#32 What if the Twentieth Century Really Likes Us? (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

We're approaching Y2k as I sit at my computer and hack this Rat out. Three days away from the turning over a big one on the calendar's odometer. As I wait, almost perfectly unprepared, for all the disasters that the really paranoid types (as opposed to my own mostly paranoid state) are sure will mark "the end of the world as we know it," it struck me that this could turn out a lot differently than we all expect.

On a cosmic, geological, or cultural level, Y2k is as arbitrary a disaster marker as a pothole sign on a New York City street. Year 1 wasn't declared until the sixth century, and that was based on a sloppy calculation made from biblical dates and the estimated origin of the Roman Empire. All of this makes the precision of this date something like a really sloppy statistical calculation, like an economic prediction. Even more foolish is the fact that we've decided that a date system invented by a religious leader of a cult that represents less than 5% of the world's population is some kind of benchmark for the entire universe. Europeans are nothing if not arrogant.

Then there are the nitpickers who claim there was no year zero, therefore, somehow that proves that the millennium doesn't actually start until 2001. And you're not really a teenager until age fourteen and you're not in your forties until you're 41, by that precise, but boring, logic. Let's get past all that by admitting that we're no longer a world controlled by events and religion and that we've "moved on" to digits and sophisticated stuff like computer glitches that can cause international calamities due to shortsighted programming and buggy operating systems. The world's odometer is about to roll up three zeros and that's what matters. No computer on this planet will give a flying damn about 2001, so why should we?

So, having resolved that important philosophical argument, I want to move on to the really important concept that just snapped into my mind after downing my usual late night Jack Daniels tranquilizer: what if the Twentieth Century doesn't want to go quietly into history?

Think about it. Of all the dumb things humans have animated and anthropomorphized, the century that produced the largest growth in human knowledge (by a factor of several bazillion, by my last count) ought to be at least as sentient as your average straight-ticket Republican voter. And if that brain-dead logic works for you, consider this; why would the Twentieth Century go out without a fight? Based on the amount of money put into defending our public utilities, communication systems, personal computers, IRS data, and VCR clocks that always flash 12:00, someone thinks Y2k is a serious danger to all the things humanity holds dear, or manages with a remote control device. Consider the possibility that there is a government conspiracy to keep us from finding out who is really in control of this planet's calendar.

So here's my scenario: January 1, 2000 arrives and all that Y2k programming turns out to be a waste of effort. All of the world's computers start the Twentieth Century over again, date-wise. After a few months of wrestling with the hopeless task of forcing the world's computers to admit to the year 2000, humanity gives up and starts the 1900's over again. After all, we are the generation that can't make change without instructions from a cash register, the dumbest of all computer systems. How could we ever hope to defeat the efforts of the really smart computers, like PIII's and Gameboys?

The downside is, for a couple of decades, all of the working class will be negative years old, sort of the reverse of vampires; the walking unborn. That will create a momentary ethical problem for the government, who may be accused of taxing . . . something less than fertilized eggs? A pre-gleam in a father's eye? Whatever. Governments can always find an excuse to tax their victims, so that won't be much more than a blip on the radar of the repeated century.

The upside will more than make up for this little ethical hitch; no one gets to retire for another 65 years. All those deadbeats currently hanging out in Florida and Arizona will be put back to work. The Social Security system will be "saved." Even the military and government employment retirees will be forced off of the public dole, most of them will have to work another eighty years to put in their "twenty." Think of the tax rebates this will produce!

Of course, the other possibility is that the "system" will simply choose to ignore anyone who is not yet "born." That would serve us Boomers right, since we once advocated not trusting anyone over thirty. That philosophy could be carried over into completely disregarding anyone over fifty, or some other totally arbitrary age (just like "thirty" was in the first 1960's). It wouldn't take more than a year or two of unemployment and digital non-existence for starvation and exposure to weed out the "unborn" and provide the planet with a clean slate for the second Twentieth Century.

The second and most importantly cool vision of a total Y2k meltdown is the possibility that the entire credit system might collapse under the weight of its own bloated and greedy butt. If any system in the world is going corruptly and ineptly into the Twenty-First Century, it's the IRS and other federal government agencies. The candidate voted "most likely to imitate the federal government" is the banking system. Here's a test: what's the interest due on a loan that won't be made for eighty years? (Hint: Excel provides you with Microsoft's infamous 'ERROR!' result for this sort of calculation.)

You can bet your sweet patootie that most of us have meticulously hoarded our banking records, in case our bank balances go into negative numbers on January 1. You can also bet the patootie and its connecting limbs that any errors recorded in the favor of banking patrons will widely welcomed without many moral qualms. The only public sector group disliked more than bankers are the bankers' trust fund babies.

