[Guest Blogger] 40 Years in the Field (Part 12)


Graham Jones (Surrey, British Columbia, IT Pro)

Suddenly one day quite unexpectedly I was offered the position of IT Manager. I had never given such a move any thought. However, never being shy about taking on a challenge (or is it too stupid to know when to say “no”?), I accepted. My initial experience was somewhat similar to when we have a change of government. You know, when the new government suddenly declares that things are much worse than they ever imagined due to the mismanagement of the previous government.

I inherited a situation where the IT department (2 people + me) spent more time putting out fires than moving forward; not an uncommon situation. The “foot soldiers” were clearly understaffed, overworked, underpaid; you know the theme song and I got all 100 verses. At this point I was definitely wondering, “what have I done?”. To set the scene the infrastructure was approx. 100 networked desktop PC’s for approx. 200 employees (Netware + Windows 3.1 with WordPerfect and Lotus plus engineering apps on some PC’s), 10 SGI workstations (for PDMS), a DEC VAX server (for PDMS and a print and file server), a Sun Solaris server (for the Oracle based apps) and a DEC PDP 11/73 (legacy accounting system developed in house using VAX Basic). This was at a time when the Senior Managers in many companies hadn’t really bought into computing as a business tool at all and saw it simply as a “financial drain” rather than a potential “financial benefit”. Curiously, that had been largely overcome with respect to PDMS but wholesale computerization was another story. The company President once told me that for him it felt like “he had a tiger by the tail” and “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. I knew that I was going to have to do two things: get more staff and replace the aging accounting system. The PDP hardware was getting really shaky (particularly the HD’s) and it was getting increasingly difficult to get replacement parts. I prepared my case and presented it to the Board.

I also chose to use the presentation as an opportunity to give my thoughts on where the company should be aiming over the next 2 to 3 years. I wanted to put my immediate request in the context of a longer term plan. It turned out to be a mistake which only served to delay my immediate needs. The Board members simply were not ready to be taken that far. Instead of informing them I ended up scaring them about the potential financial demands in the future. In my haste to get things moving, I made the cardinal mistake of separating a technical vision from a business vision which is the “currency” (no pun intended) that they understood.

However, I have always tried to learn from my mistakes and been willing to seek the advice from others. Fortunately, one of the Board members did “get” most of what I was trying to convey. He helped me to recast my presentation and put a business spin on it. Not only did that go down much better but it actually raised the interest level about wanting to know more about the possible future benefits of more computerization. For example, only half of the employees had regular access to a PC. I would get asked, “what problems was that presenting?”; “what do we gain by giving everybody a PC?”; “should I have a PC?”. After several more “educational “presentations it had gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. I started out with a fairly modest request for improvements and suddenly I was under pressure to accelerate on a number of fronts, eg. getting everybody connected together as a priority. I did at least get to hire a full-time network/PC admin and help desk support person. Incidentally, much of what I predicted in general terms, eg. the use of browsers, intranets and the internet, did eventually come true. Unfortunately not soon enough for me to see the results at this company as you will see later.

Over the next 2 years we did give everyone a PC and there was a gradual swing towards Windows 95 and Office 95 (mainly Word and Excel – Outlook didn’t come until later when Pegasus Mail was replaced). It was clear that the world was moving that way and easy interoperability with our clients and suppliers was very important. The obvious challenges were re-training, conversion of documents and translating macros from Lotus to Excel. This was a huge exercise. In particular the admin staff that did most of the heavy duty word processing (the secretarial system of producing docs was still very much in evidence at that time) were very reluctant to switch to Word from WordPerfect. I have to say that back then WordPerfect definitely had its merits compared with Word. The heaviest use of Lotus was in the finance and accounting department. So the difficulties there probably explain themselves!! And there was still the legacy accounting system which was now breaking down far too often, and giving me a bad name despite repeated requests to purchase brand new hardware and software. Eventually the penny dropped. An HP server and an Oracle based accounting system were purchased (not Oracle Financials). I also got to hire an Oracle programmer to generate custom reports and a full-time Unix admin. Now we faced another big challenge; getting the data from the old system into the new one. We thought having some experience of running Oracle on the Unix based Sun would make it easy to run it under HPUX. Well, like with most computer systems, it was the same but different! For example, the version releases weren’t even the same. And as we all know Unix is Unix, right? It was like learning yet another system. We ended up running in parallel for about 2 months which was very painful, and expensive.

