An IT outsource in a pickle…

Bored with his smartphone’s ringtone, the Badger spent a few minutes exploring alternatives only to decide not to change for the time being! Scrolling through alternatives had thus simply been a waste of a precious commodity, namely time. Just as the Badger refocused on doing something useful, an acquaintance called. They wanted to chat informally with, as they put it, a veteran IT professional with wisdom and no axe to grind,about an IT outsourcing contract experiencing some difficulty. The Badger listened carefully to the pickle they described.

Problems started shortly after the contract was signed. Negotiations were apparently difficult due to the strong personalities and egos of the responsible business and commercial leads on both sides. Pressure to get to signature had been intense because both sides had been under enormous pressure from their executive levels. The service provider needed signature to underpin its quarterly results, and the client needed it to meet a much-publicised strategic priority. Now, some months after signature, the service provider and client business leads are perpetually arguing about what’s covered by Transition and what’s covered by Transformation, and payments. The terms and scope of Transition and Transformation are confused because they have been used interchangeably and inconsistently in the contract. The two parties are arguing about the contract wording they negotiated, and distrust and confusion reigns between client and provider staff at the delivery level. What a pickle!

The Badger simply said that if the parties at executive level want the outsource to succeed with a sustainable, long-term, mutually beneficial relationship then they needed to intervene and agree a course of action that deals with a) intransigent personalities on both sides, b) changes to contract wording, and c) the removal of any ambiguity about what constitutes Transition and Transformation. The caller sighed and simply said ‘Obvious isn’t it, but sometimes you need an outsider to tell you the obvious’.

Following the call, the Badger deliberated on the fact that he’d encountered similar scenarios more than 20 years ago when outsourcing, in one form or another, was on the rise across the IT industry. Has nothing been learnt since, especially with regard to the distinction between Transition and Transformation? Well, the process, practice, and professionalism of outsourcing has, of course, improved significantly over the last 20 years, but there’ll always be occasional problems because people are the weakest link. Egos, personal ambitions and motives, and pressure within organisations to achieve hard deadlines, can always adversely influence behaviours and lead to the erosion of professional rigour and discipline. Today there’s also another factor in play. A generation of highly experienced IT practitioners is retiring from the industry. There’s thus a heightened risk that the younger generation will make the same mistakes commonplace 20 years ago. But that’s just life…


‘Finger trouble’…

Some days, no matter how hard you try, your fingers just don’t seem to do the right thing when interacting with a computer. Other days they accurately do the right thing every time. Most days for normal people, however, your fingers do a mixture of the two.  The Badger experiences the same phenomenon when playing his electric guitar, although in this case you can hear the finger trouble!   

When news broke last week, see here for example, that records in the UK Police National Computer (PNC) database had been wrongly deleted, the Badger, conditioned by decades in the IT industry, immediately suspected that ‘finger trouble’ would have played a part. It nearly always does somewhere along the line when operational services have issues. It was, therefore, no surprise that the UK policing minister said ‘…down to human error, some defective code was introduced as part of that routine maintenance earlier this week and that’s resulted in a deletion of some records …’.

The minister’s words trigger many questions about what happened and why, and why recovering deleted records is more difficult than one might anticipate.  The Badger was  immediately drawn to three things – possible complacency in routine maintenance, testing, and mechanisms for backup and recovery.  The media has concentrated on political points and ‘woe is me’ about the impact on arrests and prosecutions, but the uncomfortable truth is that events like the PNC will occasionally happen. The IT that is behind every facet of daily life is complex, handles huge amounts of data, and has been built and it is maintained by highly skilled and professional people, but there is no such thing as a guarantee of perfection. There is no immunity to finger trouble, and neither is there a crystal ball to predict ‘defective code’. The Badger therefore feels some sympathy for whoever pushed the button that deleted the PNC records.  

We’ve all had finger trouble and accidentally deleted things from our computers.  When it happens, it often provides a reminder that you should have backups!  In today’s world the amount of data created every day is staggering and the whole concept of backup and recovery for major IT systems, and the legal rules for retaining data, is very different to that of the Badger’s formative years in IT. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that deleted PNC records cannot simply be restored from a good old-fashioned, off-site, backup tape!

Nevertheless, the PNC issue should be a reminder for each of us to take regular backups of information that you never want to lose. These days it’s cheap to do and one day you might be relieved that you did. After all, the heavenly alignment of finger trouble, defective software, and/or defective hardware can align to cause a problem at any time.  

In remembrance…and extended service contracts…

The Badger recently met his cousin, her husband, and their 8-year old daughter at the D-Day Museum on the seafront in Portsmouth – and yes, virus protocols were observed! We met outside by  LCT 7074, the newly installed landing craft that put 10 tanks on the Normandy beaches in 1944. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. We then visited the museum and ended with a cream tea in the museum’s café.

For us adults, the visit was a sobering reminder of why honouring the fallen on Remembrance Day is important. The 8-year old was mesmerised by what she saw and particularly liked the panto-like show the museum put on to give kids a taste of life during the Blitz.  When Mr Churchill asked them ‘will we ever surrender?’ all the kids jumped up and screamed ‘No’ at the top of their voices!  Every adult present glowed with pride.   

Afterwards, over a cream tea, the Badger’s cousin helped her daughter fill in a competition form, and her husband, who works in Service Delivery for a major outsource service provider, chatted about some of his work frustrations. He bemoaned how difficult it was to deliver a service without direct control over resources, perpetually having to apologise for something, and incessant pressure from his management to mitigate financial challenges. He was frustrated with the client for always taking credit when things went well but quickly pillorying the service provider when they didn’t. Apparently, his line management want to extend the duration of the contract to help mitigate financial stress, but the client isn’t keen. He said he felt permanently stressed!

The Badger commiserated and playfully said how pleased he was to have stepped off the corporate hamster wheel. The husband enquired about the Badger’s first reaction whenever he saw media announcements that an outsource or service contract had been extended.  The Badger replied that his reaction is always the same. First, to treat any press release with caution because none of the people making the announcement will be there for the duration! Second, if the extension is before having reached 50% of the original contract duration then the extension is probably some kind of ‘dispute resolution’. Third, the client and service provider are ‘kicking the can down the road’ to create additional time to fix some kind of underlying problem definitively.  The husband grinned and said cynical suspicion was always a good starting point!  

The Badger’s cousin intervened to change the subject and her daughter innocently asked if her Grandad had an iPad while growing up the 1940s. We all laughed. Her mother replied ‘No, he didn’t need one because, as you saw in the show, life is about more than just the internet and gadgets’.  Quite.  The little girl then asked what outsourcing was and if it explained why her Grandad was always grumpy like her father! None of us had an answer…