When Your Boss Doesn't Want you to Succeed

Posted by Phil Factor on Simple Talk See other posts from Simple Talk or by Phil Factor
Published on Sun, 07 Mar 2010 19:43:00 GMT Indexed on 2010/03/16 17:01 UTC
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You're working hard to get an application finished. You are programming long into the evenings sometimes, and eating sandwiches at your desk instead of taking a lunch break. Then one day you glance up at the IT manager, serene in his mysterious round of meetings, and think 'Does he actually care whether this project succeeds or not?'.

The question may seem absurd. Of course the project must succeed. The truth, as always, is often far more complex. Your manager may even be doing his best to make sure you don't succeed.

Why? There have always been rich pickings for the unscrupulous in IT.  In extreme cases, where administrators struggle with scarcely-comprehended technical issues, huge sums of money can be lost and gained without any perceptible results. In a very few cases can fraud be proven: most of the time, the intricacies of the 'game' are such that one can do little more than harbor suspicion.  Where does over-enthusiastic salesmanship end and fraud begin? The Business of Information Technology provides rich opportunities for White-collar crime.

The poor developer has his, or her, hands full with the task of wrestling with the sheer complexity of building an application. He, or she, has no time for following the complexities of the chicanery of the management that is directing affairs.  Most likely, the developers wouldn't even suspect that their company management had ulterior motives.

I'll illustrate what I mean with an entirely fictional, hypothetical, example.

The Opportunist and the Aged

Charities often do good, unexciting work that is funded by the income from a bequest that dates back maybe hundreds of years.  In our example, it isn't exciting work, for it involves the welfare of elderly people who have fallen on hard times.  Volunteers visit, giving a smile and a chat, and check that they are all right, but are able to spend a little money on their discretion to ameliorate any pressing needs for these old folk.  The money is made to work very hard and the charity averts a great deal of suffering and eases the burden on the state.

Daisy hears the garden gate creak as Mrs Rainer comes up the path. She looks forward to her twice-weekly visit from the nice lady from the trust. She always asked ‘is everything all right, Love’. Cheeky but nice. She likes her cheery manner. She seems interested in hearing her memories, and talking about her far-away family. She helps her with those chores in the house that she couldn’t manage and once even paid to fill the back-shed with coke, the other year. Nice, Mrs. Rainer is, she thought as she goes to open the door.

The trustees are getting on in years themselves, and worry about the long-term future of the charity: is it relevant to modern society? Is it likely to attract a new generation of workers to take it on. They are instantly attracted by the arrival to the board of a smartly dressed University lecturer with the ear of the present Government. Alain 'Stalin' Jones is earnest, persuasive and energetic. The trustees welcome him to the board and quickly forgive his humorless political-correctness. He talks of 'diversity', 'relevance', 'social change', 'equality' and 'communities', but his eye is on that huge bequest.

Alain first came to notice as a Trotskyite union official, who insinuated himself into one of the duller Trades Unions and turned it, through his passionate leadership, into a radical, headline-grabbing organization.  Middle age, and the rise of European federal socialism, had brought him quiet prosperity and charcoal suits, an ear in the current government, and a wide influence as a member of various Quangos (government bodies staffed by well-paid unelected courtiers).  He was employed as a 'consultant' by several organizations that relied on government contracts.

After gaining the confidence of the trustees, and showing a surprising knowledge of mundane processes and the regulatory framework of charities, Alain launches his plan.  The trust will expand their work by means of a bold IT initiative that will coordinate the interventions of several 'caring agencies', and provide  emergency cover, a special Website so anxious relatives can see how their elderly charges are doing, and a vastly more efficient way of coordinating the work of the volunteer carers. It will also provide a special-purpose site that gives 'social networking' facilities, rather like Facebook, to the few elderly folk on the lists with access to the internet. The trustees perk up. Their own experience of the internet is restricted to the occasional scanning of railway timetables, but they can see that it is 'relevant'.

