A Carry on with Camels

27 Dec

As a Christmas bonus, here is one of my older pieces that originally ran in a Reed Publications magazine some years ago.  Enjoy!

Occasionally you run into an IT manager, who for some reason unbeknown to anyone other than themselves, a deft salesman and perhaps a nosy waiter has bought a right old donkey of a system, which, no matter how hard it’s pushed will ever perform the service for which it was intended. Even if we were to allow a bit of leeway, like the odd millennium or two, the donkey would still be a donkey: long eared, lonely and unhappy, but available for long summers on Blackpool sea-front, in return for lodgings and a bale of hay a week.

DonkeyQuite often, the manager in question leaves before his donkey is discovered. Or, as in my last equine experience, the company folds due to one donkey mouth too many to feed. This leaves said manager none the wiser as to his mistake and ready to install donkey #2, the ‘Son of Donk’, come the next job. It’s sort of sad for donkeys without aspirations, especially when they’re both bought and sold as something they’re obviously not.

But enough of donkeys. We’ve all seen one before now. A donkey is a donkey, game, set and match; end of story. I’m not here to moralise about Ee-haws, but rather to relate the tale of the project manager who was sold a camel, in order to fulfil what seemed like a perfectly reasonable requirement at the time, but which when put under scrutiny later, left many people scratching their heads in dismay.

Tag

“You should see what they’re ordering to support the new Fabbo billing system. Oodles of hardware and more bits besides,” one of my colleagues confided. “I even saw a camel on the spec sheet. Is that some kind of super-duper UNIX box or what?”

“No, a First World War biplane,” I replied sarcastically, ”as in Sopworth. One propeller, no humps.”

Colleague number two looked up from his desk. “I think you’ll find that it’s actually a real camel – one hump, no propeller. I was in the strategy meeting yesterday, when they decided to buy it as a value added option.”

“No, you jest! What do we know about camels?” my first colleague asked suspiciously.

“Sod all and then less.” I wasn’t really in the mood for a joke. “You two will just have to go on a camel intensive training course, probably in Saudi,” I added. And then as an afterthought, “Fortunately, they don’t let unqualified contractors anywhere near new kit, which means that I’m as safe as houses.”

Which was a perfectly reasonable mistake to make, given my relative camel naiveté. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to keep my mouth shut later, when the technical director collared me down the pub and asked me if I’d ever ridden a camel. Thinking the whole camel thing to be one huge joke at my expense, I was non too guarded in my reply.

“Of course I have. Rode for Britain once, in a race around the Pyramids,” I replied, failing to add that there were only two of us racing and the other party was so smashed on palm wine that he fell off within twenty yards of the start, thus presenting me with an automatic win.

“That’s good,” he replied. “It means I’ll only need to book someone on a mucking out course. Congratulations!” he offered me his hand. “By the way – you’re now officially on Camel Team as the riding consultant.”

Have you ever felt as though you’re ‘it’, in a game of career tag? I did, at that moment in time. In accord with my new found astonishment, my jaw began to do press-ups. “So it’s true then? We’re really getting a camel?”

“Yes, several actually. Management have already approved the budget. It’s all part and parcel of the new Fabbo billing system. I’m not sure exactly what the camels do yet, but rest assured they’ll become an important part of the architecture. We’re building systems for the future here, for years down the line. We might not see any immediate benefit, but it’s there.”

Oh, boy. Squirm as I might, I couldn’t change the technical director’s mind and get him to take his riding cap back. There aren’t many times I can think of when a contractor has been given the opportunity to train in a useless skill for free. Normally you have to pay good money for useless training. But nevertheless, this was about to be one of those instances when your real skill set increases whilst the experience you admit to on your CV decreases. Camel husbandry was not about to become one of my marketable assets. Goodness, no. Admit to something so specific and before you know it you’ve become so specialised that you’ll never get a job doing anything but.

Leapfrog

By now you should be asking yourself ‘Why exactly does an IT department need a camel?’

The answer is simple: because everyone else is still only thinking of buying one. Get in there first and you’re leading edge, lighting the way. Anything else is middle of the paper, or god forbid if you’re really out of date trailing edge, which just won’t do when you’re an IT Vice President boasting to your IT Vice President mates about how good and solid your IT strategy is. And therein lies your business justification, signed and sealed. Leading edge is cool, trailing edge isn’t.