Politically, a sure way to get elected in 2000/1900 will be to promote "Y2k debt forgiveness" to all those yuppies and guppies who have buried themselves in credit card debt and house payments. Add the liberal arts majors who are now paying off their college loans working as assistant managers in fast food joints and you have a landslide election triumph.

If you couple our burning desire to get something for nothing with the possible mortality allergy of our ole' friend, the Twentieth Century, and we might be living the past century all over again, number-wise. Too bad it's just a numerical illusion, I wouldn't mind being -48 again.

December (just barely) 1999


#31 Unions, Double Failure (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

[In retrospect, I have misgivings about this Rat Rant. I don’t disagree with the general proposition that the existence of a union is a sure sign of mismanagement. However, I do disagree that unions are unnecessary. All human activity is corrupt, so there is no special information contained in the idea that unions are often corrupt.]

A sure sign of a mismanaged business is the presence of a union. Union membership is also a sure sign of a mismanaged career. Here's what the existence of a union says to me:

1. This business is so abusive that the people who work there need Jimmy Hoffa to "protect" them from mismanagement's idiocy.

2. The lives and careers people of who work at this place are so screwed up that they need Jimmy Hoffa to keep them off of the unemployment line.

The recent foolishness in Seattle, the protests of the World Trade Organization meeting, gives us a great picture of the capacities of the second group. Pretty much every one of our great unions was represented in the protesters. While an occasional speaker provided some useful information and analysis, too many were self-serving and simpleminded. In particular, the union speakers were pointedly simpleminded. Their speeches were full of the same "common man" drivel that they've spouted for the last 75 years. Sooner or later, you'd think one of those guys would get tired of being called "common."

A union leader from the American Federation of Teachers was especially proud of that organization's turnout. (Which made me wonder who was minding their classrooms?) Speaking in a pre-riot interview with a NPR reporter, this union representative convinced me that there are far too many teachers in today's classrooms. Students would be much better off spending their days with comic books and video games. Babbling about solidarity against everything from the "unfair" prices for farmers' produce to the loss of minimum wage, unskilled manufacturing jobs, the AFT bureaucrat proved to me that she had absolutely no comprehension of market forces and economics. Without the protection of a union, this particular "educator" would be asking us if we "want fries with that" for a living. It's scary to think that anyone would believe hiring more "teachers" of that caliber would improve public education.

My father was a high school math teacher for thirty years. A big part of the reason he didn't protest his mandatory retirement was due to the declining quality of people he had been surrounded by in his last decade of employment. Even worse, for him, he had predicted this would happen twenty years earlier when the teachers in his school voted to join the union.

In the debate over the arrival of the union, one of the most incompetent high school teachers ever to grace the long lineage of incompetent Kansas teachers had said something like, "When the teachers of this institution join this union, the standards of education will improve. I will stake my professional reputation on that." In my father's finest moment as a professional, he stood up and said, "I'll put my reputation against yours, anytime, and I'll guarantee that, once this school system is unionized, the schools will belong to the teachers, not the students." And he was right. Since that time, the sole focus of the education system has been on those who are employed by that system.

And that's the way it goes for everything that's unionized. From the perspective of a customer, it makes sense to avoid anything that's been touched by union labor. The presence of a union tells a consumer at least two things about a company: 1) the management was so incompetent and arrogant that the employees were driven to join a union to get the minimally fair treatment that unions provide, and 2) now that the company is unionized there is no chance the company will ever get a functional quality control system in place or find a way to convince employees that customers should be treated differently than serial killers.

The usual spiel about unions is "they had a purpose in their time" or "they're a necessary evil." The purpose was supposed to be protecting unskilled labor from the whimsically brutal hand of management. In most cases, what actually happened was another brutal hand was added to management, union management. From a consumer and competitors' perspective, the purpose has turned out to be to protect unskilled labor from losing their jobs to skilled labor and automation, and, if there are any spare resources, from the usual management idiocies. Unions have become a self-serving refuge of the incompetent and, otherwise, unemployable.

Sometime, in the near future, I'm going to write a Rat Rant about how we can determine which occupation will be automated next. One of the indicators is the presence of a union in that occupation.

December 1999


#30 Doing A Job vs. Doing The Job (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Believe it or not, the Rat is being heard. Last week, I received a note from an executive who objects to my belief that, if everyone of the executive floor of a typical company were to die from catered lobster bisque poisoning, it would be weeks, months, or years before the rest of the company noticed. My lone protesting exec claims that execs are hard-working, over-stressed, and reasonably paid for the value they provide to their companies. I beg to differ.