In his next report to the other trustees, Alain proudly announces that all this glamorous and exciting technology can be paid for by a grant from the government. He admits darkly that he has influence. True to his word, the government promises a grant of a size that is an order of magnitude greater than any budget that the trustees had ever handled. There was the understandable proviso that the company that would actually do the IT work would have to be one of the government's preferred suppliers and the work would need to be tendered under EU competition rules.

The only company that tenders, a multinational IT company with a long track record of government work, quotes ten million pounds for the work. A trustee questions the figure as it seems enormous for the reasonably trivial internet facilities being built, but the IT Salesmen dazzle them with presentations and three-letter acronyms until they subside into quiescent acceptance. After all, they can’t stay locked in the Twentieth century practices can they?

The work is put in hand with a large project team, in a splendid glass building near west London. The trustees see rooms of programmers working diligently at screens, and who talk with enthusiasm of the project.

Paul, the project manager, looked through his resource schedule with growing unease. His initial excitement at being given his first major project hadn’t lasted. He’d been allocated a lackluster team of developers whose skills didn’t seem right, and he was allowed only a couple of contractors to make good the deficit. Strangely, the presentation he’d given to his management, where he’d saved time and resources with a OTS solution to a great deal of the development work, and a sound conservative architecture, hadn’t gone down nearly as big as he’d hoped. He almost got the feeling they wanted a more radical and ambitious solution.

The project starts slipping its dates. The costs build rapidly. There are certain uncomfortable extra charges that appear, such as the £600-a-day charge by the 'Business Manager' appointed to act as a point of liaison between the charity and the IT Company.  When he appeared, his face permanently split by a 'Mr Sincerity' smile, they'd thought he was provided at the cost of the IT Company.

Derek, the DBA, didn’t have to go to the server room quite some much as he did: but It got him away from the poisonous despair of the development group. Wave after wave of events had conspired to delay the project.  Why the management had imposed hideous extra bureaucracy to cover ISO 9000 and 9001:2008 accreditation just as the project was struggling to get back on-schedule was  beyond belief.  Then  the Business manager was coming back with endless changes in scope, sorrowing saying that the Trustees were very insistent, though hopelessly out in touch with the reality of technical challenges.

Suddenly, the costs mount to the point of consuming the government grant in its entirety. The project remains tantalizingly just out of reach. Alain Jones gives an emotional rallying speech at the trustees review meeting, urging them not to lose their nerve. Sadly, the trustees dip into the accumulated capital of the trust, the seed-corn of all their revenues, in order to save the IT project.

A few months later it is all over. The IT project is never delivered, even though it had seemed so incredibly close.  With the trust's capital all gone, the activities it funded have to be terminated and the trust becomes just a shell. There aren't even the funds to mount a legal challenge against the IT company, even had the trust's solicitor advised such a foolish thing.

Alain leaves as suddenly as he had arrived, only to pop up a few months later, bronzed and rested, at another charity. The IT workers who were permanent employees are dispersed to other projects, and the contractors leave to other contracts. Within months the entire project is but a vague memory.

One or two developers remain  puzzled that their managers had been so obstructive when they should have welcomed progress toward completion of the project, but they put it down to incompetence and testosterone. Few suspected that they were actively preventing the project from getting finished.

The relationships between the IT consultancy, and the government of the day are intricate, and made more complex by the Private Finance initiatives and political patronage.  The losers in this case were the taxpayers, and the beneficiaries of the trust, and, perhaps the soul of the original benefactor of the trust, whose bid to give his name some immortality had been scuppered by smooth-talking white-collar political apparatniks.  Even now, nobody is certain whether a crime was ever committed. The perfect heist, I guess. Where’s the victim?

"I hear that Daisy’s cottage is up for sale. She’s had to go into a care home.  She didn’t want to at all, but then there is nobody to keep an eye on her since she had that minor stroke a while back.  A charity used to help out. The ‘social’ don’t have the funding, evidently for community care. Yes, her old cat was put down. There was a good clearout, and now the house is all scrubbed and cleared ready for sale. The skip was full of old photos and letters, memories. No room in her new ‘home’."

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