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Modern IT departments remind me The Castle by Franz Kafka as well as plays belonging to the "theatre of absurd" which focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world governed by cruel idiots. Incomprehensibility naturally leads to complete devaluation of ideals, noble aspirations, and purpose. Absurd actions are actions which are devoid of purpose and/or detached from reality.... Cut off the understanding of the environment and everything is lost; any person's actions become senseless, absurd, useless.
Gross incompetence of higher level management is nothing new. First discovered in military hierarchies (and most corporation are still organized along military lines with clear titles of managers -- officer corps and related difference in pay) it's now commonly accepted that:
IT is pretty complex fields and there is no complex fields in which incompetence was not afoot. Mix incompetence with psychopathy and Authoritarism and you have a typical large corporation IT department. The strange reality is that incompetence in IT is even more pervasive them even in military, which is a classic kiss-up, kick-down organization that encourages authoritarism in management (a.k.a officer corps) and nepotism in selection of managers (previously only members of aristocratic classes can serve as officers): two important factors which breeds incompetence. The Good Soldier Svejk is still as current as it was during WWI despite all those new wonderful military toys that army got.
Margaret Heffernan in her article about traits that incompetent managers share lists the following traits of incompetent managers:
IT management in a large corporation usually forms the hierarchical structure three or four levels deep. For example the top of the pyramid is a senior vice president for IT (recently this position tend to combine with vice president of logistics). There are three-five direct reports to him. For example:
Director of infrastructure in turn can have under him lower level managers responsible for major components for the datacenter. For example:
In a corporate hierarchy director of applications is usually more powerful figure then director of datacenter. And inside datacenter networking manager and database manager are probably two the most politically powerful players. Networking manger can have lower level managers reporting to him if infrastructure is large and is not fully outsourced. For example
This structure can be somewhat perverted in one way or another as many position are created directly for cronies (including, in some cases, former other senior vice president secretaries ;-), not because of functional needs, but in general that can give a student the picture of the world in which he/she might spend the best part of his/her life.
Like in military bureaucracy, the absurdity of IT management in large organizations is not anomaly, it is a fundamental feature due to tremendous and underappreciated complexity of the system and the way selection od managers works. There are three factor complex interplay between which guarantee the result:
In other words a typical middle level corporate IT manager is not the epic hero we once imagined. In most cases he/she is despicable sucker. Now we know: typically he was never as smart or as right as we had hoped before promotions. And he deteriorated in his technical acumen since it. His teeth aren't perfect either. But let's not go overboard: he's also not an epic sociopath (or let's say he is not always a sociopath ;-). Most probably he is an authoritarian, though.
More commonly he is a person with good organizational and political skills (at least of "kiss up, kick down variety), who was able better then others to navigate his way in IT hierarchy. The tragedy of IT managers is that the field is fast changing and due to this fast pace of technical change, the job requires high level of technical competence. And this particular quality is very rare and due to this is often lacking. Tales of incredible, grotesque incompetence of key players in IT management in large corporations are abundant. I would mention several of my own:
But it is important to understand that despite inner absurdity, IT performs its tasks and it performs them well enough to keep a typical corporation profitable. So this is a "good enough" way as Parkinson and Peter understood long ago. Incredibly absurd, but good enough. This happens all the time. If you are a sysadmin, you are just a minor actor in this drama, a trench solder, so the best way is to enjoy the show and not take it too personally or seriously if somebody tells you that soon all your Linux systems will be running on VMware because they can. It is not necessary that he/she has relatives among VMware brass. Most often this is plain vanilla institutional stupidity.
Meetings mania. This is side effect of both responsibility avoidance and lack of trust between members of the organization but it has life of its own and became independent phenomena. When it strikes most managers spend good time of their day attending some kid of meetings. In extreme cases meetings are called because a particular manager just feels lonely...
Currently IT is in the centralization mode. This periodic waves of centralization-decentralization are permanent feature and one wave tend to last approximately a decade. IT tends to centralize, decentralize and re-centralize again and again in an attempt to fix a more systemic problem – the inadequacy of hierarchical governance structures as a vehicle for managing an information infrastructure.
