30 April 2007

Fired With Enthusiasm

After years working his fingers to the bone on his own IT business, Phil was enjoying the relative tranquillity of work at a City of London bank. However, he was shocked by the number of "light arms" in the IT department, who didn't do a stroke of useful work all day, and became animated only when the magical hour of 5PM approached...

The Light Arms Brigade

Kishor, the IT director, looked up from his notes. “We don’t have many people working for us here” he said, and flung the file on his desk with some exasperation.

I had learned rapidly, in my new career as an underling, never to contradict anyone senior to me. Instead, I mutely stared out over the vast sea of cubicles in the huge open-plan office, and scratched my head in puzzlement.

“I suspect it depends on your definition of the word many” I suggested placatingly.

“No it effing doesn’t” he spat out “it depends on your definition of the word work.”

I had come to the IT department of a major London Bank as a refugee, having run my own IT business for some years, and I was enjoying the increased pay and tranquillity. It had, however, come as a complete surprise to find myself surrounded by members of the IT staff who didn’t do a stroke of useful work all day, and became animated only when the magical hour of 5PM approached.

I’d never come across such a thing before. In the IT world of the SMEs, we were all caught up in the never-ending struggle to survive. We worked all the hours we could in order to deal with impossible workloads. I had to agree with Kishor that we had more than our fair share of idlers in the staff.

We called them the light arms (low calibre, small bore, needed to be fired). One such character confessed to me how he was able to catch up on his sleep while at work. His amazing talent was being able to doze off with his eyes open, whilst staring at the screen and tapping the CAPS key.

If resting after the exertions of ones night-life wasn’t to your taste, then there were other diversions to while away the time. The Finance Director happened to be looking through the small-ads in the local paper and came across a phone-number that looked curiously familiar. It was for a professional accountant. Puzzled, he phoned the number and was put through to one of his managers a few desks away who was running a firm of accountants ‘on the side’.

Therefore, I sympathised with Kishor, and helped him to refine his list of the ‘light arms’ members of the department. It wasn’t hard to do, as the programmers leaked like sieves on the subject of the ‘time-servers’. However, it seemed to me a bleak and hopeless task to motivate such people, and I knew immediately how difficult it would be to sack them. I felt that the only way forward was to try to encourage these people by a mixture of flattery and jobrole-change.

As it happened, Kishor never asked for my advice, but I suspected he had a plan. Kishor always had a plan. For some time before I came to work for him, I’d heard of his exploits, and his cunning. I once met him in the course of business, when he first started out in IT; a young serious-minded Systems Analyst, working for a software house. He’d come a long way since.

Within a few days, the department secretary announced that some of the ‘high fliers’ in the department were to go on a training course at the company’s expense, to learn C#. Various people were picked to go on this course, and there were dark mutterings of discontent from some of the excluded technical die-hards, mainly about how they’d had to learn the language themselves, in the evenings. Kishor told the few managers who protested to him at the choice of several ‘light arms’ candidates that it was a way of inspiring them to change their attitude to work, giving them a fresh start with a different technology. The C# course came and went. As I suspected, I didn’t need to arrange cover for any of the participants in my department. Neither did anyone else.

Soon afterwards, the participants started to hand in their notice. The trickle increased to a rush, and it soon became apparent that they had all been head-hunted by a rival bank, The Imperial Bank (not it’s real name).

Kishor conducted a stormy staff meeting soon afterwards. The gossip had swept the city that the Imperial Bank had scooped up the entire group of high-fliers from our department. Evidently, a list of the participants in the course had somehow got into the hands of the Imperial Bank. Kishor tearfully railed at the iniquity of our rivals and we all shook our heads in sorrow at the disloyalty of our staff, and the chicanery of the person who had leaked the list. We were particularly incensed that we’d trained them in valuable skills at our company’s expense.

When the extent of the duplicity became apparent, we became objects of pity in the wider world of IT. It even got a mention in one of the computer papers that we’d lost an entire ‘year’ of graduate entrants to the other bank.

Still mulling over this dramatic turn of events, I retreated to one of our favored City Pubs, where I was sipping a pint of fine ale, and enduring a certain amount of good-natured ribbing from one of the managers from the Imperial Bank’s IT department.

It was at this exact moment that it dawned on me what Kishor had done. I suddenly recalled, with complete clarity, walking through the City streets one evening that summer, just after the training course was announced, and catching sight of Kishor in this very same establishment. The grey-suited customers spilled out into the street clutching their beer-glasses and talking loudly. In the thick of the mêlée was Kishor, surrounded by IT people. Here and there, like jackals around a campsite, I had noted the sharp attire and haircut that marked out an IT employment agent.

Kishor had ‘accidentally’ let slip to one of these IT agents the fact that he was sending all his most talented staff on a training course, knowing full well that the agent would subsequently inveigle the list from one of the more ‘malleable’ of the light arms candidates. From there, it was but a short hop for the list, into the hands of the agent’s best client – the Imperial Bank! I smiled in awe and wonder at the subtlety of Kishor’s plan, and its implications. Suddenly, the pint of Landlord Bitter in my hand, bought for me by an Imperial Bank manager whose conscience had been troubling him, tasted twice as sweet.

After a few months, of course, the IT department of the Imperial Bank realized that all was not quite as they’d hoped. They’d expected a swift recouping of the expense of their golden handshaking. It didn’t happen like that and they began to detect the deadening lethargy of their new recruits. I was even drawn to one side by a senior manager at the Imperial Bank and asked what on earth our low-fliers were like. I merely smiled and said that so much employee productivity was bound up in the whole ethos of the workplace and our skilled management techniques.

