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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Work Frustrations Crystalize Into Long Email - With Mixed Results

After voicing my work-related frustrations orally on and off for the past couple of months, I decided it would be a good idea (and probably a cathartic experience) to put my concerns down in an email. At first, I did not know who to send the email to, but later decided that I would send it just to my manager. I have a reputation for being fair and reasonable at work, so I did not want to unnecessarily create the impression that this was a crisis, and I was going off my rocker. Yes, it was a big distraction and a pain in the neck, but it was not yet a crisis.

So, here is the text of the email I sent to my manager after word-smithing it carefully over the course of an hour or so. Names have been changed to protect the guilty, obviously!

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Hi,

I am convinced that right from the beginning, this project has not been about getting the users more capable tools, but about buying and installing a vendor’s product at our company. In fact, it is about buying and installing a SPECIFIC vendor’s product at our company. A certain director in IT joined our company straight out of this vendor, and I firmly believe that he has been driving the entire process towards this specific conclusion since the day he got here with this agenda in mind.

First of all, given the fact that he worked with this vendor before joining our company, he should not have been allowed to be in any position to influence purchases and other decisions with respect to this vendor. I am not saying he has a hidden agenda or anything like that, but it is certainly a conflict of interest. But not only has he not been stopped from these activities, he has carried them on openly, and at every step, taken pains to keep other organizations that might have a competing or more rational agenda out of the loop.

He sprung the idea of a vendor product to replace the current suite of tools quite suddenly while we were busy drawing up plans for going through a proof-of-concept of a new data infrastructure using our own tools. During this meeting, and in all subsequent meetings about this topic, he has deliberately distorted and misrepresented various aspects of the process just to advance his agenda of getting this vendor in through the door.

First of all, he painted a rosy picture of the vendor delivering a product to us within the next couple of years. He portrayed our product as taking more than 5 years of development time. Now, we know, and he knows, that the timeline we came up with (I am not sure whether we even formalized and presented such a timeline, but let us assume we did) was for a completely integrated suite of tools that would solve all of our users' problems all together. It would be a truly integrated product which would be a first of its kind in the entire industry. The rosy scenario of a vendor delivering tools in 2 years is of a suite of disparate tools that don’t talk to each other except through the data layer. A similar set of tools developed by us would probably be ready before the vendor can even understand our requirements given that we have all the individual components ready to go. We already have stand-alone models that solve individual user problems in a non-integrated manner and all we would need to do is develop interfaces with a new data layer once it is ready to go. We would need perhaps 5 months, not 5 years. But the process was never and has never been about comparing apples to apples, or making a rational decision with the best interests of the company in mind.

Next, he came up with a questionnaire that tilts the playing field further in favor of his preferred vendor by assigning huge weights to a small subset of questions that deal with current usage, and assigning tiny weights to a large set of much more important questions about functionality and capability. The answers to these questions from each of the vendors included in the RFP were already well-known, not only to this director in IT, but to everyone who is familiar with these vendors. It was purely an exercise in formality to make sure that the appropriate documentation is collected to justify the purported superiority of this vendor in comparison to other vendors.

After promising that we would be involved in every step of the process, he springs the next surprise on us by scheduling visits to clients of these vendors without a word of warning to us. It would have been better to just tell us he did not want us involved in the process and to get lost, but instead he feels compelled to come up with some inane excuse about cost savings to keep us out of the visits. Keeping us out of the visits is one thing, but keeping us out of the loop is an entirely different thing.

I don’t even understand how IT has been given such full control over the process of deciding what system should be bought, given that it is an optimization and solution system we are seeking, not some kind of hardware or pure IT infrastructure system. The process has been structured as if the system we are purchasing is being purchased purely from the standpoint of a software system for the accomplishment of IT functions. But it is not. The purchase is of a system whose primary function, functionality and capabilities, only we and the users understand and can mandate. What role IT has to play in this purchase process is a mystery to me. Their job should be to do whatever is necessary to integrate such a system into our existing IT infrastructure if and when it is purchased after due consideration by the users and us. It should not be their job to tell us what system to purchase given that they don’t have the faintest idea what functionality is required in the system to begin with.

