There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Technology Fear

I work in an IT capacity for a large financial company. Specifically I write and troubleshoot software as well as training new developers using a proprietary programming language specifically designed for document production and maintenance . We've had this application in place for over six years during which time my department has gradually taken on documents for a variety of business units that formerly had their documents produced and maintained by third party vendors. When you produce many thousands of documents a month, having a third party vendor involved gets enormously expensive. One such vendor recently raised their price to one dollar a document. When a single business unit can easily generate in excess of 30,000 documents a month, dealing with dozens of different business units on a company wide scale gets expensive fast. Naturally the motivation to move these services in house is strong and we add several units a year to those serviced by our department.

With this kind of incentive and a six year track record of producing thousands of accurate documents day after day when an incorrect document has very negative legal consequences you would think that once the decision has been made to move another business unit's documents in house this decision would be embraced by those who stand to benefit most by it. Namely those employees who have had to wrestle with the demands and deadlines of the third party vendors. But not so! These employees, which now need to provide my department with specifications and assistance in saving their department piles of money annually, inevitably dig in their heels and give their assistance only grudgingly and half-heartedly. Some of this is expected because long time employees approaching retirement age grouse that "we've always done it this way and it works, we don't see why we have to learn to do it a new way" and people are just naturally resistant to change. However, the largest component in this resistance, in spite of the fact that computers have been involved in business applications since the sixties, and personal computers since the eighties, is technology fear.

Technology fear should not be confused with technology ignorance. Technology ignorance is responsible for calls to the help desk such as "my cup holder is broken" referring to the CD drawer or "My computer won't turn on" when the electricity in the building is off. These people are perfectly willing to work with new technology and just need a little generalized training. Either that or their IQ is not sufficient for their position (a situation that sadly is becoming more and more prevalent as American education continues the ongoing process of dumbing itself down). Also, technology fear should not be confused with compartmentalization. My wife works for a university where her job requires fairly advanced skills using Excel and Access yet she needs help figuring out how to chat on Facebook. She's not afraid of technology, she just sees no reason to explore applications beyond her immediate need. Instead technology fear is a combination of Arthur C. Clarke's pronouncement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." and "oh my God what if something goes wrong?" In the first case the fear is that if all things are not in some mystical configuration the technology in question will immediately cease to function. Thus adding a new business unit to a functioning system must be accompanied by great trepidation and perhaps appeasement of some sort. In the second the fear is that should a malfunction occur there will be no one that can fix it. It puzzles me that these same individuals have no qualms in purchasing a new car and expecting it to work reliably when they have no more understanding of how it works than they do the technology that they fear.

It would be easy to dismiss these individuals if they did not present such an enormous cost in time to implement any proposed project. In a large company interested parties in a new project can be widely distributed geographically and a new project demands numerous meetings in the form of conference calls to get all systems involved to coordinate the changes necessary for implementation. This results in conference calls with up to thirty people wasting company time while questions like the following are fielded:

What happens if we can't print our document? (what happens when you can't print an email from Aunt Tillie? You call help desk.)
What happens if there is a power failure? (on your end - you quit working. On our end - the same fail-over plan that the company has used for 10 years applies.)
What happens if the home office is closed?(the servers run 24 hours a day - always have, always will)
Will there be training? (this is particularly annoying when everyone knows that the change will be transparent to the user)
How will we know what icon to click? (same as above. I'm not making these questions up.)
Will the documents fit on our printers? (no, we plan to make them billboard sized)
How do we know the documents are correct? (ever heard of QA testing? We have several hundred people company wide involved in this.)

I am sure you can get the drift by now. What is particularly galling is that the people on these calls asking these questions are invariably middle to upper management who must have an answer before we can proceed. Even more galling is that they ask the same questions on call after call as if expecting the answer to change. The goal of the endless questioning seems to be to postpone putting off any decision making so no one can be held responsible if something goes wrong. On the last call of this nature I was on, the project manager, having waded determinedly through the morass of mindless queries, finally reached a point where he could ask "So who is in favor of moving ahead with what was proposed." Of thirty people on the call, not a sound was heard. The PM then asked "OK so who has objections to moving ahead with the proposal." Again crickets. The entire meeting was paralyzed by fear.

I'm sure glad I have a desk large enough to allow room for head banging.

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