Not only had Kishor cleared out all the dead wood from our department but he had transferred it to the rival bank in such a way as to inflict maximum expense and damage to them. We had, as well, all emerged as the innocent victims. It was at that point that I realised I would never make it to the top rank of IT managers. Something else was necessary; a talent I didn’t possess. Kishor had it.

In subsequent jobs, I learned quickly that the light arms brigade tend to nestle in the crooks and crannies of all large international enterprises and government departments. In one particularly memorable case, I spent three months in a government department working on a database audit, and sharing a desk with a Systems Analyst who was running a society magazine for Rural Field Sports. He was supposed to be maintaining several ‘legacy systems’ but this took only the occasional five minutes out of his busy life amongst the ferrets, grouse and salmon.

It’s at these times that I remember the lessons I learned from Kishor. His talent, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the goings-on in all the City of London IT departments, had seen him rise from the shy, serious programmer I’d first known, to the youngest IT director ever in the City of London. It was comforting to me to reflect that at least some of the knowledge that had driven him there had been gained in one of our beloved City of London pubs, where IT people congregated, and where Kishor gathered intelligence over a glass of orange juice.

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  • Adam Machanic

    Great job, as always

  • Anonymous

    Today I learned something new!
    thx phil.

  • Anonymous

    Amazing
    It’s amazing. Everyone wins except the Imperial Bank, who had it coming when they tried to hurt their competitor by taking their talent.

    Kishor: Got rid of the dead weight without firing them.

    Light Arms: Better jobs.

  • Anonymous

    Not unique to IT
    I used to work in the television industry. It was not altogether uncommon for an astute Program Manager to undertake a mission similiar to Kishor’s. Sometimes churn is good!

  • CarlosUrbina

    Superlative!
    Let us know when you publish your first IT novel. It’ll be a best seller for sure, what with 20M ITers around.

  • Patrick Index

    Permies – who needs them
    Phil

    You are always one step ahead.
    Was Kishor’s real name Dushy by any chance?

    Paddy

  • Phil Factor

    re: Permies – who needs them
    Patrick,
    I can’t give any clues as to real identities, much as I’d like to! You can assume that all details have been changed! The Agency concerned, who had been responsible for poaching some of our best staff, didn’t survive the sting. Kishor continues his meteoric career, bless him!

  • Anonymous

    proofreading
    s/conscious/conscience

  • Anonymous

    Haha!
    That is a great story!

  • Phil Factor

    Re: Superlative
    Hang on CarlosUrbina, I have published my IT memoirs! They are here at http://www.simple-talk.com/opinion/opinion-pieces/free-phil-factor-ebook-confessions-of-an-it-manager/ and the ebook is free. The lavishly illustrated prestige hardcopy version, the ultimate coffee-table accessory (need I go on) is on http://www.lulu.com/content/573311

  • Anonymous

    The start of the legend
    This piece will be eagerly borrowed and repurposed elsewhere many times

    Cheers, Phil.

  • Mr. Greene ATL

    Kishor – legend!
    I’d like to buy that guy a glass of orange. I’ll be considering those tactics as I continue to rise through the ranks of my company out here in Atlanta. Genius!

  • Anonymous

    Where in the city…
    Very interesting, but missing important pieces of information, such as, which city pub sells Landlord…

  • Anonymous

    Legends…
    Great story.
    We’re all assuming the light brigadiers were replaced with large-bore cannons? A great manager knows how to motivate existing personnel, not just replace. A good management plan would have identified & documented slackers, then removed or demoted them without the expense of further educating them. What of the morale of those hard-workers who got to see their slacky co-workers get trained & leave for more money?

  • Anonymous

    What a lie
    You guys watch to much movies.

  • Anonymous

    There is a corollary…
    I worked for a multinational corporation once that had a separate division publicly tasked with all things IT.

    They rather jealously guarded their turf; if you worked IT in one of the “supported” divisions outside of their direct control, life went thusly:

    When you saw them constantly and repeatedly doing something or other in an outstandingly stupid and failure-prone fashion…

    Or when you disagreed when they said “that cannot be done with current technology”, and shuddered in shock at the waste as they dumped a few more millions on new hardware – knowing that the original requirement would get lost in the confusion…and did…over and over…

    When, in short, you realized that they were career members of the light arms brigade…

    You kept your mouth shut and played at being a member of the light arms brigade yourself – because if you publicized the waste and ineptitude, a series of “private” conversations would begin to occur between your division and theirs that involved ever higher levels of management.

    Woe to the IT worker whose bosses were promoted up and away, leaving them unprotected from the wrath of some of the most consummate back-office politicians that ever sat around on the face of this Earth.

    They would soon learn that a low calibre round in the back is just as deadly as catching an Abrahms round in the front.

  • Phil Factor

    Re: There was a corollary
    Heavens above! we must have worked in the same Multi-nationals! Well, actually, I suspect that the dynamics are the same in all large corporates. There are ways around this whispering campaign by the ‘back-office politicians’ which I have used successfully in the past. Keep reading the ‘Phrenetic Phoughts of Phil Factor’ and all will be revealed!

  • Anonymous

    Here is an alternate ending:
    A few thousand pounds for IT training is a lot less expensive (and troublesome) than firing them outright and then facing possible wrongful termination lawsuits. Brilliant!
    Here is a twist on similar concept. There are rumors of “recruiters” who specialize in luring light arms away from their current employer with a sweet sounding “contract-to-hire opportunity” that ultimately lasts only a few weeks. The light arm’s ex-employer actually pays the fee which is then split between the recruiter and their “client”.

  • Rabbit Johnson

    Clever
    Usually we see the stupid dullards in IT management–incapable useless dolts unworthy of human status.

    This guy was a genius 😉

  • Anonymous

    Excellent Lesson
    I will utilize the lesson here. Outstanding!