the girl is. You don't take a chair out from under me to give to her.

Another boss had bad breath. I mean bad breath. People wondered how he stayed in business because he did not make a great first impression. I knew my days were numbered when he decided I should take on technical responsibilities for which I had no training. Instead of using me where my experience made me productive, he threw me into an impossible project that he just insisted could be accomplished. Two years after I left that firm I asked the programmer he handed the project off to what happened to it. The programmer said he finally just put his foot down and said, "There is no way to do what you have promised the client."

Bad breath, bad judgement. Some bosses just have bad attitudes. You can't do much about that except realize you hired the wrong boss. Of course, one hopes to avoid hiring a boss with a bad attitude by interviewing the prospective boss. Employers are impressed if you ask them questions about how their companies operate. You need to do that to see if you can fit in with the corporate culture. Things become impossible, though, when you don't get an opportunity to hire the boss.

That has happened to me on three occasions. All three times I've regretted staying around to work for the new guy. Technically, it happened to me again last year, but this time around my former bosses have stayed on to work in the new situation. Things have not tanked with the new boss, who has striven to bring two offices together to form a complete corporate entity. It's been stressful for everyone, but so far no one has bailed on the company. That is remarkable.

The first time I got a new boss without having a chance to interview him was for several reasons. My direct supervisor, unfortunately, became ill and eventually passed away. Several people in the company recommended that I replace him. However, the corporate IT manager had to work out of Los Angeles and I wanted to stay in Atlanta. About the same time we were dithering over that, a new CEO was brought on board to oversee the merger of the firm with a larger international conglomerate. So, while I was negotiating (badly) to take on the corporate IT job, I heard through the grapevine I was already under consideration for promotion to higher international status.

It was unnerving, but everything unravelled when I made a recommendation that was ignored. The company was going to install a new computer in its London office (technically, the firm I worked for was already international with four offices around the world). London gets hot in the summer time and the office had no air conditioning. I pointed out that the corporate plans for the new computer would prevent its functioning for about 12 hours out of the day. And yet, it would have cost $20,000 to install air conditioning. That was simply too expensive. (I pointed out that being unable to use the computer would cost the company more than $20,000.)

Rather than take the blame for inevitable disaster, I resigned. The president of the company, who had personally advocated promoting me to corporate IT director, flew out to Atlanta to ask me why I was quitting. I spent an afternoon explaining to him technical stuff that high executives don't normally care about. "Do me a favor," he said. "Write this all in a letter."

I didn't want to do it. "Why?" I asked. "I have resigned."

"Trust me," he said. "I promise it will not be used against you in any way."

I honestly liked this gentleman (I use the term lightly -- he was wild and crazy). I decided to trust him. I wrote up my technical objections and sent him the letter. On my last day at the job, a couple of ladies in the London office called me to say good-bye. The installation was underway and I asked how it was going. One lady, from Ireland, immediately burst out in her strong Irish brogue with: "It's going to be a disaster, Michael! I can read the writing on the wall. I wish you were here to take care of the problem."

I wished I could have prevented the problem. A few weeks later, my (then) former supervisor mentioned to me that it was a good thing I had written that letter to the president of the company. When the new IT manager started blaming me for the disaster in London, the CEO started muttering things like "Maybe we can sue Michael for doing this to us." The president of the company, the man who had hired the CEO, brought out my letter and reportedly said, "We are going to do no such thing."

Sometimes, you find out too late that you really do have a great boss. I'd work for him again, but I suspect he's retired by now. I heard they did away with their IT department anyway. Probably a wise move, all things considered. The person who became their IT manager boldly confessed to me one time over drinks that she had walked away with a previous employer's clients and left the guy bankrupt.

The second time I was not involved in hiring a new boss happened with another internationally active company. The board of directors forced their president to resign. He was, it turned out, the only man with vision involved in the company. They eventually hired someone to replace him. As often happens with new CEOs, the new guy came in and started driving away long-time employees, cancelling productive (profitable) projects and products, and alienating customers right and left. I watched him escort about 30 people off the campus over the couse of two years. He actually fired a few more than that but I was at lunch or something when they left.

I spent the last six months of my tenure there doing nothing for the company. They had so immersed themselves in the culture of destroying a profitable business that I was quite outspoken and critical of all management decisions. Needless to say, I was no longer included in any projects. But the largest corporate client wanted my expertise available at a moment's notice, so I was given a computer, a desk, and a telephone. I got so bored I did everything I could think of to get myself fired.

Eventually, when the president came in to reprimand me over something stupid, and to demonstrate once again that he was an idiot, I couldn't contain myself any longer. I said, "You know, if I had something to do around here, I wouldn't be getting in to trouble like this."

The lights slowly came on in his eyes. He swallowed slowly and said, "Well...I guess if you have nothing to do, then we don't need you."

Technically, they did need me because I was one of the few people left on staff who cared enough about the customers to continue being their advocate. But this man was determined to run the company into the ground and the fact that it barely survives today, many years later, is a testimony to the lost opportunities and lack of vision he contributed to its history. His ambition was to compete with Microsft. Don't ask me what the company's name is, because I assure you that you have never heard of it.

Round three of Stupid Bosses Who Should Not Have Been Hired did not happen all that long ago. I reluctantly became an IT director for the third time in my career. I don't like the job mainly because there is no one between me and the demanding executives who have no idea of what the human limitations of putting together automated projects are like.

