#8 Defending . . . Microsoft? (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

I wrote the following letter to Infoworld magazine, after reading a really stupid article about how awful it was that Microsoft dominates the computer world:

Software vendors are in a unique position in the world of products.  They too often rely on the idea that repackaging a product is all it takes to erase the bad memories of a previous release.  I have used a product for the last two years and two upgrades in which I recently found a catastrophic bug.  This program is a time management tool, telephone book, and kitchen sink.  The bug was that, occasionally, the program decided to lock out the ability to add pages to the phone book; limiting the user to 38 phone numbers listed under than letter of the alphabet.  This is a serious drawback when the program decides to limit the number of “S” entries.  I called the vendor and was told that the bug has been fixed on the new, major revision of the product and, for a fee, I can obtain this revision.  There is no cure for my version of the product.  Maybe the majority of this market would think that is a good deal.  The vendor did offer a discount on the revision.  I didn’t take him up on the offer because I have lost faith in that vendor’s commitment to product quality and customer satisfaction.  In fact, I’m not convinced that he is capable of producing software that will work reliably and I am convinced that, if it doesn’t, it will be my problem.  So, I’m back in the market for a program that does what this program did for me.  I won’t invest any more money in this company’s products.

As much as we, and I, beat on Microsoft for being the neighborhood bully (bigger being badder), you have to give their customer service credit for being a benchmark that other companies have to, at least, equal.  In the past year Fox Software’s service was drifting into mediocrity.  After using that product for six years, I was starting to consider dBase IV because of my past experiences with Borland’s customer service.  I was reluctant to update my systems with Fox’s newest revisions because every update seemed to tangle me up with a new bug.  Their technical support personnel were no longer serious programmers and it could take one or two weeks to get a reply to a fax or telephone message.  Those replies were often very close to useless and two more days would be lost waiting for another attempt. 

Even Microsoft’s bug fixes do more than just correct problems.  In my experience Microsoft is more likely to be adding minor, but useful, features than correcting programming mistakes.  And not only do they send the upgrades for free, but they ship them Federal Express 2nd day air. 

February 1998


#7 Training, Who Needs Training? (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

Thirty years ago, I worked for the City of Dallas (Texas) Water Department. That was my first "professional" job. I was a meter reader. For two weeks, a senior meter reader and I hiked my routes. He showed me how to find meters, how to read them, how to avoid angry customers who thought I was going to shut off their water, and how to protect myself from dogs. When he set me free, I was ready to do the job. For the next 2 1/2 years, I read an average of 350 water meters per day and averaged under 3 "errors" (valid customer complaints) a month. Looking back, I think that was the first, and last, adequate job training I've received from a business. And it was a city government job.

Since then, I've been a technician, an engineer, a supervisor, and a manager in a half-dozen industries and a about that many companies. Each of those industries and companies had some sort of "training department." Several of those companies had training procedures that attempted to describe job tasks. Not a single one of those companies put together anywhere near the quality of training they needed. Most of the training programs were nothing more than half-hearted, butt-covering games whose purpose was to fool OSHA, FDA, customers, or some simple-minded executive.

In an economy that claims to be begging for a skilled and educated labor force, you'd think someone would be making a serious effort to build and keep that sort of labor in the company. Not many are. Why the heck is that?

For one, it's expensive and, for two, it requires management planning. Since most businesses are wasting piles of money fooling around with training, Number One can't be the hold up.
But Number Two is pretty much an oxymoron. Management Planning. It's almost impossible to imagine those two words in the same sentence, paragraph, or book. The usual substitutes (management scheming, management manipulating, management abuse, management incompetence, etc.) don't do the job. Training that has a purpose and has to meet real requirements takes a load of planning. Short and long range planning.

Short Range: You have to decide what kind of skills you want your employees to have at the end of the training program. You have to figure out who can teach those skills. You have to sort out who will be able to accept and learn and retain the skills you want to have taught.

Long Range: You have be smart enough to know that a percentage of your labor force will be in training and not available for labor. You have to decide how to make training attractive so that people will want to let go of their daily tasks and work for new skills. You have to figure out where your company is going and what kind of skills it will need when it gets there.

And so on.

Absolutely none of the above is taught in an MBA program. For my money, absolutely no management skills are part of anyone's MBA program, but that's another issue. The first requirement for sorting out those questions is an understanding of the company's technology, the company's markets, and the company's future. There's that damn leadership thing, again. It's pretty easy to see why it's in such short supply.

Just for kicks, I did a search on the word "training" on my company's intranet. Not a single hit. A company with nearly 2,000 employees doesn't have a single active, advertised, on-going training program. Sure, there is a lot of window-dressing, remedial training going on. There are a few technical classes offered to a few engineers. Human Resources always seems to be treating itself to off-site classes in "How to Screw Over the Most People with the Least Effort." Since company networks never work and managers can barely find their computer power switches, IS "professionals" can always convince Management that they need more training. But, for the most part, my employer is a mirror of my business education experiences of the past.

