For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations (2015)
• Tuesday, September 16
By late Monday night, we had stabilized the situation. Working with Chris’ team, the stores finally had working cash registers again, but everyone knows it’s only a temporary fix. At least we don’t need to keep sensitive cardholder data anymore, much to John’s relief.
It’s 10:37 a.m., and I’m standing outside of Steve’s office with Chris. He’s leaning against the wall, looking pensively at the floor. Ann, John, and Kirsten are also here, waiting for their turn, like penitent students waiting outside the principal’s office in elementary school.
The door to Steve’s office opens and Sarah walks out. She looks ashen faced and on the verge of tears. She was the first to go in, and her session didn’t even take the whole ten minutes.
She closes the door behind her, blows out her breath, and says to Chris and me, “You’re next.”
“Here goes nothing…,” I say, opening the door.
Steve stands by the window, looking out over the corporate campus. “Take a seat, gentlemen.”
When we’re sitting down, Steve starts to pace in front of us. “I’ve talked with Sarah. As the project leader, I’m holding her responsible for the success or failure of Phoenix. I have no idea if I have a leadership problem or if she just has the wrong people on the bus.”
My jaw drops. Did Sarah somehow manage to weasel her way out of her part in this disaster? This whole thing is her fault!
Steve turns to Chris. “We put over $20 million into this project, and the lion’s share went to your team. From where I’m standing, we’ d be better off if we had nothing to show for it. Instead, I have half my company scrambling to pick up the wreckage from the damage you caused.”
Turning back to both of us, he continues, “In the good years, we were a five percent net margin company. That meant to make $1 million, we had to sell $20 million in products. Who knows how many sales we lost over the weekend and how many loyal customers we’ve lost forever.”
He starts pacing again. “We’ve done a terrible disservice to our customers. They’re the people who need to fix their cars to get to work. They’re fathers working on projects with their kids. We’ve also screwed some of our best suppliers and clients.
“To appease the people who actually used Phoenix, Marketing is now giving away $100 vouchers, which could cost us millions of dollars. Come on! We’re supposed to take money from customers, not the other way around!”
As a former sergeant, I know there’s a time and place for dressing someone down. But this is too much. “No offense, sir, but this is supposed to be news to me? I called you, explaining what would happen, asking you to delay the launch. You not only blew me off, you told me to try to convince Sarah. Where’s your responsibility in all of this? Or have you outsourced all your thinking to her?”
As I’m talking, I realize I may be making a big mistake by saying what I really think. Maybe it’s from weeks of crisis-fueled adrenaline, but it feels good rattling Steve’s cage. Really good.
Steve stops pacing, pointing his finger at my forehead. “I know more about responsibility than you may learn in your entire lifetime. I’m tired of your Chicken Little routine, screaming that the sky is falling and then happily saying ‘I told you so’ afterward. I need you to come to me with some actual solutions.”
Leaning into him, I say, “I told you exactly what was going to happen when your sidekick Sarah brought up this crazy plan almost two weeks ago. I proposed to you a timeline that would have prevented all this from happening. You tell me that I could have done better? I’m all ears.” With exaggerated respect, I add, “Sir.”
“I’ll tell you what I need from you,” he replies calmly. “I need the business to tell me it’s no longer being held hostage by you IT guys. This has been the running complaint the entire time I’ve been CEO. IT is in the way of every major initiative. Meanwhile, our competitors pull away from us, leaving us in the dust. Dammit, we can’t even take a crap without IT being in the way.”
He takes a deep breath. “None of this is why you’re here today. I called you in to tell you two things. First, thanks to this latest IT screwup, the board has insisted that we investigate splitting up the company. They think the company is worth more sold off in pieces. I’m against this, but they’ve already got consultants in our panties investigating its feasibility. There’s nothing I can do about that.
“Second, I’m done playing Russian roulette with IT. Phoenix just shows me that IT is a competency that we may not be able to develop here. Maybe it’s not in our DNA. I’ve given Dick the green light to investigate outsourcing all of IT and asked him to select a vendor in ninety days.”
Outsourcing all of IT. Holy shit.
That means everyone in my entire department may not have jobs anymore.
That means that I may not have a job anymore.
In a sudden and sobering instant, I realize that the feeling of elation and confidence I felt rattling Steve’s cage was only an illusion. He has all the power. With a wave of his pen, he could outsource all of us to the lowest-cost bidder from some random corner of the planet.
