Beware the on-staff backstabber

One of my staffers began whispering to the administration that my abilities were inadequate

I've worked in IT since the early '80s, but the craziest time I recall was the Y2K era, when almost every business on the block decided it was time to retool their old junk or invest in new systems. I was working for a development company at the time, and a huge electronics chain with multiple locations around the country contracted with us to design a new network for them. I ended up in charge of the project, and I went for the complete rebuild, everything from cabling to telecom. I estimated that it would take several months to complete.

Halfway through the project, the chain asked me to come on board and manage its IT department. I wasn't looking for a career change, but they made me the classic "offer I couldn't refuse." As negotiations were nearing completion, someone mentioned a "new Web development project" that I'd be responsible for. I said sure. How tough could it be?

I completed the initial network installation, trained the employees, and connected the facilities. Everything worked! Then we started on the mysterious "Web project."

What a ride! For two years of 60- to 80-hour weeks, we turned the electronics giant's IT upside down and completely reworked its technology -- basically setting up a system that would run for the next three years with only minimal additional change. It ended up costing well over $350,000, but we completed it on time and on budget. I felt like a rock star.

What I didn't know was that one of my staffers -- who had been working there long before I started -- had been circulating nasty stories about me, hinting to administration that my abilities were inadequate. (In fact, my staff had needed lots of training, but they too had preceded me in the job.) Chances are none of this would have been a big deal if I hadn't failed to make sure that all the nontechnical managers were on board. But I had been concentrating on completing a plan for disaster recovery and business continuity, not on playing politics.

Then 9/11 hit. Knowing that IT was in excellent shape (mostly thanks to me), management decided that this was the perfect time to cut some fat -- meaning me. Two non-IT managers were let go at the same time. Many businesses cut staff after 9/11, even if they were not directly affected; it was a good opportunity to justify cost cutting to your board of directors. I'd just given the company two years of my life -- three if you count overtime -- only to be cut to save a few bucks at year's end.

The trauma of being let go was new to me, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Still, on the whole I felt OK. I had become familiar with a new industry and delved heavily into security and management for a huge network. The experience gave me a depth of development knowledge I would never have gotten otherwise.

Ultimately, the deepest lesson for me was that in order to create the best environment for a successful project, you need to know who you're working for, as well as who is working for you and against you. While you're developing the technical side of a project, you had better be sure to keep your eyes peeled for hidden agendas and corporate backstabbers.