So what all these execs are whining for is not trainable employees, but pre-trained employees. Ideally, self-trained employees. Perfectly, self-trained in the exact tasks needed employees. What they get are a few people who are self-motivated enough to teach themselves skills that will enhance their personal opportunities; and a lot of people who learn enough to get by. The first group won't be generating any loyalty for the company with their efforts. The second are too busy getting by to think about what happens after lunch.

For employees, the key is to get into one of the minority fields that management thinks is worth training. Attract just enough attention to get yourself into regular, general purpose classes that will make you a more valuable employee to all employers. Avoid any sort of "job training" that will make you an expert in your company's most obsolete functions (never, never, ever learn anything about IBM's System 36). And be sure to list all of the industry training programs you've attended in your resume. You never know when some idiot executive will be looking for a free lunch.

February 1998


#6 Musak; short for "Music? Aak!" (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

And now, for something really different.
Let me tell you a story about my youth. When the sun was little-tiny and the moon wasn't even born yet, things were a lot different than they are today.

This is back when my knees didn't hurt and I could pee my name in the snow without soaking my socks and I was absolutely certain that I'd never take a job that required me to wear long pants, let alone a tie. Back in those days, the mark of being a resident of Geezer-ville was when your favorite songs were playing in the grocery store. It was an absolute truth that you were out of it, old as dirt, obsolete as a Liberal Arts major, when you stepped into an elevator and heard a song you recognized.

It was comforting to know, deep in my bones, that I'd never have my wrinkles waved at me in that manner. Back in 1969, I'd have bet all of your retirement investments that I'd never have to listen to Jimi, Janis, or Canned Heat while I hunted for denture glue. OK, I figured the Beatles would quickly end up as voices from the ceiling, but Jimi? No way! The Establishment could never get that hip, even for money.

Who'd have guessed that hippies, and the kids of freaks, would turn out to be grocery store managers? TV shows like "ER" and "Chicago Hope" assault us with emergency rooms (hence the acronym "ER," duh) and cardiac surgery nurses dancing to the sounds of everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to Doggy Dog. Van Morrison. Eric Clapton. Blue Oyster Cult. Van Halen, for Pete's sake. It hurts. Momma it hurts and it doesn't matter where you kiss it, it's still gonna hurt.

So that bit of security has been yanked away from me. I plod through my local super market, ridiculed by music I love used as a cover-up for "you will buy the things you want" subliminal messages. It's not enough that my joints hurt because of the abuse I gave them when I figured there was absolutely no chance I'd live to 30. It's not enough that a surgical screw-up has left me with an 8kHz tone whistling in my right ear at all times. No, just yesterday I was forced to endure "The Wind Cries Mary" from one hundred and fifteen microscopic loudspeakers powered by a three watt amplifier, accompanied by the erratic thumping of a few dozen square-wheeled shopping carts. Jimi, what are they doing to you?

Now I know that there is nothing sacred on this planet. I will die knowing that everything I value will be trampled and abused; before and after and while I'm dying.

Now that I've got the whining out of the way, there's an upside to this. You've probably all heard that the rate that the world's knowledge increases is on some kind of exponential curve. Fifty years ago, the world's knowledge base doubled every decade or so. In the 60's, the number of things we thought we knew doubled every couple of years. In the 80's we actually got dumber. In the 90's, we have to buy six gigabyte hard drives and 300MHz Pentium computers just to balance our checkbooks.

Anyway, you get the picture.

Geezerdom is doing the same thing. It gives me great pleasure to announce that my own, stodgy MBA-laden company is playing 1990's music on hold! Not even the pansy bubblegum stuff, but Blues Traveler. Even the grocery store, where I heard Jimi aurally violated, played U2 and Boys-to-Men tunes immediately afterwards. It almost lifted my spirits, until I realized I'd forgotten what groceries I was supposed to be buying.

You see what this means, don't you? The only generation that's going to be able to, legitimately, call Boomers "geezers" will be our grandchildren. At the rate generations are achieving geezerdom, even they may not be able to get away with it. Every time an elevator or a grocery store updates their playlist, another generation of geezers looses its bragging rights.

"Don't be calling me 'Pops.' Isn't that your favorite song on the p.a., old man?"

This is so cool I may put on some rubber boots, drag a ladder into the back yard, and see if I can write my name in the snow. I'm still going to be bummed about having to wear long pants to work, though.

