Friday, September 16, 2005

NT: A New Day, Shiny New Project

Part three, and last, of the saga of my career at Nortel.

My Director, we'll call him Wolfgang, approached me to head up the next generation of troubleshooting platform.

So far we had a problem reporting system or call request database. It was designed in the late 1980s and while still adequate for call reporting, it was cumbersome to use, thereby creating accuracy problems in generated reports.

There are three things that come to mind when I think back to this system, for one it lasted for over 10 years, which is to say rather astounding in the computer business. This is a testament to Wolfgang and Arthur who were both involved in the design and deployment of this system.

The other two observations are none too flattering for the company however. It was a well-known and established fact in the mid 1990s that some directors, and even some V.P.s would routinely massage the data coming from the call request system. In fact, the data was changed outright to suit the director's needs. This was possible because of shortcomings in the system itself whereby report generation was somewhat convoluted to do. As time went on, expertise was established and report generation became somewhat automated. Some directors and V.P.s who shall remain nameless, were then unable to conjure up data from their ass, or worse, from their bands 6 & 7.

And thirdly, by the end of the 1990s and early 2000, the bean counters had taken over. Business-case was the buzzword du jour and covered everything from equipping a floor with a water fountain to building a 17 million dollar laboratory, which would be dismantled 6 months after it went into service. This was seen as a new boon for the number freaks, yet a basic problem remained, the information going into the system was suspect in the first place!

As I mentioned before, the system was, by the end '90s, becoming too cumbersome for proper and accurate use. Indeed, so many hands trundled through with their own requirements thereby spoiling the system's overall effectiveness in order to secure the necessary metric for that month. This actually got so bad that a guidance team had to be set up, not to fix the problem, but rather to instruct all our engineers to ignore the last ten steps of closing a service request. I quote: "select Software and Miscellaneous as trouble codes and close the case."

The case system was due to be replaced in July 2001, if I remember correctly, with an off-the-shelf product, which wasn't off-the-shelf anymore since Nortel had bought the company. So finally we'd have a case management system as opposed to a call reporting system. This was the first step in the right direction.

I was in charge of the second step, which was to design and implement a knowledge management system which could tie in with the case management system. Immediately the scope of this project grew to encompass other teams, but more immediately, we were to satisfy our engineer's longstanding complaint of a platform that would be helpful and not a hindrance.

Being an engineer of this sort for over 6 years, I knew what was required, but the how was somewhat out of reach. As I said before, others had failed, through lack of available technology, and other still through lack of proper management. A two pronged approached was selected: technology and philosophy. I will expound on this in another blog, and stick with the career path here.

The approach was sound and it was endorsed. We got Vice Presidential approval, and two, count them, two director to back me up. I felt confident that I wouldn't be falling into the management trap as others had. That left the technology.

Religious warfare is a schoolyard brawl compared to technology, especially when the people making the technology decisions don't know their ass from a chip. Add to this that even computer people, who are generally in the know, can seldom agree amongst themselves! I am reminded of my own aversion to Macs - Macintosh computers - which prompted me to write on the whiteboard in my office "I don't do Macs". I would slap my board with vehemence whenever a user came by to ask me a Mac question. So I was certainly part of the problem.

But I was going to try not to be, or so I thought.

I had been building alliances, and by the same token requirements for a wide spectrum of engineers, both in fibre and telephony. It came to pass that the major business units, i.e. the ones racking in the most cash with the biggest support organization were in-line and on board. Our mission statement and more importantly the vision of the basic design were again endorsed, but this time, by 2 whole business units, and the third was in-line but unwilling to move until it had been implemented, tested and running. In essence, they agreed and supported us, but would not partake in the trials, and minimally in requirements. This was standard practice in Wireless - cellular - in that they were so closely tied with telephony that they got all the telephony benefits without having to invest any effort nor any money.

Our vision was brilliant. The alliances were solid. Technology was happening, albeit slowly, but it was coming along. Life was good.

Then Philby III happened (not his real name).

Enterprise was the 4th business unit at Nortel at the time. And they were the people that had tried and failed. Of course, they now claimed to know all about everything and had the solution to solve world hunger, boil the ocean.

