Uncharted Waters

October 19, 2011  10:58 PM

IT Workers as Coal Miners? — Part II

Posted by: Matt Heusser
future, hr, IT, outsourcing, shawn

Last time, my friend Shawn introduced his premise — that IT Workers are the coal miners of the 21st Century.

This time, Shawn’s back, to explain how the shift from hourly work to exempt has changed the nature of the work itself … and not for the better.

Obviously, Shawn’s comments are an analogy. Certainly, working conditions and employment opportunities looked much more dim for the West Virginia coal miner of 1897.  Where the coal miner risked a collapsed mine, lack of oxygen, and poisoned lungs, an IT worker might face a paper cut, or, perhaps, repetitive stress injury from too much typing.

Still, there are things going on in how IT workers are treated; his ideas may cause you to pause and refect.

Back to you, Shawn …

Continued »

October 18, 2011  11:14 PM

Are IT Workers the Coal Miners of the 21st Century?

Posted by: Matt Heusser
IT, servitute, shawn
No I will not reset your password.  I'm on break.

No I will not reset your password

A few weeks back, I introduced you to my friend Shawn.  He’s a strong systems thinker, a former soldier, someone I respect and admired from my youth.

Shawn cut his teeth in the dotCom era, becoming a programmer, then general technologist, then IT manager, now … I’m not sure.  Last time I checked, he was an account rep for an IT managed services firm, the kind that has been eating a hole in traditional IT departments.

Shawn cares about his field, and his perspective is shared by life in the trenches.  So when he kept writing about what he sees happening to our field, and asked me to publish it, I couldn’t say no.

Here’s the question that keeps Shawn up at night:  Are IT Workers the Coal Miners of the 21st Century?

From here on out the words belong to Shawn, not me.

Continued »

October 12, 2011  10:36 PM

What Steve Jobs Can Teach Us

Posted by: Matt Heusser
apple, steve jobs

Men and women of greater writing talent and skill than I have written eulogies for Steve Jobs.  Some have been touching and inspirational; others knew him, or his companies, far better than I.  It would be more than a little pretentious for me to try to write an article that, at best, might be a bit of a copy of what has come before.

And that’s good, because that ain’t this article.

Instead of talking about what Mr. Jobs did, I’d like to talk about what made him different, and how, in our own way, we can be different too.

The Heart of the Matter is that Steve Jobs was a thief and a failure.

He was good at it.

You should be too.

Continued »

October 3, 2011  10:46 PM

It’s like they planned it that way

Posted by: Matt Heusser
compaq, dell, HP

Oh Boy.

So two weeks ago, HP made it’s announcement that it was considering leaving the PC business, and I made my speculation that Dell might fill in the gap.

Then I went home for the weekend and found this headline on the cover of EWeek:

Dell's move into servers and services makes cover of eWeek

“The World According to Dell: The Company Michael Dell started in 1984 has expanded into areas Dell Executives didn’t even consider give years ago: Software, Services, and Cloud Computing.”

It’s almost as if the folks at Dell strategically timed a marketing push, just at a time when the traditional competition was at it’s weakest.

nah.  That would actually make … sense.

The article is fascinating, and a good read; here are a few of my favorite gems:

Continued »

September 28, 2011  9:23 PM

Is that you? Is this me?

Posted by: Matt Heusser
careers, contractors, outsourcing, projects, software, temp

Did you know that “We’re Sorry You’ve Been Laid Off?” condolences are now a major Hallmark greeting card category?

Perhaps the greatest irony is in IT, where technology really has enabled self-service and productivity, perhaps so much so that we need less IT support per hundred employees, meaning … oh wait.  Ouch.

In the old days, a project management system cost six figures, required a purchase order, a fair amount of hardware, and half a full-time sys admin to support.  Today, Joe the intern uses the corporate card and suddenly the entire department is on basecamp or pivotal.

And no, that is not a hypothetical — one of my largest clients recently signed the whole team up for pivotal, used it for two months (for free), then went to management to get the corporate card to allow them to continue with the tool past the initial offering period.

Meanwhile, IT jobs become harder and harder to come by.

There are lots of reasons for this; one of them is the increase in managed services companies; the kind that took Gartner’s advice and started to offer infrastructure as a service, which allows them to split up on support rep over a large number of companies.

My friend (who I will call Shawn) has spent most of his career in corporate IT; today he works for one of those managed services firms that stole someone else’s job.  I wanted to hear his take on the IT employment situation; here’s what he had to say.

Continued »

September 26, 2011  10:56 PM

HP and SAP and eBay – oh My!

Posted by: Matt Heusser
Apotheker, CEO, eBay, HP

I’ve been tracking the progress of HP, the company formerly known as Hewlett-Packard, trying to deconstruct and demystify some of it’s strategic moves.

And, I have to admit, this one threw me for a loop.

Four days ago, Hewlett-Packard fired it’s CEO, Leo Apotheker, after just ten months on the job, and announced they were hiring Meg Whitman as his replacement.