“The installation of the Fabbo billing system at this point in time will allow the Company to leapfrog the opposition and take significant strides into uncharted territory.” said the IT VP at the departmental monthly brief some days later. “We’ll be the envy of every other IT department in the industry, as we become the first Company in the UK to implement this new and exciting technology. Camel Team are go! The eyes of the industry are upon us.”

All of which gave me no option for quitting straight away. There was however, one important decision which nobody had yet made. As with LAN technology (Token ring or Ethernet dear chap?), there are two different options available. Two types of camel to choose from. Do we go for Dromedary or Bactrian? One hump or two? It seems that the ISO committee haven’t finished beating each other up yet, so there’s a bit of a risk involved. There’s only a 50% chance that whoever makes the choice will get the standard right. Careers are made and broken on decisions like this. Which is it to be?

name_in_lights_banner“As I’m not fully briefed on the technology and it’s still very new, I’ll let Camel Team make that choice,” said the technical director. “Of course, I shall take the glory if you get it right. My name will be in lights forever. Should you, ‘erm, choose unwisely, I doubt you’ll ever manage to get gainful employment again. Any of you.”

I made a mental note not to extend my contract once it expired and then got stuck into the business at hand, namely the specification of a camel standard. As I became more involved in the camel scenario, it became apparent that all was not quite what it seemed.

Pin the Tail

A salesman from the Blue Star company had persuaded the project manager in charge of specifying the new Fabbo billing system that it was in the Company’s interests to purchase an additional camel module for each of the new Systems boxes. That’s three camels in Head Office for the pilot system and one per remote site once the system begins to roll out proper. The project manager, who was a busy man with far too many golf meetings for far too few days in the week duly signed the initial order and then passed the responsibility for evaluation onto the technical director.

As the technical director was an unassuming sort of chap who was relatively new to the job and none too technical, he saw the job he’d inherited primarily as one of ‘installation dynamics’. In fact, he decided that as the project manager knew absolutely what he was doing without question (the project manager is God after all; his experience is unimpeachable, his vision unpollutable; he’s also costing the Company a small French Chateau a day, so everything he says must be right), there was actually no need for any kind of evaluation to take place. The IT Vice President had said the Fabbo new billing system is leading edge, which means that the camels must also be leading edge by dint of association. Therefore they’re extremely important and must be treated accordingly. What was originally only an add-on option had sneaked in the back door as a definite purchase and there was no going back on it.

My sarcastic comments were responsible for securing me the job of camel jockey, ready and raring to go. Which in turn made me the only recognised camel expert on site. Suddenly, I found I was not only responsible for riding – my knowledge had somehow elevated me to the status of ‘camel guru’ overnight, which in turn secured me the job of recommending which camel we invested in. And finally, as an afterthought I was also lumbered with the job of housing the wee humpy beasties when they arrived and making sure that no health and safety regulations were breached in the process.

Knowing the futility of trying to extricate myself from the whole mess, I decided I might as well ring around a few suppliers and get a feel for which type of camel to go for. It wasn’t easy, as both had their merits and pitfalls and the more people I talked to, the more the water became muddied. In the end, I stuck my finger in the air and pinned the tail on the Dromedary, which ate slightly less, and therefore left less residue.

Good for the computer room, but not so good for the mucking out team, who had been practising hard with anything sloppy that they could lay their hands on. This caused a minor fracas, which resulted in the technical director authorising the purchase of a fourth camel for head office, to keep the muckers happy.

Bummer! I’d spent a week re-designing the computer room and I’d not envisaged any camel expansion plans so early on. The only way to fit the extra camel in would be to extend the computer room by another ten feet and this would take time and money. I had an idea.

“How’s about we rack the camels sideways,” I suggested to the Blue Star Salesman. “That way we can fit four in without a problem.”

“Sorry mate,” he countered, quick as a flash. “Our horizontal camel racks won’t be ready for another six months. Here, what you need is a bigger computer room. Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. Call my brother – he’s a builder; he’ll do you a nice price. To make it worth your while, there’s a curry and a crate of beer in it for you.”

