Surviving office politics

In this IT tale, bad blood between the company partners spills over into the IT area. What's a techie to do?

I was the head of the research department and the only computer guru for a small 12-employee consulting firm in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The head of the company (we'll call him John) had managed to buy a profitable little business from the previous owner, then proceeded to slowly do nothing work-related all day, every day until the company was heavily in debt. His partner, "Tom," had obviously noticed that he was the only one actually managing the company or bringing in any new clients, so he decided to split off and start his own company.

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At about the same time, I was informed that they were downsizing and that my services would no longer be required. This was one of my first "real" jobs, and even though I knew the company was in trouble, it didn't really dawn on me to go find something else before I was let go at 6 p.m. the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. I decided to start my own IT consulting company, and Tom promptly signed on as one of my clients.

Then the fun really got started. John sued Tom for stealing data, and of course, I was deposed by John's lawyer. In about 12 different ways, they asked me if I had copied data for John's company, which I hadn't. Eventually, John dropped the suit, but the bad blood between the two companies was still there.

Then the next bizarre twist: John literally gave the company to the three remaining employees, who accepted -- somehow not realizing that when they became owners of this little gem, they had assumed all the debts.

I'd been the only one in the IT department at John's company and working with a very limited budget, I'd been fired without warning, and the new owners hadn't hired an IT replacement. They were completely helpless when it came to any questions regarding the custom software that I had written to manage the databases. One of the three, "Justin," for some reason blamed me for the state of the company, and I was the last person he wanted to consult. Trying to appease Justin, the other two partners agreed to look at all options. They talked to everyone in town, but no one else could answer their questions/update their custom software.

When Justin realized they had no other option, he agreed to ask for my services. I wasn't thrilled with the way I'd been treated at the company, but I decided not to pass up the business. Justin would just stay in his office whenever I came to visit while I worked with the other two owners -- his behavior was sad and funny at the same time.

At this point, I'd learned a thing or two about survival and office politics. Having dealt with a previous slow-paying client and not able to trust Justin, I was not about to provide services, present them with a bill, and cross my fingers hoping to get paid. I proposed a great payment plan: When I would do any work at their site, we would track the time, and as I was leaving they would pay me in full. No collections issues, plus I could tell that it was really irritating for Justin, who never wanted me to come back in the first place. Talk about a win-win.

They have since gone out of business -- another shock.

The experience taught me some important lessons. First, find out as much as you can about the health of your company in case it may be in trouble. Better to be the first one to get out before the real trouble starts than to go down with the ship. Second, the best way to generate customers is to do quality work for your existing customers.

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