The first centralization wave started with System 360 and stooped with PC revolutions. After that there was a decentralizatipon wave which around ysear 2000 changed into a new centralization wave with a destinct flavour of outsourcing.
Centralization wave in IT now is in vogue due to attempts to cut IT costs after the economic crisis of 2008. It is possible due to development of faster more powerful and cheaper Intel hardware and virtualization technologies. It is usually is combined with outsourcing. Lately it is pursued under the sauce of cloud services (see my critique of Nicholas Carr paper and books for relevant information) as if cloud cervices is something new and not just reincarnation of "glass walls datacenters" of mainframe era on a new level with new technologies.
A typical reorganization rearranges blocks on the hierarchy chart, which some people compare to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But this is patently untrue. In reality reorganization still manage to purge some accumulated ballast and sometimes even promote those managers who do have some technical abilities and can see a bigger picture. The problem is that in PC technology the pace of development of hardware until recently was neck braking. Who would assume in 1996 when most of deployed PCs were 396 and 486 PC that a typical corporate laptop that is deployed in 2012 has 4 or 8 GB of 1.6 GHz memory, 320GB or larger harddrive (often solid state) and dual core CPU with clock speed 2 GHz or higher. Now a typical corporate laptop is more powerful that the most powerful server in the datacenter in 1996.
Another part of this new situation is that a medium class servers can have 32 or 40 cores , 128GB of RAM and 2 TB of harddrive storage with 15K RPM individual hardrives. The question is how you can use this hardware productively is an interesting one. I am not sure that outside of some molecular dynamic simulations and similar specialized areas this is an easy task. All this relentless VMware promotion is partially a scam that feeds from incompetence of the brass as no matter how many cores you have, the speed of channel from a given core to memory is constant and it quickly become a bottleneck as you add virtual instances. The only way to benefit from a large number of virtual instances on a single mashine is when you virtual instances are almost identical (web servers) or if your virtual instances are doing nothing. If this is the case VMware is a great consolidation tool. In any other case you end with paying a tribute to VMware (which consists of all saving you can get and some more). The latter is much more typical situation a corporate datacenters.
Similar scam is played with moving infrastructure to the cloud. While is sound dozed this is not a bad idea and actually was practiced in corporation as they consolidate their datacenters in fewer location due to better communication facilities, going overboard is a dangerous fallacy. While some services like corporate email, corporate website and "corporate blogging", many other like helpdesk and backup are not. Reliable high speed channel of communication from the cloud to desktops cost tremendous amount of money, probably as much if not more then you saved on consolidation of your data centers. And without such a channel you are playing dice, and can experience side effects of the "tragedy of commons": bandwidth will be unavailable when you need it most, for example during natural disasters. Not to say if you put all eggs into one basket and placed this basket in the wrong place... Hurricane Sandy was a wake up call for those who consolidated their Datacenters in Hoboken, NJ or other flooded areas along Hudson River.
In more ways that one IT resembles woman closing industry.
Generally management fashions pass through predictable life stages:
However, the length of this cycle is decreasing with each passing decade. At the same time, fashions are becoming more radical and difficult to implement. Yet, managers seem to abandon them more rapidly.
In more complex environments, IT managers more likely to adopt management fashions that provide disastrous results but change of the fashion is possible only with change of management and can take long time so the stage of disenchantment can be arbitrary long. Escalating commitment to a failing fad often creates a major crisis for the organization.
Management fads and fashions are not forced on unsuspecting, mindless corporate leaders. Instead they are selected as a wrong ways of solving existing problem. Betting the house on a magical solution. For example, in the 1960s there were employee assistance programs; in the 1970s, T-groups; in the 1980s, quality circles; and in the 1990s, reengineering initiatives. In fact, some see managers as superficial problem-solvers who are continually looking for off-the-shelf, ready-made solutions for complex business problems.
There are three managerial types who engage in management fad shopping. The first type attributes the failure of an earlier fad to some missing element or implementation problem. Therefore, they hire new experts who provide some variations on the fad theme in search of the correct approach. The second type get frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the fad and completely throw it out. They then wholeheartedly pursue a newer, potentially more devastating fad. The third type adopts every new fad that comes along. This last group often has their employees busy with new, stupid "initiatives" that core businesses are eroded.
