Saturday, September 19, 2015


As socially engaged members of the technical community, we thoroughly enjoy talking about the evolution of IT discipline from wild, wild west to the process-oriented factory of technology. We espouse the benefits of repeatable processes in infrastructure and development, and eschew individual heroics that, while bringing immediate salvation, create enormous holes in the fabric of the IT operation at large. Ideally, new technologies beget new processes, and as engineers at any layer of the stack, we manage the process primarily, and the tech as an afterthought.

This is fine. This is good. This usually works.

Repeatable processes with reliable outcomes make any IT professional happy. Hell, even management cracks a subtle smirk when perched atop a process-oriented organization. Process, when done correctly, is a beautiful thing to behold.

But sometimes, process is the problem.
The triumph of the process, the defeat of endeavor.

To date, I've spent fourteen years architecting, implementing, and managing infrastructure technologies in the federal government. I've seen more than my fair share of dysfunctional, bureaucratic processes that, while well-intentioned, contribute more to chaos than calm. 

In these years, I've sought comfort from old friends: Sam, Jill, and especially Archibald. It's a lop-sided friendship; these are characters in Terry Gilliam's 1985 classic film, Brazil. But I don't mind the inequities of relationships that transcend the fourth wall. Whatever's cool with me.

I'll avoid the temptation to tell you what I think Brazil is about. I mean, the plot is simple enough: unchecked government bureaucracy is bad.

And now, I present to you, my dearest readers, the first of two vignettes on the topic of counterproductive processes at work.

The Lightbulb

My current desk is unremarkable in every way. It's gray, kinda. It's rectangular, mostly. It's safe from the ultraviolet light from the sun (which is to say, it's not near a single window). And it's replete with storage spaces: many file cabinets, many drawers, and many flippers1. If you've lived your work-life in modular monotony, you're aware that these flippers typically have light fixtures attached to the underside. These lights make for excellent task lighting, and their location keeps the glare from creeping through your retina, up through the optic nerve, and straight into the middle of your goddamned brain.

My getting-to-work routine is a thing of craft: I place my backpack on the right of the desk, remove both laptops, place the work-issued monstrosity in the docking station, power it on, and while I'm waiting for it to wake up, I flip the switches on both light fixtures. They flick on, and I sip the last drops of coffee #3 from the travel mug. But one morning, after the switches had been flipped, nothing happened.

So began the crisis.

I took a deep breath. And another. I'm a creature of habit, as it were, and such a seemingly trivial interruption to my morning routine felt like a head-on collision.

A coworker stopped by for a morning chat, and when I explained that the lights had gone out, he suggested I open a ticket with the facilities department. There's an intranet site devoted to building and facilities problems, which after over a year of working in this environment, I had never heard of before. I thanked him for the suggestion, and he floated a word of caution as he left the cube:

"It'll take a while. Few weeks, maybe more."

He wasn't kidding. Five weeks later, two uniformed gentlemen from the facilities department showed up with a print-out of my ticket in hand. They had difficulty locating my desk; there are no cube numbers, and no names affixed to the outer cube walls2. In fact, I ran into them by chance.

"You got a bulb out?"

So I walked them back to the desk, and let them inspect the scene. I braced myself for the usual questions:

"Is it plugged in?" Yes.
"Did you try turning the switch off and on a few times?" Yes.
"Has it ever worked?" Yes.

Satisfied with my responses, they left. LEFT. No indication of what would happen next. No chatter among them as they walked away. Nothing. I figured that was the end of it.

Thirty minutes later, they return. Now, each gentleman has a cardboard box about the shape of the bulb. But the bulb was fine, they said. The problem was the ballasts. They replaced the bulbs anyway, and when the lights still didn't work, they had the following advice.

"We can't help you. We are going to close your ticket. You need to contact your administrative officer, who will contact the furniture contractor to assess the problem and prepare a cost estimate. Once the estimate has been received, it will take 4-6 weeks to schedule the work, but that time depends on the number of requests in this building."

And like that, they left. This time, with no intention of returning. My ticket was closed (though I never received a notification to this effect). After five weeks, I still have no lighting above my workstation.

So I started thinking about their recommendation. I didn't know who the administrative officer was for my institute. I had no confidence that the AO would be interested in initiating any degree of procurement to replace a lightbulb for a contractor. And even if that was likely, waiting another few months to have another team of workers wander through my office looking for me... it was ridiculous. 

The process here was smothering its own output. In fact, I would argue that the process was intended to avoid output of any kind. The process was followed. And if I had pursued the administrative option, the process would consume well over two months just to replace two lights.

But I'm a divergent thinker, and when faced with the absurdity of such bureaucracy, I did the only thing I could: I went to Target and bought a $40 lamp.

Shadow IT is Real

You'll often hear management speak of the need to control (which is newspeak for eliminate) shadow IT. It's costly, they say. It eschews3 governance, they quip. It's a security risk, they squawk. In other words, they'll pile reason upon reason to enforce policy and process, and quash attempts to circumvent said policy and process. But thought is rarely given to what motivates employees to break out of the process in the first place.

If your organization's process for replacing a lightbulb takes over two months, it's time to get a new process. If your organization's process for ANYTHING takes over two months, it's time to get a new job.

1flippers - This is federal-speak for the cabinets above your desk.
2walls - Well, technically there are names affixed to the cube walls. They just list the names of people who left years ago.
3eschews - Ok, so this is one of my favorite words, but typically management doesn't use this one. It's a shame, and they should.