None too soon, the hidden costs of camel technology were starting to wake from their heady slumber.

Three Legs

Due to the high profile situation, the computer room extension was signed off almost immediately. The salesman’s brother found himself on the end of a deal which was worth a King’s ransom and then some, which didn’t seem to bother him somehow. The building work was finished in near record time for a hefty bonus worth as much as the contract itself and the vertical camel racking installed.

Delivery day dawned. There was much excitement around the department, as the Dromedaries arrived in a big truck. It had been decided in advance by my colleagues that the camel with the lowest serial number would be called ‘Sopworth’, to remind me of the error of my ways during that initial blunder. As if I’d forget. It’s not the sort of mistake that passes you by just like that. Grrr.

The truck parked up and the camels were led in rather hastily by a heavily bearded Camel Specialist, whose payment terms included four FA Cup Final tickets, simply for holding a piece of old rope. Without a sound he extracted payment, checked his tickets to make sure they were genuine, nodded and left rapidly. There was no ‘please’, no ‘thank you’, nothing. Training? Forget it. It was left to Camel team (i.e. me) to take stock of the situation and figure out what was happening.

Camel2“Here,” remarked my first colleague, checking serial numbers. “Sopworth has only got three legs!”

“So he has,” I said embarrassed. “We better check them all thoroughly, to make sure that nothing else is missing.”

I supposed that one faulty camel out of four wasn’t a bad failure rate, although I didn’t really know for definite. I called the supplier anyway, as you do under such circumstances.

“A missing leg? No! You don’t say. I’ve never seen that before in my life. I knew we should have had them in here before sending them out.”

“You mean you didn’t check them first?”

“No mate, we were in a bit of a hurry. They were shipped straight from the Gulf see.”

“So they’ve not been tested at all?”

“Here look, it’s not a problem – you’ve got my word.”

“And the missing leg?”

“Don’t worry about it. The camel will still work fine without it.”

“That’s not the point. It’s damaged.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Look, I’m smack bang out of camels at the moment.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“I’ll send you a new one when the next shipment arrives. Bye.”

Sack Race

The camel thing – that was ages ago now, but it still seems like only yesterday. It was a bit of a nightmare towards the end, when everything became rather too frantic for my liking. I wasn’t sure at one point whether I was competing in a scorpion filled sack race or a marathon over broken glass.

You know, I’d almost forgotten about the incident, until I overheard two people talking on the train the other day.

“My friend has just started working for a new company and guess what?”

“What?”

“They’ve got camels in their computer room.”

“Really? I didn’t think anyone bought any.”

“Not many people did. They were only popular for about two months and then the industry standardised on monitor lizards.”

“Yes, I remember that now. Anyway, these camels. What do they do exactly?”

“To be honest, I haven’t got a clue. My mate says they’re ultra reliable though. They never go wrong. One of the camels has only got three legs and it still works fine. He said he found a spare leg in the store cupboard, but it’s never been taken out of its box. The fitting instructions got lost, apparently.”

“Typical. Were they expensive?”

“I’d say! They were an arm and a you-know-what to purchase, the hump upkeep costs are horrendous and the yearly maintenance, well: I could purchase a luxury cruiser for less.”

“Why did they buy them in the first place then?”

“God only knows. But then who knows why anything happens in this industry? I know I don’t…”

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3 Responses to “A Carry on with Camels”

  1. jennifermzeiger December 30, 2012 at 4:57 am #

    Game of carrer tag. I like it=) Guess you could say I’ve run into a camel or two in the past.

    Like

    • ferretmelder December 30, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      The incident that inspired this was one of those horrible situations where a company I worked for purchased the wrong solution for their needs, preferring to listen to a slick salesman rather than their own staff. So there was I, ordered to make a meaningless configuration decision which became intensely political. Whatever I did, someone was going to be upset. Six months later and much messing about, the solution was finally canned. Cost the company 6 of their best employees, a lot of morale and about a million dollars to finally put it right. If only they’d listened in the first place…

      Like

      • jennifermzeiger December 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

        Ouch! It only indeed. I’ve never run into a situation quite that bad. Live and learn, I guess=\

        Like

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