Dirty IT job No. 3: Professional scapegoat
Wanted: Manager willing to take charge of enormous projects doomed to almost certain failure; ability to work tirelessly and alone; must be physically fit enough to shoulder all the blame.
When big projects go bad, they can go really bad. And few big projects have as big a reputation for badness as enterprise resource planning. ERP systems are notorious as multimillion-dollar sinkholes that aimed too high and often missed their targets entirely. Yet, for the thousands of organizations that adopted ERP, it was somebody's job to make the project happen or die trying.
As Mr. T might say, we pity the fool, and in the late 1990s, one of those fools was Michael S. Meyers-Jouan. As CIO of a small, family-run apparel maker, Meyers-Jouan's dirty IT job was to ease the DOS-era company onto what was then the cutting edge.
"When they recruited me, I found myself supporting an ancient order processing system running on an AIX box, a MAS 90 accounting system, and a collection of PCs," says Meyers-Jouan, who later became an independent technology consultant. "I was supporting an HR department that never quite understood Windows, relational databases, or network security. I was supporting process managers who would enter columns of numbers into an Excel worksheet, then add the numbers up on a calculator and enter the sum below the column, and CAD system users whose idea of 'backup' was to make copies on floppies."
Nonetheless, Meyers-Jouan was handed the task of bringing his new employer into the late 20th century. He produced a detailed RFP, and over several months, he winnowed the list of potential vendors from 30 to 3, and finally to a single winner.
"That's when the fun began," he says. "Installing the ERP software was relatively simple. Interviewing the users to develop business process road maps and job descriptions was tedious, but no worse than expected. Configuring the software to match the business needs was challenging and time consuming, but within our capabilities. But getting the users to adopt the new system was simply not going to happen."
The factory workers refused to participate in the process, despite promises it would cut their workload in half. The back-office employees couldn't understand how a factory worker covered in oily dirt had anything useful to tell them; they continued to rely on email, spreadsheets, and 10-key machines to do their jobs. And the last thing top management wanted to hear about was the need for "culture change."
"For the only time in my life, I was fired," says Meyers-Jouan. "The ERP system never did get put into use, and, not too long thereafter, the company stopped answering their phones."
Though his dirty IT job involved ERP, the same factors apply to any IT project that doesn't have the active support of both end-users and management.
"I've gone back to working as a developer," he adds, "but with increased respect for people who can make IT operations work in the business environment, and wariness of large implementation projects that don't have the full commitment of the customers."