Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Office. A fictional account of the Absurdity of government IT Contracting.

For more than a dozen years I have worked as a computer contractor. All of this work was at Fortune 500 companies in various cities. But having grown weary of commuting each week through the airport I decided to cast my lot with the hundreds of thousands of men and women who work around the Beltway on government projects. I knew that working for the government would be different from working in the private sector. I imagined I would have to bite my lip and withhold my criticism and tendency toward sarcasm as I descended into the lunacy which is government contracting.

The film "Office Space" is a satire of office life and the novel "Microserfs" mocks the cult of IT Geeks who worship Bill Gates. But what is lacking from the literature is a parody that illuminates the quiet desperation faced by so many souls who toil day in and out at corporate IT departments. Burdened with paperwork, battling their peers in conference rooms, worried about layoffs, lacking the pensions awarded their grandfathers; today's office worker is an expendable pawn who, knowing he can be outsourced or downsized, owes no allegiance to his employer. His allegiance is to himself. His only hope of hanging on to that fat contract is to attempt to outshine his peers.

My first day on the job at my new contract with the Federal Reserve Bank was pretty much the same as any other day four months later. It took that long for me to get my government security clearance, so I was officially told to do nothing. I passed the days surfing the web and watching the absurdity of what was going on outside my cubicle.

Some have said that the government is the employer of last resort. The private sector is brutal and tends to toss out those who cannot keep pace. Government is more tolerant of the weak, the ignorant, and the lazy. You cannot come to work for three weeks because your back hurts? No problem. They have a charge code for that.

As long as you can find a charge code for what you are doing no one cares what you are doing or if you are doing nothing at all. This is cost accounting run amok. You spend 5 hours each week simply filling out your timesheet because you have to charge so many charge codes for the work that you did during week. Because you are working as a subcontractor to yet another subcontractor who is also working as a subcontractor to someone else, you have to translate this myriad of cryptic charge codes into various formats. Some systems are computerized and others are manual. Some vendors let you type in your time sheet into a web page, others use the telephone keypad, and some require written timesheets that must be filled in on blue paper with a black pen. So much transcription results in the inevitable errors that reconciling all these documents takes even more time. Of course there are people who thrive in this paperwork blizzard and even excel at it. One such fellow was Irving who we called "Spaceman".

Irving's job was to reconcile status reports with timesheets to make sure that each hour worked was properly document and summed correctly with the hours that were billed. To do this kind of work requires a mindset that is uncluttered with creative thinking, daydreaming, insight, or deviation from the status quo. Those who like to think as they work would quickly be crushed by the mind numbing tedium and absurdity of shuffling papers and forms from one stack to another.

Irving was ideally suited for this kid of work. Tall and bald he appeared to the rest of us at least 150 years older and maybe older. With dull unblinking eyes, a snarl permanently edged on his face, bad breath, and unkempt clothes he was the perfect automaton plodding away at early hours of the day and even on weekends to make sure that form A equaled form B and form C was done in blue and not black ink.

Spaceman lived to please his boss Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith had risen through the ranks of the organization because of his unvarying ability to avoid all accountability, to never raise his voice, to never fight on behalf of his troops, and above all to fan and cajole the egos of those who ranked above him.

That there is a difference between the old and the young is readily apparent in the office. The old have had the benefit of experience so know when someone is a fool, unless of course we are talking about an old fool who cannot identify even himself. The wizened gentleman or lady knows who is lazy, who cannot assume responsibility, who is posturing, who is pandering. But more than knowledge of people, the old know that the most important thing about work is to leave the job behind you at the end of the day. This is not true for the young-for them work and life are inseparable. Our manifestation of this phenomenon was Rey whom we called "greenbean" because he was a newly-minted MBA straight out of training at Deloitte and Touche's program of consultant indoctrination.

Rey came bouncing into the office in the morning buoyed by caffeine filled soda and slightly hung over from the previous night's carousing. He leapt with abandon at the chance to plug in his laptop and begin tackling the various issues of the day. Rey was carefully trained by Deloitte and Touch in their methodology of project management and problem solving. So he would not entertain other points of view that ran counter to his training.

Rey was the kind of person who woke up each morning thinking about work and went to bed with work on his mind. I needed an hour or two of reading the newspaper at the office before I started thinking about work. But Rey would come in at 6:00 AM speaking loudly about the Federal Reserve's ACHWIRE system. He would start talking as he rounded the corner to my office and finish his first sentence even before he landed in my cubicle. He was brimming with the enthusiasm of someone in their mid thirties who has not yet had that inevitable clash with mortality that jars most of us awake and frees us from the delusion that work matters at all.

Rey was wizened by his 25 years so naturally all of us senior citizens listened closely to what he said. We knew that he and his peers mocked the older people in our department believing that they moved too slowly. The processes and procedures put in place in our department over the years were simply obstacles designed to slow the deft and the nimble. Rey's attitude would invariably run afoul of the bureaucratic machinery, which was the Federal Reserve Bank, FRB.

