London always gets me to do some soul-searching. There are days when I wonder why I turned my back on it, in the nineties. Whenever I am in the city, I guess I reconnect with the part of me I leave behind – and my old ghosts.
I moved to London in 1985. Costa Coffee and Bar Italia were the closest to a real cappuccino. Ken Livingstone was about to be kicked out of the Greater London Council. The Brixton Riots designated chunks of South London as a no-go zone. The Who were planning a 25th Anniversary concert. Music was just plain horrible. It was the first time I had seen a PC, one of those first IBM ‘portables’ with a screen built into the case and a keyboard dangling out of a socket. Six months after my arrival, I qualified as a Chartered Accountant and my boss told me that now I had a licence to make money. The statement was not exactly prophetic. Eighties London was rubber-stamped by bean counters, Margaret Thatcher and Loadsamoney. I wasn’t particularly taken by the concept of making money, but I knew I wanted to travel and that something in strategy was probably more life-rewarding than accountancy. So my natural habitat became multinationals. On the day I was interviewed for a European controller job with IP Sharp (IPSA), a Canadian computer timesharing and consulting Group, I was informed that Reuters were close to a takeover. In other words, the risk of LIFO loomed over any eventual appointment.
As it happened, I spent two years immersed in restructuring and change management – and understanding the promise and limitations of technology. At face value, the IPSA / Reuters deal was a marriage made in heaven. IPSA specialised in data warehousing, yesterday’s information, Reuters in today’s, the Reuters screen. Reuters decided early on to integrate the IPSA product into its core service offering, believing it could corner the market. What Reuters failed to understand was that Sharp’s product had been developed by a network of brilliant, but highly ‘un-corporate’ APL software developers. People who worked weird hours, often from home, and in many cases were accountable to nobody other than their own whims. The clash with Reuters’ blue-chip corporate culture where information was transient, and nobody was indispensable, was immediate. Reuters’s frustration grew by the day as the Special projects team charged with the integration realised that: the APL developers were indispensable; that IPSA was a ‘people’ business as opposed to a technology platform; and that there the company they had purchased was worthless without some major culture changes in both organisations – and a leap of faith from both camps to try and get the deal to work. Being the new kid on the block, my job quickly evolved into working with IPSA country managers to prepare people and systems for the inevitable integration and determine who could make the transition. I also became a conduit to the Reuters guys whose job was on the line to ‘complete integration’ within two years. By the time this period had flashed by, I had worked in many countries in Continental Europe, learnt about the idiosyncrasies of multinationals, saw some people resist and others thrive on change. There are always winners and losers in acquisitions and mergers. Some of IPSA’s best people could not accept the new suits and moved – in some cases, with crippling consequences on the core product. The more political elements (sic. sales and marketing) were in a rush to move their desks to Fleet Street from Victoria. And in typical fashion, having got through my two-year project and being told to ‘cruise and wait for the new dream position in Reuters Special Projects Department to be approved ‘ – I decided life was short, and moved on to Hitachi Data Systems.
This week, in London, I ran a Forum for key users of a legacy business support system, built over some eight years by a Delphi developer. I had to use whatever powers of persuasion I have to convince my client that it was worth the investment to get people round a table to take stock of developments over the past 12 months and address the thorny issues of standardisation. This in an environment where customisation was the name of the game, where system changes were made ‘on the run’ and in many cases undocumented, and where the developer and his team were in a never-ending spiral of design, build, customise, support, design. User training was sporadic and had to be fitted around the developers’ support time. User and technical documentation was virtually non-existent. Twelve months ago, the CEO lived in perpetual fear that the developers would move and leave the company stranded without the backbone of its successful business model. Which was why I was called in.
The situation with the legacy system twelve months ago reminded me of the scenario Reuters inherited when it bought IP Sharp. The mistake Reuters made then was to ignore the people side of things (‘soft’ was the buzz word then) and try and rail-road the solution by focusing on getting the technologies to talk to each other. I decided the only way round the undocumented legacy system was to engage with the people behind it and get into their headspace – before developing a strategy to get out of the never-ending spiral of customisation and ‘software development on demand.’ I made mistakes, tried to move things too quickly, retrenched, did the drinking / listening / bonding bit.. whatever it took. Ultimately, developers demand respect, like anybody else working for a living. In this case, these guys had just barricaded themselves in. Slowly, I gained some level of trust. To enable us to get out of crisis management mode into starting to establish clear arms-length relationships with the non ICT literate users of the system. In 12 months, the system was documented, users were forced to stop bickering and request changes via formal channels – significantly reducing the number of changes until they trickled into nothing. We focused on user interfaces as opposed to more development changes. I engaged a process specialist to map out the company’s core business processes as I was convinced that the system had simply evolved to support the whims of the more vociferous elements of management instead of what core business required. We made some major changes within the organisational framework of the system to mirror the real life processes. We did some stuff like relabelling and designing new icons to help navigation. And on a particularly inspired evening, we branded the system Elvis, to send a playful signal to the rest of the organisation that the system had a life of its own, and was no longer the domain of a particular developer.
I guess sitting with ten people in London with people who caught trains and planes to engage in a discussion on an IT system they loved to hate was a bit of a coup.
Sometimes I wonder whether middle age is when déjà vu really kicks in. Sometimes I feel l can see the movie of my life flash past. When mainframes ruled at IPSA and we shared files over our global networks and used email many years before the Internet made it all pervasive .
Then I see my four year-old, clicking a mouse and laughing at the clips I have uploaded on Google Video and realise how we all have to relearn what we thought we knew. Every day.