I had taken an interest in Access as part of my personal development and my interest grew over the next few years. It continues to this day by way of teaching it to users. At the beginning I needed something to cut my teeth on that would be useful if it worked OK but not critical to company operations. In an earlier article I mentioned a process plant safety assessment technique called HAZOP. I had been trained as a HAZOP Study Leader and assisted in training others both in NA and in Saudi Arabia. The recording system was entirely manual which was cumbersome and prone to errors when doing follow-up work. So I set about developing a recording system using Access. The main advantage was the ability to produce reports to check for the completion of follow-up tasks. There are a number of ‘famous’ incidents where a HAZOP was carried out but an incomplete follow-up led to a dangerous occurrence. The basic lesson here is that studies, in general, are only as good as the successful (and recorded) completion of the follow-up actions that they generate.

Just as I thought that I was getting on top of things my old Engineering boss came knocking. It turns out that there was a very high profile project in mainland China (our reputation was at stake as a minimum and possibly the future financial viability of the company – no pressure!) that was going south very badly (potentially several million dollars south) and I had been nominated to try and fix things (basically to get the plant running and minimize the losses). I was told that it should not occupy more than 20% of my time for the next few months. In reality it occupied something like 95% for about a year. The story about the project itself, which was one of the most challenging and interesting of my life, and my experiences in China is not relevant here except to describe the role that computers played. Around this time laptops (mainly Toshiba) were becoming available. The company sales and marketing people and some commissioning engineers were now making use of them. Some of the commissioning locations were kind of “rough” and frequent damage was a problem, particularly cracked screens. Today laptops are a more rugged. I took one, plus a portable printer, with me to China, not knowing exactly what I would use them for but my instincts turned out to be correct. I should explain that I was working in the “boonies” (approx. 1000 km due west of Shanghai) and staying in very undesirable accommodation (it felt like the rats there had it better than we did and the food was real Chinese – definitely not western Chinese!). The local electricity supply was unreliable to say the least. Black outs and brown outs were common. Writing contract amendments in the middle of the night, by the light of the LCD screen during a blackout, in the freezing cold (it is difficult to type with gloves on [yes, I did eventually cut the fingers off – the gloves that is!] and it can get down to -15C at night during the winter – weather stripping was not much in evidence) or with sweat dripping onto the keyboard during the day (it can get up to 40+C and very humid during August) and praying that the batteries wouldn’t run out wasn’t a lot of fun, but often had to be done!

Although I was there to manage the project, which mainly entailed dealing with the client to try and keep them off our backs and let people get on with starting the plant, I got the chance to use to my Process Engineering modeling experience again. We were having problems with a particular part of the plant and so I decided to build a model to study it. The only modeling tool available to me was Excel. So with a little VBA, some custom functions and the Goal Seek feature we had a working model in short order. It is quite amazing how you don’t forget “how to ride a bicycle” even after many years. Despite our many trials we did eventually prevail. The client was absolutely thrilled and we were interviewed by the local media. As is the tradition in China there were lots of celebration banquets, including one with Government officials in Beijing, where large quantities of Maotai are consumed. Despite a few trips home it had been impossible to give adequate attention to the IT issues back in the office. During the time that I was away there had been major senior management changes and someone had taken over my position as IT Manager. As they say, I was now “surplus to requirements” and so it was off to pastures new! Sigh!


Graham J.

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