On the third of February it was bitterly cold as Rey drove to the FRB computing center in Pennsylvania. The Senator from Pennsylvania had succeeded in relocating this facility along with an office of the FBI to his rural constituents over howls of protest from the District of Colombia who was giving up an equal number of jobs. On this snowy night with a stiff breeze, Rey had driven out to install some changes to the ACHWIRE financial system during the so-called "build window". This was that 5-hour period of time on Sunday morning when the system could be taken down and changes made to the software that ran the nation's wire transfer system for banks.

At 11:30 all the consultants in the Washington office got on the conference call and joined the Pennsylvania team. It was a team effort to install a relatively minor. Yet ACHWIRE would be restarted so all the peripheral parties had to be present to run tests to make sure that their own piece of the puzzle still functioned when the system came back up. If not then on Monday morning the chairman of Chase Bank would be on the phone to the FRB Board of Governors complaining loudly that they could not wire billions of dollars to their account. All of this ire would fall down around Rey and his coworkers. No one wanted that unpleasant possibility.

It was Rey's job to remove one of the thousands of small files that ran the ACHWIRE system and replace it with an upgrade. This small change was to fix what programmers called a "memory leak" issue-the offending software would consume even larger chunks of memory until the computer was exhausted and all its machinations would come to a halt.

Normally to process a change to the ACHWIRE system at the IRS required months of paperwork and a rehearsal process of pushing this code change through systems that were test copies of the real thing. The FRB computers were so well-guarded that Rey nor anyone else in the Washington office was allowed to actually touch the computers. Rather they pushed their changes through a proxy system called "Installer" that could reach into the most secure FRB computers in faraway Pennsylvania and install software changes unattended. Rey likened this process to trying to push a thread through a needle from 10 feet away with a bit of bamboo and a pair of binoculars to guide the way.

But what the Installer system brought was accountability and control. No one could bypass the system and clumsily clobber the status quo by trial and error, experimentation, or just following a hunch. Rather an idea was tested and retested and then delivered as a package to the target environment. The IRS computers were walled off in the network so that no even the most brazen rule breaker could gain direct access. People who tried to do so would have an uncomfortable discussion with the security people-crew-cut wearing FRB inspectors who were only slightly brighter that those dimwitted security guards who accompanied them wearing loaded guns on their hip.

The roles for this engagement were strict. Under no circumstances was Rey to touch the Fed's computers. Ken, the system administrator on duty, would monitor the automatic installation of the software upgrade and perhaps type a couple of well-scripted commands into the computer should something need verification. Changing anything not under the control of the Installer was strictly forbidden. Ken could be counted on to do as he was told for he was too dim witted to solve any problem himself and with 30 years tenure at the Federal Reserve Bank any initiative and foresight had been drummed out of him many years ago. Hence he did as he was expected-nothing, unless told do to so. So in a small part he was an important cog in the machinery of accountability and control.

But Rey was something of a cowboy. The installation that night did not go as planned. So the procedure was to back out the changes then replace them on the following Sunday night when the computers again would be taken down. But this was problematic because any failure would cause a 4-week delay since the Fed had stipulated that no change could be made during this, the business month of the year. Rey did not want to go back to office in Washington and sit upon his creation having pushed it for months through the bureaucratic operation. So he decided to act.

A computer is unforgiving and merciless. Like a wild animal with unblinking eyes it looks at you without a trace of compassion or understanding. Make one small mistake and the compute will respond without regard for possible disastrous consequences.

So Rey hopped onto the computer and nudged Ken taking away from the keyboard. The speakerphone crackled as the people at the other end of the line expecting that the evening's work would be cancelled and wondered what Bob was doing. He told them "Don't worry. I can fix this in a minute. I will copy over the change, delete the old software, then we can backfill the paperwork requirement when I get back to the office".

Rey logged into the super secret account used to transfer monies from one bank to another. As the super user he had full privileges to the system. Any careless mistake would be permanent and irreversible-there would be no security apparatus to challenge the user should he accidentally erase an important file.

Rey typed a command to navigate to the file folder where the transmission software was stored. He typed a command to copy the new version of the software into place overwriting the older one. Then he typed the command "rm *" to delete the temporary files that had been created.

The "rm" command is notorious among users of the UNIX operating system. It is unforgiving. When you type it in does its job of deleting files without asking "Are you sure?" Quick and convenient unlike clumsy Windows commands with their silly mice, in the black and white world of UNIX terminal emulation the teletype like interface is cryptic yet convenient. But for Rey this was a disaster for he was in the wrong file folder. Instead of the temporary file folder he was sitting atop the transmission software itself.

When Rey typed "rm *" he immediately got a sinking feeling in his stomach for the command took several seconds instead of the split second he expected. 10 seconds later he tried desperately to stop the command by typing "(-control-)(-c)" but the computer kept grinding away deleting files without regard for the anxious emotions of the hapless human. Lights began to flash in control rooms around the country as computer operators watched the financial transmission system for the entirety of the United States banking system cascade and fall apart as the computer erased itself.

The telephone fell silent as people wondered what Rey and Ken were doing. Rey was now crying. He took off his ID badge and handed it to Ken and then walked out of the office. Stunned and afraid he walked past the security guards, pass the Xray machines, past the stone faced security guards, and drove to his house.

A few weeks later we heard that Ray had lost his security clearance and was being prosecuted for security violations.

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