The boring rants of a lazy nerd

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

Hm. I don't know where to start. If another person reads this, or even me several months or years down the line, I should establish quite a bit of context for anything to make sense. But I don't want to write a novel, and I don't really wish to air other people's dirty laundry.


At a young age I have decided that as an individualist I will learn things my own way, by making my own mistakes, rather than emulating my parents and making their mistakes. It wasn't the wisest decision, but it does suit my character. In the course of my life, I have made a shit load of mistakes and sometimes have independently discovered very banal truths.

One of these ideas is something I have watched happen a number of times during my military service and have tried to explain to younger people in the months preceding my discharge.

At least in the military, the regular state of everything is snafu. People in non-grunt positions*, usually commissioned officers, are replaced every two years. Most of them are average (by definition). At best, the overall situation stays the same. Because of some form of the second law of thermodynamics, things tend to decline and stagnate. People sort of follow the prescribed procedures and they sort of mostly work, and if something is important enough then a person with authority overrides things such that things get done.

Once in a while, the new person in some position is of a higher caliber. He looks around, sees that things suck and does his best to do something about it. Through more or less heroic efforts, he changes something for the better. The surrounding parts of the organization notice this and change their m.o. to reroute things through his department - suddenly a lot more things are his responsibility. Also, to deal with the higher throughput of his department, others have to raise their efficiency as well.
The difference could be huge, but, most of the time, unless that person is very wise, the change is only skin deep: the prescribed work does not change, the rules and regulations do not change, and, most importantly, the HR profile for this person's replacement does not change.
The way work is done is very different, but unless the new attitude manages to inspire others to do the same, in two year's time when the person who started it all gets reassigned, horrible things happen. While the change from snafu to snafu is barely noticeable, the change from the way things should be done (but very rarely do) back to snafu is hard. The amount of work to be done is large, because people piped work to this suddenly productive department. New projects were started, that depend on this irregular behavior. New people's expectations of the system are completely unrealistic. The fall is hard and painful, but thankfully short.

The thing is, I believe that unless the betterment can be made permanent, i.e. regulations, or better yet, staffing profiles changed, the short period when some department kicks ass, when considered long term, is more negative than positive for the organization as a whole.

When I was younger I admired those people and believed that the reason big incompetent organizations don't break down is that all over the place in their structure, there are people such as this that get assigned to every position every x generations and bring things back up from stagnation. And of course productivity drops when they leave, but in a number of generations another one of them will be assigned there and he will fix it again. And as long as such a person is available to fix things before they completely break down, the organization will carry on doing its job, as incompetently as ever. To me, those people were heroes.

But later I decided that it is not worth it. That the short good season is just a tease. The disappointment of its passing is not worth the joy of living it. And since bringing permanent change is beyond the limited abilities of young passionate and foolish people, it is doomed to a lot of pain.

I know it sounds like deciding to live alone because you don't want to get divorced down the line. It sounds cowardly and unreasonable. But I got burned a few times, and thought it was enough.


In February, I found out that FA's IT is in abysmal shape and it desperately needs help. I volunteered. After a short email detailing my completely unverifiable credentials as an Oracle development DBA and a dotNET and C++ persistence layer developer being interested and able to maintain a LAMP project, I was cheerfully given all the keys to the castle and told the ghosts and now my problem. Really, now that I think of it, people were very eager to give me root passwords for production servers. And when I asked about some stuff, I was told I can change whatever I want. I don't have to get permission. I don't have to consult with anyone. If I think installing a different OS, web server, database, programming language runtime, email system etc. is for the best – more power to me, etc. WTF?

There are mailing lists full of people with experience far greater than mine. People who helped build the systems. Some bounce, the rest apparently abandoned the subscribed email account or configured the list as spam. Including the list moderators. There are known severe bugs in production, unfixed for years. The database is full of junk. Things that had bugs were disabled instead of being fixed. Like deleting. There is a heavy odor of decay over everything. It is the image of science-fiction post apocalyptic return to the dark ages: ancient machines no one understands or is able to maintain are worshiped as they fail one by one.

I started fixing things, more in the order of my understanding than severity. But I fixed a lot of stuff. I have documented the need and plans for fixing other stuff. But I don't feel very welcome. People are not eager to help me. Instead, I feel like I am a nuisance. As if before I came and pronounced that something needs fixing it worked just fine. The people in charge pay lip service to what I feel is important, but I don't see any interest in what I do and I don't see any support. And now I stop and I think. What if there is a reason all those smart capable people who built the thing are gone? What if it is not by chance that I am the only techie who does any work on the fic management system?

What if it was supposed to die of neglect and close down, soon, and because of my intervention it is doomed to long suffering? What if I, in effect, put it on life support? I am against euthanasia for people, but I think I am in favor of euthanasia for software.

So now I am in a moral dilemma. Do I continue, knowing that what I do is right and important, even if others disagree? Or do I acknowledge I was mistaken and not everything should be saved? I have not created permanent change; things I have fixed will break down again, until another chump will be found to fix them. Have I only teased the users with the dream of good IT?

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