One of my favorite bosses, with whom I argued constantly despite a deep liking for him, used to call me into his office every Monday morning. He would say, "Michael, I want to push a button and have the computer do everything for me." He'd then proceed to lay out an idea for a new project. He usually had a very good grasp of what he wanted, and I seldom had to ask many followup questions.

But Monday was always followed by Tuesday, and on Tuesday morning he'd say, "Michael, I know I gave you a project yesterday, but I need you to do something for me."

And Tuesday was followed by Wednesday, when he would say, "Michael, something has come up and I need you to stop work on whatever you're doing -- on my authority -- and take care of this priority."

Thursday followed Wednesday in about the same vein.

Come Friday he'd be asking for Monday's project, which of course was not finished. I was working 18 hour days at the time and had little to no social life. I think I gamed with my friends on the weekends or something.

It doesn't help that I almost completely automated his business process. It took much longer than hoped or expected, and I completed most of the work on a system redesign after leaving to work for another company. But once I finally left Atlanta, that company pretty much used my software for years with only occasional minor tweaks from a friend (another former boss with whom I got on well) who did contract consulting.

I'm a miracle worker. Many programmers are, and we're not ashamed to say so. People ask the damnedest things of us. And we often find ways to deliver what we initially think cannot be done. Sometimes we're right and things really cannot be done. But one of the key principles of great programming is great supervision. You have to have someone between the programmers and the decision-makers. Otherwise, the programmers end up spinning their wheels, changing priorities before things are accomplished.

The former boss who is visiting Las Vegas is attending a technical conference being put on by the company that was nearly run into the ground by the idiot I didn't hire. The former boss (not the idiot) stood between me and corporate decision-makers who are wonderful people. I occasionally have lunch with them and have made it known more than once that I would return to IT for their sake, if only because their office is close to where I live.

But he protected me from all the constant, last-minute, reprioritizing demands that render a programmer's skills and training ineffective.

So, when I inherited his job, I lost my insulation. I lost all hope of accomplishing anything. I told the new CFO that if he wanted me to be productive, he'd have to hire a new IT Director. He said, "Okay. I'll do that." And then he gagged because he found out what IT Directors think they are worth. He didn't understand that IT Directors have to lie, finagle, wiggle, conceive, plot, deceive, and manipulate their ways through corporate mismanagement. They do it so that their programmers and technical staff can do their jobs.

IT Directors don't have to know jack about computers. All they have to know is that if they let the boss anywhere near the technical staff, they have failed as IT Directtors. IT Directors have to take the blame for all the bad decisions, stupid spur-of-the-moment purchases, cost-cutting measures that deplete annual budgets, and everything else that goes wrong. They have to take the blame for all the bad stuff so that their bosses, the CFOs and CEOs, can take credit for all the hard work that the programmers and technicians put into making the company systems work 24/7.

This is why effective programmers walk around in a world all their own. They are isolated, coddled, protected, and sheathed. They don't know what grovelling, miserably weenie-like positions their IT Directors have to assume on an hourly basis in order to distract the corporate decision-makers from inflicting total disaster upon the company. I hope God loves a good IT Director, because I sure do. There are not enough of them to go around, and I have no ambition to be one.

I don't take crap very well. One of my former bosses, someone I used as a reference for many years, used to tell my future employers, "Michael has no tolerance for idiots and fools." He was not exaggerating. He had no reason to lie, either. He knew I wasn't being considered for any diplomatic jobs. He knew people were looking at me to come in and save their jobs by cutting code faster than anyone else.

If you hire me, all you have you to do is give me an objective and then shut up and get out of my way. You don't know enough to tell me how to achieve that objective. Your IT Director should know that much, but you don't. All you need to know is that I only miss deadlines when micromanagers with no clue about programming step in and tell me that a 3-month project will take a year.

So there I was, surrounded by greedy, ambitious executive decision-makers and wannabe greedy, ambitious executive decision-makers. And I was negotiating with Mama-company executives and project managers for a reasonable schedule to implement a system changeout that -- so I hear -- hasn't yet occurred two years after my departure. I stayed on the job for six months. At one point I was in a meeting with the Mama company project managers and I asked them point-blank, "Are you guys going to hire someone like me?"

They said, "No."

They said "no" even though at that very moment they were taking resumes from programmers with far less experience and much poorer credentials than me. In my niche programming industry, I really am one of the guys who wrote the books. And this company knew that. My former boss had gone out of his way to tell them what they had in me.

So they went out and hired someone who had not written an application like the one they were developing. An application I had been working on for 3 years.

I could have written it for them by now.

All they had to do was be honest, hire me, shut up, and get the hell out of my way. Maybe they were looking for job security. I don't know. Maybe my new CFO boss, who couldn't make a right or wrong decision without summoning an impromptu committee, really felt he needed to keep me around. After all, I was convenient to blame for everything that went wrong (and under his tenure, so many things went wrong I stopped counting). I hear I'm still being blamed two years later for things that are just now going wrong.

It's often been said that stupidity is its own reward. Whoever first drew that conclusion probably was an IT Director.


Blogger jessica said...

haha. bosses.

if you were to choose, you would rather be:
a. taxicab
b. anything
c. pinoy
d. a movie
e. a rumor

1:39 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home