Thursday, March 23, 2006

Fog of War

I received the following anecdote in an email this morning:
A Japanese company and an American company decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River. Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race. On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat. A management team made up of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action.

Their conclusion was the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 8 people steering and 1 person rowing.

So American management hired a consulting company and paid them a large amount of money for a second opinion. They advised that too many people were steering the boat, while not enough people were rowing.

To prevent another loss to the Japanese, the rowing team's management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 3 area steering superintendents and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager. They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 1 person rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the "Rowing Team Quality First Program," with meetings, dinners and free pens for the rower. There was discussion of getting new paddles, canoes and other equipment, extra vacation days for practices and bonuses.

The next year the Japanese won by two miles! Humiliated, the American management laid off the rower for poor performance, halted development of a new canoe, sold the paddles, and canceledall capital investments for new equipment.

The money saved was distributed to the Senior Executives as bonuses, and the next year's racing team was outsourced to India....
How true, how true. In my experience, I would add only one modification. The money saved would be distributed to the Senior Executives as multi-million dollar severance packages, and the rowing team would be sold to the Japanese. The American Senior Executives would then add the experience to their resume as another “success story,” and form a new American rowing team with a group of Indian nationals with visas for working in the US. Witness Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, who was paid an estimated total of $42 million in severance to leave the company after the merger with Compaq failed to produce the benefits that she promised.

I was thinking just this morning about another micromanagement experience I had as a Software Support Engineer. As a computer engineer, my imagination can run wild when I get bored. So when I’m out driving around, throwing papers, I get to think about, remember, and dwell on all sorts of things.

As a Software Support Engineer, it was my job to investigate and resolve problems in my employer’s software components, which were used by other professional software engineers in their development projects. The issue that I remember was interesting because it involved some actual investigation, instead of simply reading appropriate publicly available knowledge base articles to the customer. Shortly after I got down to the “meat” of the problem, I got a phone call from what turned out to be a manager leading her team in a conference call. The manager wanted to know why I hadn’t resolved the problem, how long it would take, how many people were working on the problem, what criteria defined the problem as being “complex,” if I could provide hourly updates of progress, and what she could do to get more resources on the problem. I explained as tactfully as I could that it would take a day or two, that the process was a one-person job, and that the best thing that she could do to help would be to leave me alone and let me actually do the work.

In retrospect, I think that now I would conference call in my manager, and say something like “Hi, this is Mark here with a customer for issue number 987654. The customer’s manager wants to micromanage my work instead of letting me do the work. You know how it is, fog of war, Mythical Man Month, that sort of thing. Can you take care of this for me please? Thanks. Bye.”

The fog of war is a well-known phenomenon where the various unknowns in war make it impossible to plan or coordinate with much clarity. The battlefield would be clouded with smoke, and the troops would loose sight of each other and the enemy, and go charging off in the wrong direction and get lost. It also refers to the lack of intelligence of the enemy’s plans and tactics, and results in surprise attacks. In the context of computer problems, I’m using the term to refer to the lack of knowledge of the cause, nature and extent of the problem, which prevents any accurate forecasting of the eventual resolution of the problem.

In the context of the current global war on terror, there is a fog of war in that the enemy has no national identity to go to war against. The enemy hides among us, and uses our own resources for their purposes. The enemy elicits the sympathy of the gullible who feel compelled to defend the rights of the oppressed, without realizing that they are empowering the oppressors. The enemy abuses the media that finds the terrible to be the most newsworthy, transforming them into useful idiots. Witness the effects of Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, Ward Churchill, and others. These people want the war to end immediately, want immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Yet they have even less idea of the problems and potential problems being faced by both the Americans and the Iraqis if we were to withdraw. The anti-war protestors are in a fog about why we’re in a war in the first place.

The Mythical Man Month was a book that was required reading when I was a senior in college. It describes how IBM developed the OS/360 operating system, and how over-managing a project results in a later project because of additional training, management, and coordination required.

So what happened to my Software Support Engineer job? The executive management was on its third CEO in as many years. The Sales organization appropriated the Support organization away from the Engineering organization. The product line that I was to support was scheduled to change every two weeks. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, and I insisted that I be left on one product for a minimum of three months so that I could get established. Two weeks later, I was laid off for poor productivity. Shortly afterward, 9/11 happened, the company moved on to its 4th CEO, then was sold to a competitor. And because I hadn’t spent 20 hours a day for the past 15 years learning the newest technology, nobody in the computer industry wanted to hire me. And I decided that I could at least make a living delivering newspapers.

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