Absurdity and incompetence of IT management creates excellent opportunities for your own creativity. In mismanaged datacenter hijacking a server and using it for your own research is pretty easy. Chances that you will ever be detected are close to zero. Sometimes you can exploit management fads for your own advantage as it creates an opportunity to work with cutting edge hardware.
In any case the worst and the most unproductive reaction is just to hate those jerks. They are part of the ecosystem and you need to learn how to adapt and even flourish in this pretty strange ecosystem, which you can't change.
It you think that startups are a better place, think again. Relentless pressure of startup to became profitable distort things no less (if not more) then large scale incompetence on most levels and complete loss of customer focus typical for a large corporate IT. I don't know which is better.
DILBERT MEANS BUSINESS. The (anti-)hero of one of the most successful comic strips of our time is an icon for office workers everywhere - the only character property that speaks to business through multiple media outlets including the daily comic-strip, an award-winning web site and a best-selling publishing program.
Anybody who works in an office or deals with bureaucracy relates to Dilbert's plight. Created by Scott Adams, Dilbert addresses issues ranging from office-envy/challenges to new technology - and the mayhem they produce. Dilbert features a rich cast of characters, including his sidekick Dogbert, his inept Boss, and his co-workers Wally and Alice. Primary target group for the property is adults 18-49 years old - affluent, educated and technology savvy.> The Dilbert daily comic strip appears in 2.000 newspapers in 65 countries worldwide in 25 different languages. More than 20 million Dilbert books and calendars have been sold in North America alone; several titles cumulatively spending over one year on The New York Times Best Seller List. The Dilbert Principle is categorically the best selling business book of all time.
Dilbert was also the first syndicated comic strip character to officially go online, and the strip was the first to contain its creator's e-mail address. The award-winning web site The Dilbert Zone attracts millions of visitors each month. A Dilbert television series premiered in 1999, with Scott Adams and Larry Charles (Mad About You, Seinfeld) as executive producers.
Working as a computer engineer, Scott Adams started drawing Dilbert doodles to "enliven boring staff meetings". The character soon became so popular that other people at the company started using the character in their presentations. A "name-the-nerd" contest soon followed, and Dilbert was the obvious winner. After a few years, a contract was made with United Media, and Dilbert - "a composite of my co-workers during the years", Adams says - went from doodles to dailies.
Since then, Scott Adams has been awarded several prestigious prizes, including the National Cartoonist Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year and Best Newspaper Comic Strip (1997); Prix d'Excellence for Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook from the Maxim Business Club, Paris (1998), and the prize for Best International Comic Strip at the International Comic-Salon, Erlangen, Germany (1998).
Says Emmy Award winning Larry Charles, writer/producer of the Dilbert TV series: "Dilbert is a big Kafkaesque story of a little, logical man in a big, illogical world". In an environment where all bosses and many co-workers are heartless and stupid parasites, Dilbert stands out as the engineer with an active imagination and an inactive social life. His true love? Technology. Dilbert loves technology for the sake of technology; In fact, he loves technology more than people – he'd rather surf the Internet than Waikiki.
Dilbert's dog Dogbert is no man's best friend. His not-so secret ambition is to conquer the world and enslave all humans - whom he feels have been placed on this earth to amuse him. Dig deep enough below his fur, and you'll find a cynical, arrogant conniving little mutt with his paw on the pulse of the absurdity of corporate culture.
Years ago in Cleveland I saw the musical "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," mail clerk J. Pierpont Finch's hilarious romp up the corporate ladder. I remember using that experience as a take-off point for a sermon on business ethics - with the president and vice-president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce in the congregation. I was young and foolhardy then. Now I am old and foolhardy - as once again I attempt to enter a world in which I have had little experience, but about which I have many opinions.
Cartoonist Scott Adams in his strip Dilbert has updated "how to succeed" and created a primer on how not to succeed in business and in life. The Dilbert Principle is that "the most ineffective people are moved to the place where they can do the least amount of damage: management."
In Gilbert on Dilbert I suggest instead the Gilbert Principle - that our most important real life task is management - the management of meaning in our lives.
I am convinced that good cartoonists, as few others, have their pulse on the Zeitgeist - the spirit of the times.
