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Completely Wasted

By Scott Hirsh

People who work with computers have always been considered “creative” types. And the creative aspect of our work has certainly offset some of the less glamorous aspects of what we, as system managers, cope with on a daily basis. In my travels of the last five years I have had an opportunity to discover this creativity, as applied to the management, or lack thereof, of our systems. In particular, I have been impressed at the lengths to which we go to avoid project management or planning.

For some of us, our general evolution as system managers starts with being inexperienced and energetic, perhaps even hyper (if I may personalize here). Eventually we realize that adrenaline is addictive — and destructive. We reflect on our mistakes, we’re punished for our mistakes, or we just come to the conclusion that “perpetual frantic reactive mode” is no way to live. So we learn to be organized, or at least we make it our New Year’s resolution. Maybe we even come to appreciate the value of planning.

But not everyone. Not by a long shot. Some of us were born to be “action heroes,” thriving on chaos, most of it self-inflicted. So how do we do avoid being organized? Let me count the ways.

Other People’s Money

If you don’t plan, you inevitably waste time, which wastes money. One of the first revelations I had as a consultant was that money is not a deterrent to waste, nor is it an incentive to plan. Why? Because the money that is wasted is “other people’s money” (OPM). We have rarely been successful with chargeback — the “scared straight” strategy of wiping out waste by hitting our users in their pocketbooks — because it’s not their money. Whose is it? It’s “the company’s.” It’s “the man’s.” It may even be “in the budget.” But it’s not yours and you don’t really care if it’s wasted, do you?

No Incentive to Save

OPM could be converted to our money if we were given incentives to save. But that would be too easy. True story: Every year in my last job we would prepare a budget. Prudently, I would pace myself as best as I could not to spend too quickly. So I reached the end of one year with money remaining to buy an item for which I had budgeted and received approval. So I submitted the purchase of the budgeted item; it was denied. “But it was in the budget, which was approved!” I argued. The response: “Oh, the budget doesn’t really mean anything.”

Even worse, there is almost never any reward for saving money. So we don’t. Why bother?

Free, Free, Set Me Free

Is there a system manager out there who is not an “exempt” employee? In other words, no matter how many hours you work, you never qualify for overtime. Uh-oh. You know what that means: Your time is “free!” to waste. And so it is.

After a morning of “emergency” meetings, you must then go back to your desk and complete all the work you would have done had you not been spinning your wheels in the conference room for several hours. And there’s no end to it now, thanks to advances in technology. With wireless communications and a portable PC, you are expected to provide support anytime, anywhere. Isn’t progress grand? And it’s all free, because you’re exempt. Until you burn out and leave, that is.
Heck, if your time is free, then why bother to get help when, even if it takes you 10 times longer to do something, it’s still cheaper than hiring outside help (do you smell something burning?). Never mind that it will cost much more later to undo the damage or to complete what never got finished.

Too Much Overhead

It’s sort of like TCP and UDP: if you’re only dealing with small amounts of data you don’t want to incur a disproportionate amount of overhead, do you? So I’ve been told that certain projects are “too small” for the wasted overhead of formal planning. What’s too small? From what I can tell it’s anything smaller than the space shuttle. I have been party to two-month projects that were too small to bother with formal project management. And yet, eighteen months later… that two-month project is still going (just add OPM).

Who’s On First

Combine OPM with the mystery of who’s in charge and you have a recipe for waste. Have you ever been involved in a project where you’re asked weeks in advance (so far so good) to travel to another site, only to find on arrival that you weren’t expected? “Oops, we completely forgot you were going to be here today.” Or you arrive and the person you were scheduled to meet with decided to take the day off and nobody bothered to tell you. Too bad formal project management would require all that overhead.

Going Through the Motions

Many people like the idea of project management. It’s like being a kid again, playing house, pretending you’re doing the real thing. So you crank up Microsoft Project (it’s always Microsoft Project, because it comes with all “the other stuff”) and you create an impressive Gantt chart — preferably in color. Perhaps you go whole-hog and churn out some PowerPoint slides too. Then you hold a kickoff meeting, and you hand out a tree’s worth of project management documents. Great meeting, everyone agrees. And then… nothing.

Because, unfortunately, the real work of project management is a lot less fun. And it involves people (as opposed to twiddling around in software), people who can find tons of excuses for not meeting deadlines — some people who just don’t care (gasp!). So the meetings become less frequent. The project management documents stop getting updated. And you’re back to winging it again.


It’s hard to believe, but some of your co-workers don’t want you to succeed. Or perhaps there’s someone you would like to take a fall. So we don’t exactly cooperate, do we? Unfortunately, if that person survives the debacle, they will eventually get even — at your expense. Such are the joys of teamwork. Look for more of this as companies glom together in increasing numbers.

Human Nature

It’s the principle of entropy at work: We weren’t meant to be organized. We know what’s good for us, but we can’t help but submit to our wasteful impulses. No amount of shame — disaster-area desktop, snakepit wiring closet, even messy database — can reform us. Some of us are just incorrigible, and that’s that.

The Road to Recovery

Some waste is inevitable, but IT continues to be especially resistant to the low-tech remedies to waste — management, planning, respect for the value of each other’s time, commitment to common goals. Until we run out of money or energy, we will continue to run fast and loose. In the meantime, consider the joke that eventually every young guy hears from an older guy:

Two bulls, one young one and one old one, are standing on a hill overlooking a valley full of cows. The young one says to the old one, “What do you say we run down there and have our way with one of those cows?” The old bull looks at the young one and says, “How about we take our time, and have ’em all?”

Scott Hirsh, former chairman of the SIG-SYSMAN Special Interest Group, is a partner at Precision Systems Group, an authorized HP Channel Partner which consults on HP OpenView, Maestro, Sys*Admiral and other general HP 3000 and HP 9000 automation and administration practices.

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