There's a difference between working hard and being productive. For most adults, spending a dozen hours a day with the nose buried in the next-guy-up-the-ladder's butt is difficult, stressful, and only gets done with an expectation of something of value (like lots of money). However difficult that kind of activity may be, it isn't something that provides value to the business.

This is along the lines of my arguments about MBA degrees. Several readers have protested that the path to earning an MBA is as difficult as the route to something more useful. Academia can make anything hard. That doesn't prove that the actual course material is complex or hard to master, it just proves that academia would complicate selling (or giving away) ice cubes in Death Valley.

The history of the management class of humans, ever since the earliest days of clan chiefs, has been self-serving. In the dirt-floor days, a guy got to be king because he was an effective military leader (or he was the only guy left alive after the battle and the ones who stayed home mistook survival as a battle skill). It seemed to take one generation of inherited power for early royalty to forget their purpose and function. It might be true that war skills could be handed down a generation or two, but it probably wasn't. Humans tend to drift toward easy answers and the concept of inherited intelligence, skill, and courage is, mostly, a myth.

Not all that long ago, business leaders were, mostly, business founders. When a company survives the first decade or two, there is usually some skill behind the start-up. However, that skill doesn't necessarily reside in the founder, let alone his genes. Sometimes, a lucky early hire provides the talent and drive that pushes a company past the early failure zone.

Henry Ford was a great example of a founding father who couldn't have kept an ice cream truck business alive, on his own. A certifiable fruitcake with the magnetic personality of the guy holding the pitchfork in the Grant Wood painting, "American Gothic," Ford lucked into a couple of key employees who created his "legacy" and fortune. The assembly line, the mechanical genius that separated the early Ford cars from the rest of the automotive pack, and the organization systems that were necessary to Ford's survival (and which Ford did his personal best to destroy) were all created and supervised by mid-level managers. Now that we're a dozen generations away from that sketchy origin, the Fords who are left in control probably can't even drive a car, let alone make one.

These days, what passes for business leaders are too often a dramatically different group from "founder" types. The typical management types are in the Roger Smith (of GM infamy) class. Their claim to leadership is more based on their ability to avoid critical decisions, suck up to whoever's currently on top (while positioning themselves for an opportunity to slip a knife between the ribs), and an unerring obsession toward their own personal power and profit. This sort of character is the origin of the old rule that anyone who wants to lead is someone who ought not to be allowed near the job. Again, while all those devious activities are complicated and energy draining, they're not productive.

The biggest flaws in the ointment of many of the largest companies' organizations starts at the top and slithers its way down the ladder. Management is paid so outrageously that long-term corporate goals are sabotaged in the interest of making the next quarter's financial objective. The stock options from a single strong quarter can make a CEO a rich man, eliminating any interest in building a solid foundation for a company's long term success and health. Still, none of this stuff adds any value to the business.

As a culture, we seem to be able to recognize why this is unmotivating and corrupting when it happens to professional athletes, but don't seem to notice it when it's going on in our own companies. I suppose this is yet another thing we should thank the media for ignoring. Otherwise, we'd all be a lot wealthier and more secure and . . . where was I going what that?

The incestuous relationship between corporate execs and stock analysts complicates these defects even more. Analysts are no more interested in a company's long term health than that company's competitors might be. When a CEO and a pack of analysts climb into bed to create a bump in the stock value and a run of short-term profit taking, employees and non-conspiring investors have no protection. The SEC pays a little attention to this kind of stuff, but only if it's so blatant that there's no way to ignore it. The government's job is, primarily, to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. The rest of us are on our own. Still no value added.

While there's a lot of "work" going on, in climbing to and hanging on to those luxurious corner offices, hardly any of it benefits the organization. Most of the effort expended by the executive class is self-serving and always has been.

So, Mr. Exec, I'm sticking with my popguns. Until I see some evidence that you guys actually do something useful, I'm not going to make the leap of faith that you seem to think is due. But thanks for playing and try again when you have an argument that makes sense.

November 1999


#29 The Good, They Die Young (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

WingspanBank.com died this year.  The BankOne PR hacks say Wingspan was "absorbed" by its parent company but to those of us who were Wingspan customers "absorbed" means "digested."  Too bad, especially for Wingspan's customers.  The difference between Wingspan and Bank One is similar to a comparison between Mother Theresa and Osoma bin Laden.  Both have causes they believe in, but their motives are justified by very different philosophies. 