If this was going to cut my time-to-market for my people, by all the gods, I would get on-board in a heartbeat! Our first contacts were very good. This lot seemed to have learned well from their mistakes and the post mortem was logical. But for some reason, they refused to change their technology solution. It became painfully obvious why, but we found out far too late.

So we traveled the same path for a while, until over the space of a few months, we got railroaded into an IT gambit. The engineer representatives from Enterprise were not from there. Their managers were from IT and the chief designer was a contractor. And where the fuck was the Enterprise representative?

By the time I found him, the boss of Enterprise, he had all but disavowed everything and anything to do with their old knowledge management system. He had been in the middle of it when it all failed, and he certainly didn't agree with the logical-but-oh-so-flawed post-mortem. Also, just as an added bonus, he completely rejected the technology as well, setting blame upon it as well.

This didn't come as a shock, because by this time I already knew the enterprise people or in reality: their pimps, were going off in a direction ill-suited for my engineers. Given my background in Management Information Systems - also I have a bachelor degree - I already knew why the underlying technology would fail to provide the necessary infrastructure for our vision.

Nevertheless, I still attempted to rally everyone to a move ahead with his project. My only requirement from the other business units was to use Oracle as their basic database platform, and to let me know what system they'd use so I could interface with them when the time came. The choice for Oracle was simple; it was the same database as the newly-to-be-introduced case management system in July, making things much easier in the short and long term both!

This is where it got ugly. The IT gambit was to ensure everyone across the entire company was not only using the same technology, but also that IT should be doing the training, and such training would be in something called Solution Centred Support. The problem was that none of the 3 business units were interested in SCS. We didn't want a solution centre we already had that! If we had wanted solutions, all we had to do was to search our archaic case system and voîlà! We needed a knowledge capture and repository system.

This was never properly understood. It was to be my greatest mistake to try and explain the difference. My mission became to take these two diverging philosophies to all pertinent managers show them both, tell them why I like mine better, and then let them choose.

Philby's mission was to do some influence peddling at the vice-president level. He wanted his tool in there so bad it wasn't funny. Also, every single comparative report I'd make, he'd send out another, which was 1/2 truths, some outright lies and some statements of which he had no possible idea.

Since I'm writing this story, it's somewhat obvious that I could be prone to exaggerate. What's more: I am not exaggerating at all, I don't need to. Philby became so insanely unbelievable and rabid that my entire management structure knew he was off his rocker. All the people I'd had alliances with in both the other business units knew he was lying. And my own team was dismayed at the falsehoods this boy generated. They were on the ground floor and knew exactly what was what with both the technology and the people intended to use it.

Unfortunately for me, the only person who could potentially reel in Philby was the boss of Enterprise, who knew about every shortcoming...

and he had just left Nortel.

A decision point had been reached by March 2001. Either we adopted one or the other philosophy and toolset or we'd miss our deadline. The stakes were high in my book. On the one hand, we handed the keys over to IT, or on the other we kept control of our own destiny, as would each business unit.

The IT choice would guarantee failure down the road simply because it was a system our engineers didn't want nor asked for. Rule #1 in the Designer's Handbook: what do your users want? Rule #2: see rule #1. The IT choice cleverly avoided both. If we ploughed ahead with our own choice of philosophy and toolset, we'd guarantee a modicum of success with our engineers.

The battle was protracted and ran through April, lies on the one side, warnings on the other. Then May 10th happened. A decision had been rendered and it was not in our favour. Of course I went to see my boss, we’ll call him Alexander, that he may right this wrong.

I truly loved this man. He had a nice way about him, and he was a friend to Carmine, my other most favourite of bosses. Also he struck me as being honest and straightforward and certainly trying his best at all times. A man I respected. And I say this with all the years of respect and admiration I owe him: the motherfucker handled me!

We wrote a short email together outlining the difficulties and impossibilities of the choice handed down. We captured the essence of the issues in some 15 to 20 lines of text. Then he said: "OK, we have everything?" I replied that we'd covered the essential points. Then he said just as deadpan: "OK, I won't send it just yet, let me think about the wording some more." I left.

He never sent it.

