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So why the hate?

If you're a manager or Executive Officer who reads InfoWorld and tries to comment in the resulting fora, or if you just read the interactions among the forum participants, you may have been puzzled--and very likely disheartened or even offended--by the sometimes thinly disguised, occasionally and vocally overt, attitude of hostility expressed toward concepts and arguments that you think perfectly reasonable. Why do normal, everyday management concepts like Return on Investment and Net Present Value engender such vitriol? Why are IT professionals so negative about the Marketing Department and the Executive Suite? What causes the unending friction between the support people and the folks who are just trying to get the work out the door? How come those nerds just can't seem to get it?

The problem is a real one. Information Technology is becoming more and more a necessary function of business, even when the business itself has nothing to do with microchips or computers. Twenty years ago, when you got your MBA and started up the ladder, the notion that a company making jams and jellies, gray-iron castings, or light fixtures needed a powerful computer network and a cadre of specialists to run it would have been ludicrous. Nowadays a real-estate agent needs a computer system that guys in white coats would have fought for access on back then. If you can't get some kind of handle on IT, and especially if you can't convince the computer people to run their stuff like part of the business instead of some kind of combination research lab and video game studio, you're going to get eaten alive by people who started with computers and went into business afterward.

It's becoming obvious that the root of the problem is this hostility. Why do the computer guys hate you? What makes ordinary management decisions into attacks that have to be beaten off at all costs? You've seen it right here in these fora. Somebody posts an observation, or makes a comment, that seems perfectly reasonable, even pedestrian; not even Business 101, this is Remedial Commerce stuff. What does he or she get? Piled on, is what, with twenty or more replies, the kindest of which boils down to "Oh, well, he's a marketroid/PHB; the brain damage is probably permanent." Why the sneers? Why the hate? Dammit, it's costing money!

It's a matter of attitude

First off, this is a complex problem with deep roots. It doesn't lend itself to Executive Summaries or easy abridgement. It's a matter of attitude: theirs, and yours. Specifically, it's highly likely that one of your basic assumptions about life affects the IT people the same way dogs affect cats, or share-the-wealth Socialists affect you. Instant negativity. The moment it comes out, rational discussion goes out the window and emotions take over.

But that's their problem, right? After all, they're the employees, and you're the boss. Sorry. If you can even formulate it that way, you're the problem, not them, despite the fact that it's absolutely true. You are the boss, and they are the employees. You're right, and they're wrong. Does that fix the problem? Does the problem need fixing? If your answers are no and yes respectively, comes the 64% market share question: Who's going to fix the problem? Answer: you, or nobody. And if you've made that decision and accepted that responsibility, you've already gotten about twenty percent of the problem nailed. Take the afternoon off, play a round of golf, and come on it fresh in the morning. You deserve it.

A couple of stories

Ready to tackle the next installment? Isn't it great what a little fresh air and exercise can do for the mental state? OK, let's plunge on to a little ancient history.

Ancient history? We are talking about IT, right? Computers and that? What's ancient history got to do with anything? Relax. No dates, no quiz afterward, and you've even heard it before, OK? Even if it doesn't sound quite the same as you remember... And if you can get this, you'll have made more substantial progress, because these stories are absolutely central to geek mythology. Geeks know them in their bones, even if they can't recount them, even if they sneer at them.

Once upon a time there lived a man called Hero of Alexandria. Yes, it's really ancient history.

Hero of Alexandria was an ancient Greek geek. He built a gadget that he called the Aelopile. From a management point of view, details don't matter. What is important is that the Aelopile was, as far as anyone knows, the very first engine. That is, you fed it fuel, and out came work. It needed a lot more R&D, but the basics were all there, and a little study of what made it work would have easily led to the necessary modifications.

If Hero had followed through, the Via Appia could have been a railroad, and instead of building triremes the Romans might have been building battleships. It's probably good for us that they didn't, but imagine yourself as CEO of Roman Empire Inc. Think of the money you could have made if you didn't have to depend on people, jackasses, and atmospheric circulation to move stuff around! Even better, the old Greeks might have been able to fend off the hostile takeover if they hadn't been dependent on muscle power; the Romans hadn't invented greenmail and leveraged buyouts, so they stuck (real) knives in people a lot as a substitute.