February 1998


#5 I Love the NBA! (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day
If you're not watching what's going on in the NBA these days, you could be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. Forget the basketball, it's what they're doing in court that matters. (The basketball hasn't been especially interesting since the early 90's.)
There's this hood, Latrell Spreewell, who made a career of threatening teammates and team employees. A few weeks ago, Latrell took his game a notch higher and tried to strangle his coach, 48 year old P.J. Carlesimo, twice! Both times, it took the effort of several other players to pull Spreewell away from Carlesimo. The punishment for attempted manslaughter (It's hard to imagine Spreewell and "premeditated" in the same sentence.) in the NBA? A year's suspension from the NBA and the cancellation of Spreewell's $25,000,000 contract. Not even a mention of the fact that, normally, this kind of behavior would earn a trip to a controlled environment.
Spreewell's one of the few guys left in the NBA who can score with a shot more difficult than an uncontested dunk, so he's not going to unemployed after the suspension is ended. Worst case, next year, some brain-dead, spoiled brat team-owner will, most likely, sign Spreewell to a $50,000,000 contract. This isn't going to be expensive for Spreewell, in the long run.
Even more important to us is that it might not be expensive to him in the short run, either. The NBA Players' Union has taken Spreewell's case to arbitration. Best case, they want him reinstated with no penalty (my favorite). Second best case, they want him suspended with loss of pay for the period between the attack and the arbitrator's decision. (Honest! I'm not making this up.) The NBA still wants to stick him with their original penalty.
If a high profile, roll-modeling, sneaker-advertising NBA superstar can get away with near-murder, think of what this means for postal employees? If the final penalty for Spreewell turns out to be a half-year of unemployment followed by a much better contract (with a no-firing-for-attempted-manslaughter clause) and lots more money, what could this mean for the rest of us?
If you thought Dodge City was fun in the 1850's, just imagine New York City or Los Angeles in the 1990's with NBA-Latrell Spreewell rules. Wyatt Earp would either be in heaven or be hiding under his bed, depending on your reading of that bit of history.
What about the effect of the "Spreewell Rules" on real work? First, all jobs would instantly be "empowered." After the initial holocaust, American business would be completely revitalized. All the MBA-fast-trackers would be dead, in traction, or in hiding. The only executives left alive would be those few who had enough supporters to provide them with adequate protection. While the stock market seems to be completely incapable of determining which companies are competent, employees would be able to take a considerably more direct approach; also described as a "lunge for the throat." There would be a wave of extremely productive, executive suite "layoffs," followed by a lot of MBA students switching their major to something more practical.
All of the above will be followed by a whole new era of "job security." Just imagine the value of being able to put on your annual review "Hey! I didn't try to kill the fool, did I?" That ought to be all you need to get a 10% salary increase.
Personally, I hope Spreewell gets off. I'd really like to see him get away with it. For most of my career I've wanted to choke an executive or three. I, at least, ought to be rewarded for exercising considerable restraint. I'd settle for a four day work week.
February 1998


#4 Who's Sinking the Ship? (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day
If you follow politics, even a little, the uproar about Clinton's possible dalliance with an aide has got to be a lot confusing. For me, two big questions come to mind: 1) Who cares? and 2) Is the job of President of the United States so boring that Clinton needs this kind of distraction?

The answer to #1 is, obviously, Republicans care. They care for all of the wrong reasons. They seem to be almost rabid about the fact that a Democratic president has stabilized and reduced the National Debt to a manageable size. They hate the fact that a Democrat has been President during one of the most stable and productive economic periods in modern history. Economics and business are what Republicans claim as their territory.

In the last twenty years, the Republicans in charge have claimed to be economic conservatives while giving away the bank, and the country's future, to a collection of domestic and foreign bidders. Suddenly, a Democrat is playing the same game, considerably more competently; and that really ticks off Newt and his buddies.

Republicans have always owned the FBI, CIA, NSA, and every law agency down to small town, Midwestern county sheriffs' offices. They have no trouble getting these bloodhounds to dog the footsteps of every living being ever to cross the President's path. And they may have found something or they may have found a way to make something up. But their purpose in doing this is not to protect the nation, it's to protect their powerbase. These people are no more patriotic in their actions or purposes than a dog is loyal to the carpet it pisses on. The country is nothing more than the place where they do their business.

Question #2 is even more interesting, to me. In my 35 years of employment, I'm still waiting to see my first executive who actually provides something valuable and necessary to his/her company. In fact, in most of the companies I've worked, if the whole upper echelon of execs suddenly died it would be months before anyone noticed. (Unless the company's instant increase in productivity created attention and suspicion.) I wouldn't doubt that the President may be about as valuable to the country.

If the Zippergate accusation is true, you have to believe there isn't all that much to being President of the United States. Most of us with normal jobs don't have the time or energy to think about carrying on affairs at work. If the President has that kind of time on his hands, we're not getting much for our money, as taxpayers.

And let's face it, that has been true for the last 20 years of Presidents. Ronnie was senile, and not all that bright before he started losing it. Reagan, from the reports his own people have published, slept through most of his eight years as President. Carter had so little to do that he tossed the entire country's business aside for nearly a year so that he could concentrate on saving a bunch of State Department employees held hostage in Iran. Jerry Ford played golf and stumbled around for three years. Tricky Dick worried about aliens and communists taking over the last pair of functioning cells in his brain and vacationed in China after he got bored with burglarizing Democrat hotel rooms. Kennedy gave us Zippergate Part I. Eisenhower was a lethargic mix of Ford and Reagan's hobbies. And so on. If you deducted the non-government crap all of these ex-Presidents did during their terms, you might end up with four years worth of forty hour-per-week work for the lot of them.

Instead of impeaching Clinton, I say we start paying all politicians on a piece-work basis. I wouldn't trust any of them to play a time-clock straight, so let's figure out a flat rate and pay them only for the stuff we want them to be doing. Based on my 40 years of tax paying experience, I think that would lower the total cost of government to about $500 a year.

January 1998