IT’s role in this company has morphed into that of an overarching gate-keeper instead of being facilitators, even as their capabilities have degraded over time to the point of almost complete uselessness. With this new role has come the obstructionist attitude of it’s their way or the highway when it comes to getting any IT support for any project. They appoint themselves the project leaders of every project out there and insist that they be the ones to facilitate all communications regarding the project. Why should IT run any projects they don’t understand? If the users have an optimization problem to solve, they should be able to come to us directly, not go to IT as a gatekeeper organization to facilitate discussions with us. The gatekeeper role then gives them the power to short-circuit the process by eliminating us from the loop and deciding unilaterally to procure a vendor product to respond to the user.

In the beginning, I understood our need to play along since it seemed like that was the only way to get a data infrastructure built for our future use. Our meetings with the users to present our vision of what should be included in this project seemed to go well, and the users seemed to understand the importance of a unified, integrated suite of tools that can be used in various functions inside and outside the organization to perform various functions. I was also hopeful that IT’s plans will eventually be thwarted when the users realize that no vendor system out there has the capabilities we envision for the ideal system that will take care of the users' needs comprehensively.

But it looks like the users have been influenced much more by other factors while our backs were turned, probably by the visions of a quick deployment of high-quality tools painted by this director to his peers in the user groups. I knew we had lost completely when a director from the user group declared that all he wanted were stand-alone tools that did not need any programmatic interface with anything else inside or outside his organization. He did not even seem to understand the concept or purpose of a programmatic interface with something else in spite of our meeting with him where we explained the interconnectedness of all this functionality and the need for various parts of the system to interface seamlessly with other parts of the system. He also did not seem in the least bit concerned that we had been left out of the vendor and client site visits.

The fact that nobody responded to our last-minute request to be included in the site visits further cements my opinion that we have been out-maneuvered by IT in this regard. Maybe it is because this director in IT was able to exert influence because of his position within the organization while we were in transition without a dedicated director. Or maybe, the users have decided that they have had enough of us and our models, and specifically want to keep us out of the process. Why even include us in these weekly meetings just to rub our noses in it?

Given this confluence of factors, I think it would be in our best interest to openly withdraw from this process and focus our time and resources on other projects that would benefit from our attention. There are two advantages to this course of action. First, we will have more time to devote to the projects we do turn our attention towards. Instead of wasting our time and energy spinning our wheels, trying to get in on a process from which we have been evicted slowly but surely, we would spend our time productively working on a project where our expertise can make a positive difference.

Secondly and perhaps, more importantly, when this project turns out to be a total fiasco, there will be no opportunity for anyone to point fingers at us. At this point, I firmly believe that this project, as envisioned by IT and the users, will only end up making the user organization into a more siloed organization that functions less effectively than it does today. Our performance will suffer as a result. The users will become unhappy with the system and its results, and accusations, recriminations and finger-pointing will inevitably follow. By playing along on the fringes, we are giving the impression that the decisions being made today are vetted and approved by us even though we know they are not. That makes it more likely that when the accusations do start flowing, we will be directly in the path of the users’ wrath. The theme of the accusations will surely be that we should have known better than to go along with such an inferior system. It will not matter at that time that we had no influence over the process, and we will once again not be able to convince anyone of our “innocence” in the whole affair.

There is, in fact, a third aspect to this that is closely related to the second reason for dissociating ourselves from the process. IT is a large organization with a lot more turnover than our organization. The people who are working on this project from the IT side will almost certainly not be working on this project 3, 4 or 5 years from now. They would either have quit our company or at least moved on to other roles within IT. We, on the other hand, belong to an organization with a lot more stability. 3, 4 or 5 years from now, it is very likely that the principals working on this project right now will still be working in our organization, and quite possibly with the same users. When those users want somebody to blame for this fiasco, it will be a lot easier for them to find and blame us than it will be for them to find and blame IT employees who will probably not be around.

By withdrawing from the process and letting it take its course, we will be untainted by it. That will leave us in a better position to influence events when the time comes to actually give the users a makeover with systems that actually perform the functions we think they should. Yes, the purchase of a vendor product right now will proceed uninterrupted, and it could very well be a costly waste of the company’s money and other resources. But that is not going to change just because we stay engaged in this farcical process. IT has made up its mind, and has convinced the users that they know what they are doing. We are just left fighting an uphill battle without any traction on either the IT side or the user side. The fact that the vice-president on the user side did not even deign to respond to your note on vendor site visits convinces me that whatever we do to regain influence in this process will be too little too late.