Scott Adams' cartoon critique of management has become the talk of the town. Dilbert’s boss comes in for most abuse. For example, Adams parodies a management buzz word, reengineering, about which the boss says, "Everybody's doing it. We'd better jump under the bandwagon before the train leaves the station." Mixed metaphors are always dangerous.
Have you ever written a mission statement? Been there, done that. In another strip he satirizes the omnipresent mission statement, which he defines as "a long awkward sentence that demonstrates management’s inability to think clearly." The Boss says, "I took a crack at writing a ‘mission statement’ for our group.
‘We enhance stockholder value through strategic business initiatives by empowered employees working new team paradigms.’"
Dilbert: "Do you ever just marvel at the fact we get paid to do this?"
The Boss: "Did anybody bring donuts?"
One of Adams’ E-mail correspondents demonstrated the observation that Dilbert is more documentary than satire. "My boss actually said to me ‘Let’s bubble back up to the surface and smell the numbers.’ I had no idea what it meant." As Adams says, "No matter how absurd I try to make the comic strip, I can't stay ahead of what people are experiencing in the workplace."
Though he was fired from his job in corporate America, Adams personally thinks that corporate downsizing often does make the workplace more efficient - fewer workers means less time to waste on idiotic pursuits like vision statements, meetings and reorganizations - he nonetheless makes that phenomenon the target of many of his barbs.
One strip begins with a boss announcing he will be using humor to ease tensions caused by trimming the work force.
'I've decided to use humor in the workplace. Experts say humor eases tension which is important in times when the workforce is being trimmed. "Knock, knock," says the boss.
"Who’s there?" asks a hapless worker.
"Not you anymore," responds the grinning boss.
But Adams’ cynicism about human nature does not stop with the boss. Co-workers also seem to be caught up in this absurd work culture. A group of workers gather around another’s desk. One says, "We’re sorry to hear you’re getting laid off, Bruce. We calculated that if ten of your friends here took ten percent pay cuts, then the company can keep you."
Bruce: "Gosh! You’d do that for me?"
"No, we’re here to look at your office furniture."
What is the gospel according to Dilbert? There are times when Scott Adams becomes a prophet, skewering perceived injustice, mocking dehumanizing practices that are too close to reality for comfort. He writes about a familiar corporate mantra: "‘Employees are our most valuable asset.’ On the surface this statement seems to be at odds with the fact that companies are treating their "most valuable assets" the same way a leaf blower treats leaves. How can this apparent contradiction be explained?"
He treats this issue in a cartoon in which the boss admits he was mistaken that "employees are our most valuable asset." Actually, he explains, "they’re ninth." "Eighth place?" someone asks. "Carbon paper," says the boss.
After a particular "downsizing" there were unused work cubicles which the company decided to hire Dogbert Construction to retrofit them and rent them out to the state as a prison.
Dilbert: "I don’t think it’s fair to put convicts in our spare cubicles."
Dogbert: "Don’t be such a bigot. These people have made one little mistake. Otherwise, they’re just like employees."
Dilbert: "I think there are a few differences."
Dogbert: "Yeah, their health care is better."
How are we to assess Adams? Is he prophet or embittered employee getting back at his former bosses? I think Adams is no prophet but a social critic. He has a totally cynical view of human nature. His characters are not suffering from paranoia, people are out to get them - from the boss to the stockholders to their fellow-workers. These characters are totally self-interested, with no discernible trace of altruism.
One reporter asked him, "Are you as cynical as you seem?" "Yes. I don’t think what I’m doing is based on rage, but I’m terribly amused by the absurd.
The absurdity stands out more in a business setting because there’s an expectation that people will act rationally. But people aren’t rational."
Whether or not Dilbert is true to life, it is close enough that millions of people read it daily. In one survey of workers indicate that 87% say their workplace is a "pleasant environment," but Adams responds, "If you’re in an absurd situation and you’re not changing it, then you define it as being OK."
And it is true that more than 70% of workers report stress on the job, suggesting that there may well be a kind of suppressed rage in America’s workplaces. Dilbert's problem is that he is totally dehumanized by his work environment. Certainly my conversations with many of you indicate that working isn’t what it used to be - that work has become an ordeal - that it is robbing people not only of their time, but also of their human dignity.