According to revised business history, Wingspan was a BankOne experiment in Internet commerce.  It's possible that is true, but it's more likely that Wingspan was the brainchild of something of someone a bit more renegade in the customer-hostile BankOne organization.  Wingspan's philosophy was an attempt to reflect the lower cost of electronic banking to its customers.  BankOne's philosophy is something much closer to the gang-raping that we're all more familiar with from our banks. 

Not only did Wingspan do odd things like pay higher interest rates on savings and checking accounts, but Wingspan provided services in exchange for being allowed to hold its customers' money.  Wingspan rebated up to $5 a month in ATM charges.  Wingspan provided features like BillPay, electronic cash transfers, fee-free accounting software data downloads, and 24/7 customer service.  Bank One, of course, charges for those services, on the rare occasion that it's capable of providing them at all.

Banks have been whining that U.S. customers haven't taken well to electronic banking.  Even ATM use is amazingly low, less than 10% of bank customers use ATMs.  Almost no bank customers use Internet bank features.  Of course, most banks look at these features as a way to generate more income and charge for their use.  Since a typical Internet transaction costs the bank a couple of cents, an ATM transaction costs less than a dime, and a teller transaction costs nearly a buck, you'd think it would be obvious to the folks who mismanage banks that electronic transactions should be encouraged.  Unfortunately, banks employ way too many MBAs, so simple logic escapes them.  Their complex logic tells them that any activity that doesn't produce gross income is inefficient, even if they lose net income on the transaction.

Even more humorous, to an MBA, is any activity that doesn't result in low-tech empire-building.  Efficient management exposes the fact that there is very little need for management.  Tellers, supervisors, managers, and HR departments are empires.  ATMs and accessible websites are not. 

According to bank analysts, Wingspan was not a money-maker for BankOne.  Its two closest emulators, NetBank.com and everbank.com are profitable, but Wingspan was not.  Of course, neither of those competitors had to bear the kind of executive and corporate overhead that BankOne imposed on Wingspan, but we all know executives and their entourages are rarely punished for being redundant or an unnecessary expense. 

You have to admire BankOne's "marketing" skill, or gall, though.  In that ever optimistic, "nobody's dumber than Americans," spirit, they are happily advertising that losing all of the features that attracted customers to Wingspan is an "improvement in services."  Wingspan's customers have received a half-dozen letters from BankOne, detailing the changes and reductions in service and increased costs, and every one of these letters is accompanied by large-print blather exclaiming how much better we'll all be served by Bank One. 

I gave BankOne a two week trial and suffered the consequences.  Afterwards, I started looking for a Wingspan replacement.  Netbank is where I ended up, but Netbank is no Wingspan.  It appears, in this economy, if you build a better mousetrap a large corporation will buy it and turn it into an overpriced foot massager. 

November 1999


#27 Sneaking Talent Past HR (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

From 1976 to 1995 all of my job titles contained the word "engineer." Through that period, I did an electrical engineer's job without an engineering BS, MS, Ph.D., or any other disabling affliction. In fact, for all but the few years of my engineering career I had no more than an associates degree from a fairly awful Midwestern "Engineering Technology" program. However, for part of that period, I was an engineering manager so I was constantly exposed to plenty of BS, mostly generated by company executives.

During my engineering years, mostly surrounded by boys and girls with degrees from high-priced schools, I was exposed to an incredible variety of "skills." A large part of my general purpose disdain for the output of MBA programs and engineering schools comes from my experiences working with folks who owned those misbegotten and overrated credentials. The rest of that impression was gathered during my own 25 year struggle to earn an engineering degree as a part-time, "non-traditional student."

I've worked alongside E.E. Phuds who couldn't bias a transistor, flip a flip-flop, or complete a two component circuit if their existence depended on it. I've been saddled with BS, MS, and Phud types who brought the show to a halt while they struggled with comprehending the project design well enough so that they could explain what we were doing to management, who only needed a broad concept description to justify our budget.

The hands-down best engineer I ever worked with got his education from the U.S. Air Force, as a repair technician. He made a good living re-engineering incredibly complex and incompetently designed electronic measurement and control equipment. When faced with an technical obstacle, he never considered the possibility that his lack of formal education limited his ability to solve problems. He just waded in and fixed things faster than normal engineers can screw them up.

In my college engineering classes, I was regularly disappointed by the poor quality of the technical "education" provided. On the other hand, once I stumbled on the title of "engineer," I was regularly impressed with the much higher quality of the education I received on the job. Technicians never get the educational perks that are tossed at engineers. Technical support from component manufacturers and suppliers. Hands-on component application seminars and software training. Most important, the time to study problems and research their solutions. If these resources were spread around among technicians and engineers, alike, it would be hard to tell one from the other. It seemed to me that companies could save a lot of money and time by identifying uncredentialed talent and grooming those people into experienced engineers. I had an opportunity to test that theory a few years later and found that it proved to be true.

