The Downside of IT

"In today's topsy-turvy world, the old rules no longer apply. You've got to shock their socks off, crash their comfort zones, zig when they expect you to zag."

This quote is from the introduction to Tom Peters’ Web page (www.tompetersgroup.com). Peters is the business consultant who wrote, "In Search of Excellence," in 1982. He has written other books and articles, and his videos were required viewing when I was earning my MBA a few years ago.

My favorite video had Peters on stage, preaching to an audience of executives from Sears and other major U.S. corporations. His message was simple -- they were all a bunch of idiots because they failed to adjust to the changing world around them. Amazingly, they all cheered. Peters is the only person I’ve seen who can draw wild applause from an audience after calling them a bunch of idiots.

Peters’ Web page also says, "Tom Peters describes himself as a champion of bold failures, prince of disorder, professional loudmouth, corporate cheerleader, and lover of markets."

According to Peters and others like him, today’s world needs people who create and thrive on chaos. Success comes to those who hustle faster, work harder, dare to be different and question established authority, because the old, reliable, boring, organization people are relics of the past and they must learn to adapt or get out of the way. It’s a fun message, especially in front of a bunch of stuffy, out-of-touch VIPs in nice suits. I’ve followed this philosophy instinctively for almost as long as I can remember.

I’ve always been kind of a misfit and a prince of disorder. Who else would be nuts enough to start a consulting company in a world that already has too many consulting companies?

I’ve been this way for a long time. I remember when I was a skinny 10-year-old kid in Phoenix. I wanted a newspaper route, but the minimum age was 12. No problem -- I filled in for one guy that summer and convinced the good folks from the Arizona Republic to give me a chance the next summer when I was 11. So I was a two-year paper boy by the time I reached the minimum age. One time, I bought extra Sunday papers at wholesale and sold them in front of the newspaper vending machine outside a donut shop. My sales pitch was simple and direct: "Why put money in that machine? Just give it to me and here is your paper." It worked! This made the donut shop owner mad because he got a cut of all the newspapers sold from his machine. I tried to make it up to him by using most the money from my little adventure to buy donuts.

Today, I’m a skinny bald guy from Minnesota -- a long way from Phoenix and that preteen hustler. I’ve been thinking about today’s chaotic world, and I’m starting to question the philosophy I’ve followed for so many years.

All this chaos has a dark side. Spectacular project failures, burnout, ruined careers, failed marriages, alcoholism, drug addition, suicide -- it’s a long and ugly list, and the consultants who romanticize today’s climate don’t want to talk about it.

The book "Showstopper," by G. Pascal Zachary, is an eye-opener. It documents the human side of the original Windows NT development team, from the time Microsoft hired Dave Cutler through the delivery of Windows NT 3.1. Some of the stories are heartbreaking. One lady on the team lost her marriage because she and her husband were working more than 100 hours every week. She was so tired she hardly cared when the divorce papers arrived.

I complain about NT quality and scalability all the time, but is fixing it worth the price of somebody’s family? Are we destroying ourselves by out-hustling everyone to gain a competitive edge?

It’s not like "Showstopper" presented the first case of burnout and family problems I’ve seen. I have plenty of eyewitness stories from over the years that I could share.

I know we have global competition; I also know the world where that skinny 10-year-old bold delivered newspapers no longer exists. We can never go back to simpler times, nor should we. The so-called simpler times also had their share of problems.

But we should stop and think about the human side of what we do every day. What is the cost to your family of spending nights and weekends pursuing an MCSE? What will it do to a vendor’s family if you delay payment by a few weeks to float the cash and earn some more interest? What happens to the family of a well-intentioned competitor when you stretch the truth a little bit and snatch a lucrative contract away?

Meanwhile, I’ll hustle a couple extra hours for more business. My wife will understand. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.