And then it gets weird.

Continued »

September 20, 2011  9:53 PM

After HP (leaves the PC market) what’s left?

Posted by: Matt Heusser
dell, HP, marketshare, merger, PC, reorganization

We’ve been talking about what is going on at Hewlett-Packard, or, well, at least trying to understand it.

So far, we know that HP has signaled a desire to get into the software market, especially enterprise software, and a desire to exit the PC market.

For a moment, let’s forget about the why’s, and think about the “what’s next?”

Not for HP, but for the rest of us.

Continued »

September 13, 2011  11:43 PM

Deconstructing HP – Part II

Posted by: Matt Heusser
business strategy, HP, mergers

Last time we took at look at HP’s situation through a different lens – the lens of management consulting.

Today I’d like to take a different approach; on based on history.

But first, a story.

A Long Time Ago

There was a very large, international company.  Once known for being innovative and shining, the company grew large and slow.  Over time, the company’s personal computer business grew from wildly profitable to essentially a loss-leader, a sort of “yeah we also do that” thrown in so that the company could sell more expensive, high-end servers.  Finally, the company developed an operating system that was technically superior, yet came too late to market.  After a brief, painful struggle, the company abandoned it’s shiny new operating system

What company am I writing about?

Continued »

September 7, 2011  9:40 PM

Deconstructing HP – Part I

Posted by: Matt Heusser
business strategy, HP, mergers

It’s certainly been an interesting few months.

First HP Fires Mark Hurd; choosing to hire Leo Apotheker, an executive with an all-software background.  ( Shortly thereafter, Apotheker makes a bid to purchase Autonomy Software for 10 billion dollars while looking for buyers for it’s PC business.

Meanwhile the company shuts down it’s touchpad division forty-nine days after it’s release.

To paraphrase one recent Wall Street Journal staff writer, you couldn’t come up with a better plan to ruin the company and take it out of business if someone paid you.



Yes, clearly, something is rotten in Denmark.  Yet somehow I doubt that these people are all actually insane, trying to destroy the very company they are charged with protecting.  It’s much more likely that something else is going on, some system of forces beyond our perception, that makes each individual move seem like a good choice, even as the company slowly lurches toward the brink.

If we take the approach of trying to understand the decision, we have a chance of learning something, perhaps things we can apply at our own little companies.

First, let’s talk about HP’s strategy.


Most of us know that the really big companies aren’t structured like Ford in the 1920′s.  Instead of one big chain-of-command, conglomerates are more like a portfolio.  Instead of owning stock, the headquarters unit owns entire companies, providing services for them like HR, and computing and the web site.

Structured this way, the biggest part of the CEO’s job is managing the portfolio — selling some business units, buying others, and finding ways to get them to work together.  There are lots of ways to figure out what to buy and sell, but perhaps the most popular is the Strategy Matrix made famous by the Boston Consulting Group:

The BCG Strategy Matrix

The BCG Strategy Matrix

Holding this handy-dandy cheat sheet, a CEO can split his business units up into cash cows (making money but not growing), dogs (losing money and not growing), question marks (not growing but the market is) and stars (owning a lot of an increasing market.)

From there, the decision is simple: Sell your dogs, harvest the cash cows (and sell the husks when harvest is over), purchase stars, and figure out ways to make the question marks perform … or ditch ‘em.

Let’s think about the classic business units HP works in: Servers are the cash cows, laptops are the dogs, the TouchPad was a question mark, and enterprise software and services are the new stars.  (For that matter,  Apotheker actually knows how to manage software groups.  That’s got to be a plus.)

From this point of view, all of HP’s recent moves make sense.  Instead of getting embroiled in an expensive advertisement and price war they could not win, they pulled the plug on the TouchPad early.

If  Apotheker has any regrets, it’s likely that he didn’t pull the touchpad earlier, but, c’mon, the guy was new, the plans were advanced, and HP is a big company, so changes of direction happen slowly.

This matrix is simple and it’s easy to follow.  Nearly anyone of modest intelligence could use it to analyze HP and come up with a strategy for managing the portfolio.  After all, it’s sort of like a game of dice, where some of the dice are rigged, and, based on your throws, you get to decide which dice to invest in, right?

The only problem is that it doesn’t work.

A Portfolio is Not a Game of Craps

Framed this way, the role of the CEO is to acquire and merge all day long, selling off bad investments and purchasing more of the good.

Done without insight or vision, the strategy works just like it would in the stock market: You end up paying too much for the companies you buy (because they are “hot”) and selling your dogs for a big loss, because they are “not.”

More than that, the mergers and aquisitions have transaction costs; real human lives that are laid off, real businesses that are disrupted.

It also turns out that while executives are in merger meetings, looking busy, the one thing they are not doing is running a business — giving the competition time to catch up, and sometimes pass you.

Have you noticed that Apple Computer doesn’t do a lot of these mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs and layoffs?  They are too busy running the business.