I glance over at Chris, and he looks as shaken as I feel.
Steve continues, “I expect you’ll give Dick all the help he requires. If you can pull off some sort of miracle during the next ninety days, we’ll consider keeping IT in-house.”
“Thank you, gentlemen. Please send in Kirsten,” he says with finality.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say, slumping down in the booth across from Chris.
Shell-shocked after our meeting with Steve, he and I decided to meet for lunch. In front of him is some sort of fruity drink with an umbrella. I always figured him to be a blue-collar drinker—more like Pabst Blue Ribbon, not some bachelorette party mixed drink.
He laughs humorlessly. “Trust me. You showing up ten minutes late is the least of my problems. Get yourself a drink.”
Paige tells me repeatedly that I shouldn’t trust this guy. She has a great instinct for people, but when it comes to me, she’s embarrassingly protective, which makes me laugh. I’m the ex-Marine, after all. She’s just a “nice nurse.”
“Any pilsner you have on tap, please,” I say to the waitress. “And a scotch and water, too. It’s been a rough day.”
“That’s what I heard. No problem at all, sweetie,” she replies, laughing. To Chris, she asks, “Another mai tai for you?”
He nods, handing her his empty glass. So that’s what a mai tai looks like. I’ve never tried one. We Marines are very self-conscious about what we’re seen drinking.
Chris raises his water glass and says, “To having a common death sentence.”
I smile wanly and raise my glass. Feeling obligated to inject some optimism, I say, “And here’s to figuring out how we get a stay of execution from the governor.”
We clink glasses.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Chris says. “Maybe my group being outsourced wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I’ve been in software development for virtually my entire career. I’m used to everyone demanding miracles, expecting the impossible, people changing requirements at the last minute, but, after living through this latest nightmare project, I wonder if it might be time for a change…”
I can’t believe it. Chris has always been confident, even arrogant, seeming to really love doing what he does. “What kind of change? You thinking about opening a mai tai bar in Florida or something like that?”
Chris shrugs. When he looks down, I can see the huge bags underneath his eyes and the fatigue in his face. “I used to love this work, but it’s gotten so much more difficult over the last ten years. Technology keeps changing faster and faster, and it’s nearly impossible to keep up anymore.”
The waitress comes back with our drinks. Part of me feels guilty about drinking during lunch on company time, but I figure I’ve earned it, having given enough of my personal time to the company over the last two weeks. Chris takes a long swig, and so do I.
He continues, “It’s crazy what programmers, and even managers like me, have to learn every couple of years. Sometimes it’s a totally new database technology, a new programming or project management method, or a new technology delivery model, like cloud computing.
“Just how many times can you throw out everything you know to keep up with the latest new-fangled trend? I look in the mirror every once in awhile, asking myself, ‘Will this be the year that I give up? Will I spend the rest of my career doing COBOL maintenance or become just another has-been middle manager?’ ”
I laugh sympathetically. I chose to be in the technology backwaters. I was happy there. That is, until Steve threw me back into the big, shark-infested pool.
Shaking his head, he continues, “It’s harder than ever to convince the business to do the right thing. They’re like kids in a candy store. They read in an airline magazine that they can manage their whole supply chain in the cloud for $499 per year, and suddenly that’s the main company initiative. When we tell them it’s not actually that easy, and show them what it takes to do it right, they disappear. Where did they go? They’re talking to their Cousin Vinnie or some outsourcing sales guy who promises they can do it in a tenth of the time and cost.”
I laugh. “A couple of years ago, someone in Marketing asked my group to support a database reporting tool that one of their summer interns wrote. It was actually pretty brilliant, given that she only had a couple of months to work on it, and then it started being used in daily operations. How in the hell do you support and secure something that’s written in Microsoft Access? When the auditors found out that we couldn’t secure access to all the data, we spent weeks cobbling together something that satisfied them.
“It’s like the free puppy,” I continue. “It’s not the upfront capital that kills you, it’s the operations and maintenance on the back end.”
Chris cracks up. “Yes, exactly! They’ll say, ‘The puppy can’t quite do everything we need. Can you train it to fly airplanes? It’s just a simple matter of coding, right?’ ”
After we order food, I tell him about how reluctant I was to accept my new role and my inability to get my arms around all the work that my group has committed to.