For such people Dilbert is a pleasant catharsis. But Adams has been roundly criticized by more radical cartoonists as being "on the side of the ruling class," betraying "millions of insecure and beleaguered office workers" who consider him their champion. It is "not very radical commentary to say ‘Boy, aren’t bosses dumb.’ There’s no analysis, even in a goofy way, of why bosses act the way they do.
It’s ‘Boy is my boss dumb,’ but not ‘Boy, is this huge company stupid for doing this merger and laying off half its employees and devastating the local economy and shipping the jobs to Mexico or Indonesia.’ Criticizing stupid bosses without putting them in context is like complaining because it gets dark at night without understanding that the earth revolves around the sun. It’s a really limited view. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just a safety valve."
I confess I am somewhat suspicious of Adams' credentials as the prophet of the workplace. I withhold that status from anyone who in critiquing the corporation has become one, anyone who proudly admits he has always wanted "to make as much money as I could....If you can write on it, if it will hold a label, it’s a prime target for licensing. You can’t get to overexposure without getting to filthy rich first."
What is disturbing in Dilbert is the relative equanimity with which the office workers accept their plight. Passivity is their chief character trait. They seem to be automatons who do not so much live in, as simply respond to, their environment.
One wonders if painting this humorous picture of their ineptitude, their shallowness of life, their willingness to go along with absurdity, is a step on the way to ending the insanity. Or does it simply help them deal with it by laughing at it?
After all, CEO’s and management consultants post the cartoons on their office bulletin boards - how penetrating can this critique be if the targets simply divert the satirical arrows with a laugh? Adams says they always think he's pointing the finger at somebody else. Does Dilbert merely co-opt workers who ought to be struggling to humanize their work environment instead of making the best of their dehumanization?
Adams seems to be ambivalent on his role. On the one hand he defends himself by saying "anything which can be mocked will not last...." but who is to say it won’t last? And, on the other, he says, "My goal is not to change the world. My goal is to make a few bucks and hope you laugh in the process." He is hoisted on the petard of his own cynicism.
What is going to stop our thoughtless, dangerous, headlong dash into the 21st century in which work once more becomes drudgery - albeit a high tech one - a drudgery which increasingly consumes our lives.
In the mid-1990’s the Apple Macintosh development team wore T shirts proclaiming "90 hours a week and loving it!" Is that the kind of brave new world we want? We seem caught up in a momentum about which many of us complain, but about which we seem to be able to do little or nothing. We accept the new oppression with nary a critical word - so fearful are we for our jobs.
Now the cartoonist, of course, is not really supposed to be a social revolutionary, but is Adams helping sustain a workplace environment which so often saps the human spirit by merely encouraging us to laugh at it?
Or is he launching a long-overdue conversation about the place of work in human life? Is Adams helping or hindering our headlong dash into the brave new world where we live faster and faster, with more and more, for less and less meaning?
In 1987 social critic Jeremy Rifkin uttered these prophetic words:
"We have quickened the pace of life only to become less patient. We have become more organized but less spontaneous, less joyful. We are better prepared to act on the future but less able to enjoy the present and reflect on the past."
Is that to be the culmination of our evolution as spiritual creatures? That our work will suck the life force from us, as it did for Scott Adams. Are you happy in your work? Does it add meaning to your life? If so, good. If not, what are you, what can you, do about it?
The Dilbert solution of supine acquiescence in absurdity is a spiritually fatal position. It is a study in how not to succeed in the business of life. Adams offers us no hope. The Gilbert principle is that we need to manage the meaning of our lives in the workplace - for it is there, increasingly, that humanity’s fate is being decided. It would not be not enough for me to endure the absurdity of the workplace, to find a humorous "haven in a heartless world." It is our task to make that world less heartless.
May 4, 1997
Business Week, 5/27/96, 46.
U.S. News and World Report, 4/22/96, 77.
Fortune, 5/13/96, pp. 99-110.
Newsweek, 8/12/96, pp. 52-57.
Windows, 5/95, reprinted in Utne Reader, 7-8/95, 88-9.
Salon - on line
USA Weekend, 7/26-28/96, 10, and 3/21-23/97, 18.
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 2/23/97, 1E.
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