I also understand that dissociating ourselves from this process might be tricky at this stage without us sounding like sore losers. But I think there are valid arguments for doing so, and I just wanted to present them to you. I do believe (and I know you believe also) that this process has become a big distraction to our group, and is dragging down the morale and productivity of our group. It is a constant irritant and becomes more of an irritant every time we attend these meetings that are just used by IT to tell everybody else what decisions have been made rather than to actually make decisions collectively. It has also become a topic of water-cooler discussions and it is only a matter of time before somebody ends up saying something politically incorrect to someone they shouldn’t have said it to. Also, I think it has the potential to create friction between our organization and IT in areas where there is none now. I think going our own way and getting busy on a different project will cool people’s tempers and occupy their minds so that all this blows over and cooler heads can prevail eventually.

There is also the bigger question of what exactly our role within our company is. We hear great things from our vice-president about how the company values us greatly and how user groups are encouraged to come to us for any analytical and/or optimization needs. And then we have certain user groups that have worked with us for years suddenly deciding that they would be better off believing some stranger in IT that vendor products can perform miracles that we can not. I think our status within the company is a bigger source of long-term concern than the isolated spurning of our solutions by specific user groups.

I understand that this might come off as a petulant whine or rant, but that is not my intention at all. I apologize if it came off like that. I tried as hard as possible to keep my emotions out of it and just present the facts as they have occurred so far. Moreover, I have not shared this with anybody else inside or outside our organization. At the very least, writing this email allowed me to get my thoughts off my chest so that I will, hopefully, not be burdened by them going forward, whichever course we choose.

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I sent the email off around 2 PM and made my way to my manager's office right behind. I did not want to send the email off at the close of business and vanish. That might have freaked my manager out! I wanted to make this as rational a process as I could, so I hung around near my manager's office while he finished reading the email fully.

After that, he called me in and we had a long conversation about the whole situation. He started out by saying that he agreed with most of what I had written. The process was not fair, things were not being done correctly. But, he also did not agree with some of what I had written. He felt that we should take the high road and continue to engage in the process and make our concerns known at every step of the way. It does not guarantee that we will not be blamed if and when there is a disaster, but our role within the company demanded that we be involved in the process (though there were others within the company who wished we would be gone!).

He was also not convinced that everyone on the user side was convinced that the vendor product would solve all their problems by magic the way IT was portraying it. He had faith that there were some people in the organization who would catch on (either because of our insistent voices, or by themselves) and call IT on their bad assumptions and processes. I was not fully convinced of this, but he seemed to have more faith in the judgment of the users than I did.

He also reminded me that the budgeting process that had been completed so far only allowed for a brief proof-of-concept test to be conducted with the vendor product at this point. There was no budget for a full deployment, so a lot of people in the company, including the highest levels of finance and other organizations would have to be convinced that this was a good idea before it could become reality. We still have a lot of time and avenues to make our opinions known before any of this becomes set in stone.

Finally he repeated what he has been repeating since day 1 of this whole process: we are not interested in knowing what any vendor can do for our company. We are interested in knowing whether there are any vendors out there that have the capability to do what we want them to do for our company. The RFP process bypassed this important step by asking the vendors for their capabilities rather than presenting our requirements and asking for those capabilities. But there was still time to expose the truth by staying involved in the process and working on it diligently.

I did not have any interest in rocking the boat violently. The email was more to crystalize my thoughts and formalize my thinking than to give notice that I was going to part ways with my manager. I also understand to some extent the predicament my manager is in, being the face of our organization to our users in this area. He obviously did not want the users to think we were abandoning them at this time even though some users did not seem to care one way or another.

To put it frankly, this lull in my workload has enabled me to get some free time at work to devote to various other things (such as my blog posts). I did not mind the situation continuing to be a little vague in the short term. I just did not want the situation to deteriorate to such an extent that in the long term, it could jeopardize my or my colleagues' careers. I reiterated my agreement with my manager on some key points and then left to take care of other stuff.

I had made my point. I had let my manager know that there was concern. I had also let my manager know that the concern was under control for now. There was nothing mentioned, but the meeting had highlighted to my manager that he had to try and be creative about finding other avenues to influence the process positively in the near to mid-term before things became much worse. I think that is a good outcome for a couple of hours worth of email-writing and chatting!

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