In Search of Answers

There was a knock on my door. I looked up and saw the door open just enough for Barbra, my assistant, to check my availability. She then came in, carrying two cups of coffee. It was time for our mid-morning schedule check. “How’s it going so far?” she asked, placing my favorite mug in front of me. Laura had painted I Love My Grandfather on it for Father’s Day four years ago, when she was in the first grade, and it is one of my treasures.

“Not bad,” I said. In one hand I picked up the pages I had been studying and in the other I grabbed the mug. I moved towards the two stuffed leather side chairs nearest the window. Barbra followed, seated herself, then watched as I carefully took a short sip. It stung a little, so I decided to let it cool and looked first out the window, then back at Barbra.

Finally I said, “Not bad, but actually, not so good either,” and gazed out the window again, letting my eyes sweep across the building tops. It was either do that, or try again with the sections of the Proposed Budget for our Information Technology Group (ITG) I had brought with me to the chairs.

Barbra waited, saying nothing. Six years of working with me had taught her about my silences, and she guessed this was one not to be broken until I was ready. She was right. As president of Weixx-Corp, this consumer products manufacturing company, my need for multi-tasking had only grown as the economy had worked its way from recession to rapid growth and competitive pressures from foreign manufacturers has intensified. Particularly brisk had been the rate of import activity from the Asian countries, challenging us in all sectors of our product markets. Barbra had been with the company for over twelve years, first working in various capacities in our plants while she completed her undergraduate degree in finance and accounting, then moving into our administrative offices. Soon, she was tapped to work on the support staff in our executive offices. I had seen enough of her work — and observed how she interacted with our management team — to believe she could make significant contributions to me. Since joining me, she had consistently proven herself to be invaluable, and we had developed a professional relationship that had made us increasingly more comfortable working together. In short, I trusted her instincts, knowledge of our business and discretion when it came to handling matters of the highest sensitivity.

So I broke the silence.

“Have you seen Morgan’s budget request for next year?” Not waiting for her answer, I almost shouted, “He’s asking for another $450 million!” Flipping the pages, I continued, “Says we need to add on to our mainframe system . . . wants to replace over 3000 PCs with new ones, not to mention all sorts of other new gadgets I’ve never even heard of before!” I was getting hotter while my coffee, forgotten, cooled off, but Barbra remained calm and listened as I began pacing in front of the windows. As I said, she knew me and bided her time.

“We just spent over $500 million this year for what he and those partners from that high-priced computer consulting outfit promised last year would carry us for at least five more years! Now we’re supposed to throw almost the same amount into computers all over again? Where do they think we would get off asking our Exec Committee to keep spending these kinds of dollars year after year? Where does it end?”

Turning to the right page, I held it out for Barbra to see. “And right here there’s another $40 million for our consultant friends. It’s labeled Assistance in Converting to the new PC operating system. That was the very operating system we paid them $10 million for recommending this year. Absurd! This is just ridiculous!”

As I sat back down and only then began to work on my coffee in earnest, Barbra found her opening: “When he dropped off your copy of the budget, Morgan said you wouldn’t be happy. He said that since his department was cut in half in that last downsizing two years ago, he just doesn’t have the people to handle all our internal demands, much less conduct studies and make long range-plans. Said all he has time to do these days is put out fires.”

“Well, he’s not the Lone Ranger!” I nearly shouted, without it registering that Barbra was probably like a growing number of people these days who hadn’t a clue who the Lone Ranger was — was that my memory obsolescence? ‘Another time,’ my mind, replied.

“Nobody has enough people,” I continued. “But the reason we gave ITG so much money the past two years was so they could have computers and phone systems that were supposed to help take up the slack.” Now on a roll, I pulled my chair next to hers, tapped one of the pages for her to follow me, and continued, “And, by the way, he’s asking to add another thirty people to his staff so he can write some new billing and receivables programs. Says here the ones we wrote a few years ago can’t take advantage of the new hardware and this new operating system the consultants say we just must have . . . .”

Knowing full well the answers in advance, Barbra asked, “Aren’t those consultants the same ones who helped McKinnis and the Exec Committee decide how to reorganize three years ago? The same ones who recommended major staffing cuts in ITG?”

“Catch-22,” I said.

She didn’t hesitate. “Nice game if you can get into it,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

Back at the window I spotted a thin column of smoke, rising from the trees in the park. I focused on it and said, more to myself than to Barbra, “I don’t know yet, but I’ve got to figure this thing out before it gets out of hand. Correction: any more out of hand. And, compounding it all is the revelation our newest software won’t readily allow us to fully utilize the power of the Internet! No telling how much we’ll have to spend for software modifications and to streamline our processes for seven by twenty-four communications with our customers, suppliers and our internal operations. If recent history is any indication of what comes next, I’m guessing we’ll start by forking over more money to the consultants to deal with that subject!”

My thoughts went back to the time we were first told our old software might not handle dates beyond 1999. My stomach tightened as I related those memories to Barbra. “Like numerous others caught in the Year 2000 problem, we had hoped we could get by with spending an estimated $50 million modifying our existing programs through a process called remediation, rather than the $500 million required to install a new package and upgrade our core hardware systems. But our CIO at the time said the old software couldn’t be made to work. Soon after I’d convinced the powers-that-be to spend the big bucks and we’d begun work under signed contracts, an outside consulting team showed our own people the necessary modifications could have made our software fully Y2K-compliant for well under the $50 Million the CIO originally estimated! We had bitten that bullet and it exploded in our faces!”

Barbra patiently continued listening, no doubt waiting for me to get this particular set of experiences off my chest so we could move to more positive ground.

Barbra tried to console me, “But who knew, right?”

“We certainly could have taken more time to be certain which course to follow, and we should have done that! But, our CIO at the time, Rick Lasseter, was very persuasive. Too bad we didn’t realize until later that he had his own, personal reasons for wanting the new system… you see, by changing from our traditional operating system to a Unix platform, he would add a significant credential to his technical repertoire. And, within six months he played that card from his resume deck to wangle himself a vice-presidency at a sizeable increase in compensation–and of course, it was in another corporation!”

Enough of this, I finally concluded. The smoke blurred as reality returned me to my office and Barbra, who was watching me intently. I said, “If I don’t get things under control before this budget goes to McKinnis, he’ll be looking for someone who can!”

Always one to be calm and thoughtful, Barbra said, “Well, at least we’ve got ninety days before you have to present your requests to the committee. That should give us time to find out what’s going on and what to do about all this.”

Trying to sound equally confident, I raised the level of my voice as I responded, “You’re right, that should be sufficient time.” But my self-doubts couldn’t be dismissed so easily, so I added, “Trouble is, I’m so far away from understanding it all I’m not even sure where to start.” I knew that was an understatement. “I’m going out for a while, so cover for me if anyone calls or comes by. I need some quiet time to myself, and that’s best done away from here. Call you after a while,” I said as I grabbed my coat, leaving everything else where it lay.

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