So what happened? You may already know, but just let it rest there in your mind for a bit, while we go on to--

Once upon a time there was a man called Galileo Galilei, usually just called Galileo.

Galileo was a Renaissance Italian geek. Despite what you may have heard, or thought you heard, Galileo really didn't invent much. He did read a lot, he had a little money (management consultant), and he was willing to try things. He put some ideas and inventions together, and built the first really workable telescope. He used the telescope to look into the sky--at Jupiter and its moons, although that doesn't really matter here--and concluded that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the reverse. Then he made a really big mistake: he wrote it down and published it.

You may think you know what comes next, but you're probably wrong. Galileo got in big trouble, all right, but the trouble didn't come from saying the Earth went around the Sun. He took a big pay cut, and got struck off the list of approved consultants, not because he said the Earth went around the Sun, but because he didn't submit it for management review first.

You'd have done the same, I guarantee it. Look at it this way: the Company's marketing strategy was to position themselves as the only reliable source of accurate information, and they'd spun this huge advertising campaign based on the Sun going around the Earth. They'd spent untold florins and God knew how much marketing effort putting it together, and were getting some really nice mindshare out of it, and just at the point where they were starting to see an uptick in the revenue stream here comes this guy--who's supposed to be working for them!--who tries to blow the whole thing out of the water by demonstrating that the central point was just flat wrong. Intolerable. Not only did it threaten the current campaign, it might even attack their basic market position! The only possible course was to squash him like a bug and go into damage control mode.

Of course, there remained the nasty, inconvenient facts that (a) Galileo was right, (b) the instructions were open source, meaning anybody with the price of a week's meals could build or buy a telescope, and (c) a few evenings of peering through a telescope would convince the brownest-nosed assistant-to on the Hill. What to do?

Again, you'd do the same; any decent marketer would. Simple spin campaign, right? They genned up a series of clarifications, hustled them out to the sales force to counter any word-of-mouth that might be going around, and started tapering off the ad campaign. Once things had cooled down a bit, and with the money in the bank, they built a new campaign and deluged the media with it. The Earth goes around the Sun! Who'd'a thunk it! True Wonders of the Modern World, brought to you by Universal Church (Pty., LLC) of Rome, your really dependable information provider!

And Galileo? Who's that? Oh, that jerk! We had to let him go, you know, rescind his stock options and everything. No company loyalty. Not a team player. But enough about that asshole. We've got this special offer going... For four hundred years, after which they issued a press release, basically saying, well, the guy was probably right after all, and maybe we overreacted.

Some morals to the story

Before we go back to Hero of Alexandria, let's take a minute to look back at Galileo.

If, based on the story as given here, you think the Church's reaction to Galileo was somewhere between "defensible if distasteful" and "about right," then you are a marketroid, defined as a person who will tell two or more different and contradictory stories without concerning yourself with which (if any) has any basis in fact, and if shown that one or more of your stories is in error, will prefer to shoot the messenger rather than change your story, even if you would profit from the change. The biggest lie you tell is that you are "focussed on the bottom line." What you are focussed on is your own reputation and importance, and you will cheerfully sell anyone who threatens them down the river, whether or not the company (or even you personally) loses by it.

There is no known cure for this condition short of the Light on the Damascus Road, and you might as well stop reading here. You will never make peace with the Information Technology people. Worse, you may think you've made peace, and you will never know that what you've done is ranked them by ability and driven away the top people. IT folks are as various as any other group, and there are competent ones who can and do their work despite all the BS you load on them. What that means is that they are as dishonest as you are, and you'd better be dancing real hard, because if they get a chance they'll chop your legs out from under you with exactly the same degree of remorse you'd use on them, i.e. none whatever.

Prosperity is your enemy. While people are poor and jobs are hard to find, you may be able to keep competent subordinates, but the lower the unemployment rate, the stronger the sort. In the current job market, that means that all the people who smile so nicely and jump to do your bidding are plotting your downfall, and nobody, repeat nobody, will care when and if they succeed, except for the ones stupid enough to rejoice because they don't realize that what's replacing you is worse. Have a nice life, OK?