Of the collection of people I've known who were called "engineers," my experience splits the good from the bad at about 50-50, degreed and undegreed. On the other hand, the number of degreed and incompetent engineers vs. the undegreed and incompetent is a divide by zero insolvable. You can be awful and still employable, if you have a degree. Without the credential, you must have talent.

What I also learned, in a better time and place when a few companies weren't ruled by the idiot iron hand of HR departments, was that many of the best engineers from other industries were degree-less. In fact, I suspect that if you grouped degreed and non-degreed engineers and measured their competency you'd find that the non-degreed folks are, on average, considerably more talented than the other boys and girls. They're also cheaper to employ; no tuition debt to pay off and less ego to coddle.

There's a reason for that, a degree is a passkey into a world where you don't necessarily belong. Getting through that door without the passkey requires actual, hard earned, talent. Getting the passkey is a lot easier than earning skills and experience, especially if your parents are willing to pay for it. A degree provides absolutely no evidence of actual talent or inclination for the work.

The hardest aspect of finding and hiring uncredentialed talent is getting them past the HR obstacle course. Once they are in, their abilities will take them the rest of the way. The real trick is figuring out where the door is, when you don't have a degree.

On the large scale, the examples of men like Steve Wozinak, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and hundreds of other famous engineers and inventors ought to have taught us that universities are not the only place people learn creativity. In fact, we see examples, every day, of where designs executed by companies full of degreed engineers and scientists are complete failures. They're called "product recalls."

Usually, the door the best of these talents go through is the one they create themselves. Steve Wozinak couldn't get an engineering position at Hewlet Packard, so he started Apple Corp. in his garage and went on to riches and fame. In the meantime, HP has failed, multiple times, at selling their mediocre computer products to the PC market. What computer products they do sell are to frat-brat engineers who grew up on RPN calculators and other academic relics. HP is a large and, intermittently, successful company, but one that never made a dent into the personal computer business when they introduced their "me too" products late in the history of PC's. Even HP executives have wonder where the company would be if it had realized the value of talent over degrees. Their most successful products, laser and jet printers, were purchased from Canon. I guess we should be impressed that they were able to recognize an engineering feat, if they weren't able to create one.

Small and start-up companies, usually, don't dither over unimportant stuff. When talent is more important than credentials, a lot of doors open up with incredible efficiency. I've seen excellent examples of this sort of company with a dozen or more engineers and not a degree in sight. Not even in management. In the early days, software companies were mostly staffed with geeks who thrived on uncovering obscure programming tricks. The early conversion stage of technology, when a concept is turned into a product, is when academia is rarely useful. Even today, the majority of leading edge software companies skip lightly over the academic credentials to get to the applicant's experience and personality. They know that if you're good, you'll be doing it, and if you're not, you'll get a degree to compensate.

Established companies are much harder to break into. Incredibly hard, more often than not. Once the corporate arteries harden enough that the HR department has grown teeth, the backdoor is the only way in. You either have to plan on putting in some years working up from a technician position or you have to know someone. Someone with power.

Getting a couple of years experience on the tech bench, preferably in the engineering department, of a large brain-dead company can often be a credential to an engineering position in a smaller, faster moving company. I know a tech who was always referred to as "brilliant and indispensable to our department, but not a real engineer because he doesn't have a degree." After a couple years of being indispensable, he took an engineering management and partial ownership position at a start-up competitor of his previous employer. After a few years, he made life so difficult for those who once believed he wasn't a "real engineer" that they filed for Chapter 11 protection and may never resurface.

The two places that credentialed talent can't enter are the halls of corporate welfare businesses and government. Credentials are everything where performance means nothing. If you invented a mechanical heart that ran for three years on two AA batteries and turned grandpa into Ben Johnson (without steroids), it wouldn't buy you a work bench in the smallest medical devices or aerospace companies. While technicians often do the actual work in in these places, degrees rule both the salary scale and the patents-applied-for lists. There are some rare examples where incredible, unstoppable talent rose above this brick wall of academic segregation, but not many.

Too bad. Since the Fortune 500 won't come to them, Bill Gates and others like him will be bringing new rules to technology and we'll be seeing some new company names on that list in the future. As information becomes easier to get and the cost of developing technology is driven down by international competition and capacity, just about anyone can make just about anything if their idea is good enough.

Consumers don't care where the inventor went to school. They just want to get the best product for the best price. Cutting out useless overhead is how that standard gets met. So tell me, what did your degree contribute to the work you did today?

September 1999