In the end, the matrix can be used to make effective choices, if the decision makers understand the history of the market, it’s system of forces, and where things are headed enough to make accurate predictions.

I will give the folks at HP one thing:  At least as far as products are concerned, they know that whatever they were doing before wasn’t working, and more of it likely won’t help.  So they have decided to try something new.

It looks, to me, like they are trying to pull an IBM.

More to come.

August 30, 2011  10:35 PM

Truth and Consequences

Posted by: Matt Heusser
choices, integrity, project management

So I saw Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States, on USA Today this morning.

He wanted to talk about his new book, “In My Time.”

One statement Cheney made during the interview flabbergasted me:  He claimed the the interrogation techniques used by the Federal Government during the Bush Administration were both safe and effective.

Really?  Effective you say?

Come on folks.  Does anyone else remember the claim that Iraq was somehow linked to the terrorists of 9/11?  Or the claim that we had to go into Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

How about the claim that Al Qaeda had series of complex, secret underground fortresses?  (Follow the link; it is the secretary of defense explaining the fortresses to the American people on national television.)

None of that turned out to be true.

We got that information from people we were pressuring for information!

And we call our interrogation techniques effective?  Really?

From here to there

When I look at the story of this recent involvement in foreign affairs, it seems so familiar.  As if I’ve heard the story before.

Then I remember: I have heard it before.

Replace “American” with “conquistador” and “hidden fortresses” with “seven cities of gold”, and you’ve got essentially the same story: A technologically superior people from across the sea became convinced that the less-tech-savvy people have something they want, and they are willing to use advanced interrogation techniques to get the answers.

After hours, days, or weeks of saying ‘no, there are no seven cities of gold’, tired, beaten and exhausted, the people of the other civilization eventually give up and say “oh, fine. Okay.  The cities are three days ride to the east.  Will you leave us alone now, please?”

That said: this post is not about Dick Cheney; it is about you.

I am not setting to attack a man who served his country as best he could. In fact, quite the opposite: the most charitable interpretation may just be that Mr. Cheney made a certain type of classic mistake. That is, to be so certain you are correct, that the quest for information subtly becomes a quest for data to re-enforce your bias.

You may be going through it right now on a smaller level.

A more personal scenario

If, for example, you’ve never worked on a project that a deadline plucked out of thin air, then had a project schedule reverse-engineered to fit it, well, consider yourself fortunate.

If you’ve never worked near a boss, eager to please senior executives, who made up numerical targets for sales, or website adoption, then wanted you to make the plan to actually hit those numbers, again, consider yourself fortunate.

If you’ve never felt the subtle, or not-so-subtle pressure to hide mistakes, to slide messes under the rug, or to paint a better picture than reality, well … that’s good.

If you can manage to make your entire career without it, well, I’m curious if your company is hiring.

Human nature

Yes, these problems are worse when they involve the clash of entire civilizations.  They are worse when people are desperate for food, water, or shelter.  When we have the benefit of “just” squabbling over the annual raises, bonuses, promotions and stock options, things do seem a bit more civilized. (We do have our stories about Enron and Worldcom, though.)

Fifty years ago, in a little-known graduation speech at King’s College, the author and professor C.S. Lewis had this to say about the subject:

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

That is how it works in the IT shop.

How the conflict emerges

There are plenty of books about how to lubricate interaction between humans.  There are books about how to tell jokes, change the subject, compliment the other guy’s shoes; there a books about how to start the discussion from agreement and how to convince the other guy that your idea was his.

I know, because I read all those books, because I kept getting feedback that I was hard to work with.  There is, indeed, some wisdom in those books.

Eventually I realized the problem wasn’t my social skills; it was that I was being ordered to compromise on what I viewed as moral grounds and refused to do it.

Of course I was hard to work with.

I was the guy who said no.

There is more to come, but, for now: Here’s one way to deal with this issue

The Big Secret

The big secret, of course, is the secret.

The boss has a secret agenda to hit the date (to get a bonus), or to hire his contractor (to get the kickback), or to hide the number of failures in production.

You’re not the one with the problem.  You get to sleep at night.

The boss is the one with the problem.

The way to win the game is simple: You need to make it clear that, if the boss doesn’t come clean with this information you will.

It is that simple.

Along the way, you’ll need to create opportunities for the boss to save face, to slowly change the official story, to have the change in direction be his idea.

All of this is possible, it’s even easy.  All you have to do is remember one thing:

When someone else has an integrity problem in the office, and they want you to fix it, someone does have a problem.

You get to decide if that someone will be you.

One final piece of encouragement:  This is America.  You’re not going to starve.  Neither will your children.  Worst case, you have to downsize your life a little for awhile while you figure things out.

I know, I know, when the boss looks at you funny and you are trying to decide if you can afford that vacation in the catskills, it can be a tough decision.

Forget the vacation.

Think about what your children will think of you the day you retire.

Think about what you’ll think of yourself.

More to come.

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