If he had, I might have survived. As it was, this was the last nail in the coffin that would spell the end of my motivation for my career. So I got patronized, lost my motivation and then I burned out. I had to take a couple of weeks vacation, of which I was sure I was not going to return. But I did. I came back determined to make an honest go of it. It wasn't the solution I wanted, but it sure as hell wasn't going to be my fault if it failed. This is a laudable sentiment to have, but not one that can be sustained for years in the face of what you know, in your gut, will fail.

Nevertheless I was giving it my all. Training went ahead with vigour, as did the vast amounts of bonus money to encourage people to enter their case information. We did our utmost to whip up enthusiasm with the new program and succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. This was even better than the move I’d done in back 1994. This was a business victory and was celebrated as such.

In truth though, my entire team new we'd missed our chance. I got good reviews for my own evaluation until June. It was again time to move on, but I didn't see it. My work wasn't finished, at least not to my satisfaction. Also, we had a 1/2 system. Phase 2 needed to be implemented and soon!

By September, my role had changed somewhat and I was definitely keeping steady though, but I saw little point in going out of my way to get more things done. Alexander noticed and gave me a bad evaluation for that quarter. Then he presented me with an opportunity, and that I should get back to him by the end of October. Little did I know this was a test, an ultimatum. We did not speak again until November, so I failed his test. By this time I had become persona non-grata in his staff meetings. This was my fault since, although I was paying attention, I'd play chess on my palm-pilot during the meetings, although no one ever said anything, I can only assume Alexander knew anyway. I never held him a grudge for this though.

November was a make or break statement. He'd seen me slipping and didn't know what to do about it. Eventually he recommended the Nortel nurse check me out. In January I was officially diagnosed as a burn-out case: severe depression, medium intensity. Looking back, it's actually a miracle that I remember any of this.

I went on sick leave for a few months. I wanted to get better and come back as soon as possible. I was not realizing the extent of the damage. And massive damage there was.

I came back part time at first, in my new role as liaison with the American technical services team. I was also on the Employee Satisfaction team, and was re-supplying the newly formed tuck shop, to raise party funds and for employee recognition. The company was hurting pretty badly at this time because of their stock crash and allusions of impropriety had already begun.

Summer came and so did the end of my sick leave. I had to return full time by July or I was no longer covered by the insurance, unless I went on to long-term disability. I didn't think my depression wasn't debilitating enough to warrant long-term leave, I was wrong, almost dead wrong. I refused to believe that I might have been a case for long-term leave. The falling asleep all over the place should have been an indicator. But I was, and I quote myself: “I'm tough god damn it and I'm going to make it back to my former glory, so help me.”

Not quite 60 days after my short-term sick leave ended, I got laid off. I could have sued their asses clear into the next decade, but I didn't want to. I was going to quit within the year anyway, so they did me a favour. Plus I got an excellent 12-year-employment package! I got laid off the same day as a good friend of mine, who'd been my employee for about 4 years, but that's another story.

Philby was laid off six months before I was, and went to work for the solution-centred-support company. It was rumoured, while still at Nortel, that he got some IPO stock options from that company and a return on each license he got Nortel to buy, which was in the vicinity of 6.5 million U.S. dollars. I was never able to acquire documents to prove it though.

And the project? Well, phase 2 never happened, which was critical for the engineers and eventually even the primary tool all went to shit and had to be replaced and revamped. A friend of mine still working at Nortel, declared it a failure about a year later.

The cost? Both my health and my 7 million dollar project... shot.


Anonymous American Ally said...

This blog couldn't have put it better. The good part is that I made a great friend in you and have great respect for everything you did for that team, I miss you my friend. I think the whole team experienced a good level of health issues as a result of that project, (I know I have) we gave it our all to do what we knew was right and were thrown to the wolves as a thank you. Some of your alias management team members are still in place and are not to be trusted any more than they were then. As of this day, the technolgy platform that was forced upon us is being taken down as it just doesn't meet the needs, (duh). The company is in process of replacing with a new platform that is based upon OUR TEAM'S choice of platform. It really makes me sick that some of the same so called leadership is behind it. I refused to take part, I left them a fairly detailed e-mail citing their failure to support our team and the initial project. I'm still here, doing something new, but the only good thing that came out of that project was the friends we made. We the few, we brothers in arms.

February 16, 2006 6:42 p.m.  

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