“Interesting,” Chris says. “You know, we’re struggling, too. We’ve never had so many problems hitting our ship dates. My engineers keep getting pulled off of feature development to handle escalations when things break. And deployments keep taking longer and longer. What used to take ten minutes to deploy starts taking an hour. Then a full day, then an entire weekend, then four days. I’ve even got some deployments that are now taking over a week to complete. Like Phoenix.”
He continues, “What use is it having all these offshore developers building features if we aren’t getting to market any faster? We keep lengthening the deployment intervals, so that we can get more features deployed in each batch.”
He laughs. “I was in a meeting last week where the feature backlog was so long, the product managers were arguing about which features will get worked on three years from now! We can’t even plan effectively for one year, let alone three years! What’s the use?”
I listen intently. What’s happening with Phoenix is a combination of the need to deliver needed features to market, forcing us to take shortcuts, which are causing ever-worsening deployments. He’s put his finger on a very important downward spiral we need to break out of.
“Listen, Bill, I know it’s a little late to say this, but better late than never. I’m really sorry about my part in this Phoenix fiasco. Sarah came to me a week before Kirsten’s project management meeting, asking me all sorts of questions. She asked when would be the soonest that we could be code-complete. I had no idea she was going to interpret that as the go-live date, especially with Steve in the room. William predicted that it was going to be a disaster, and I should have listened to him, too. That was bad judgment on my part.”
I look into his eyes for a couple of moments. I finally decide to believe him. I nod and say, “Thanks. Don’t worry about it.”
I add, “But don’t do it again. If you do, I’ll break both of your legs, and then I’ll have Wes attend every one of your staff meetings. I’m not sure which is more motivating.”
Chris smiles, raising his glass. “Here’s to never letting this happen again, eh?”
A good thought. I smile and clink my glass against his.
I finish my second beer. “I’m really worried that Sarah is going to try to blame this whole thing on us, you know?”
Chris looks up from his glass and says, “She’s like Teflon. Nothing sticks to her. We’ve got to stick together. I’ve got your back, and I’ll give you a heads-up if I see her trying some weird political crap again.”
“Likewise,” I say emphatically.
I look at my watch. It’s 1:20 p.m. It’s time to head back, so I signal our waitress for the check. “This has been great. We need to do this more often. How about we meet once a week and figure out what we need to do to head off this boneheaded idea to outsource all of IT?”
“Absolutely,” he says. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to roll over on this. I’m going down swinging.”
With that, we shake hands.
Even after eating some food, I feel buzzed. I wonder where I can find some breath mints so I won’t smell like I spent the morning in a distillery.
I look at my schedule on my phone, and move all my meetings to later in the week. At 4 p.m., I’m still in my office when I get an e-mail from Chris.
From: Chris Allers
To: Bill Palmer
Date: September 16, 4:07 PM
Subject: Throwing a little post-Phoenix party
It was good meeting for lunch—I had a great time.
We’re throwing a little impromptu party to celebrate the completion of Phoenix. It’s nothing elaborate, but I’ve ordered a beer keg, some wine and food, and we’re congregating right now in the Bldg 7 lunchroom.
We’d love to have your folks join us. In my mind, it was one of the best team efforts I’ve seen in this company. I ordered enough booze for everyone on your team, too. :-)
See you there,
I genuinely appreciate Chris’ gesture, and I think my team will, too. Especially Wes. I forward the e-mail to Wes and Patty, telling them to encourage everyone to make an appearance. They deserve it.
A couple of moments later my phone vibrates. I look down and read a reply from Wes:
From: Wes Davis
To: Bill Palmer, Patty McKee
Date: September 16, 4:09 PM
Subject: Re: Fwd: Throwing a little post-Phoenix party
What a jackass. Most of my guys won’t be able to make it. We’re still busy fixing all the bad transaction data that their shitty code generated.
Must be nice to have the luxury of celebrating. “Mission Accomplished” and all that, right?
I groan. Although the crisis might be over for Chris’ guys on the upper floors, the people like us in the basement are still bailing water.
Still, I think it’s important that we get our guys to drop by the party. In order to succeed, we need to create these relationships with Chris’ team. Even if it’s only for a half hour.
I grit my teeth and call Wes. As Spock once said, “Only Nixon could go to China.” And I guess I’m Nixon.