Home > The Monday Musings Column > on computers and me, part six

on computers and me, part six

This is turning into a saga, but there is more in me yet, so on we go, or at least, on I go.

One of the curious things about strategy is that it is almost always wrong. You might have a plan as to where you want to be and what you will look like, in a business sense, in 5, 10 or however many years, but everything is changing around you and you haven’t got a clue as to what the other buggers are up to.

My dilemma was that I was running a national distribution centre that had been designed in 1969 and fully opened in 1973. Almost nothing had been renewed or replaced, nor had anything of any value been added since and much of the original kit was life expired, or no longer needed. The computer system that had gone live in 1989 told us what we had, what was on order and what we needed to send out. It could also do the standard stock analysis stuff, but nearly half of the 26,000 stock lines we held did not operate to normal stock turn rules, so that was of little help. To know where anything was we had to resort to clerical records.

But we were a logistics business and there was a plethora of products on the market to help such operations and it was to that market that I turned. Yes, we were special, unique and all that crap, but to me we were a big shed and we brought stuff in at one end, fiddled about with it a bit and sent it out the other side. It was that simple, and so my first 5-year strategy, 1990-1994 was to put us up with the best logistics operations. (These are empty words, but I had an idea to sell. I probably even said we were going upper quartile: There were a lot of plonkers around who couldn’t understand plain English).

What I had in mind cost money; half a million pounds on computers, software and some associated kit, about another third of a million on infrastructure and mechanical aids, so I called it one million for no other reason than when you go to the corporate well, the more you ask for, the more likely you are to get it. I knew the system well and was known to the Board Member for Finance, the man who ultimately held the purse strings, but I also had a secret weapon, well not really a secret, just something that everybody in my end of the corporation saw as a weakness; about a third of my workforce were due to retire over the period of my plan. All I had to do was to show that my proposals were going to make us more efficient and run with less people. They were going anyway.

I got away without involving IT in my choice of software supplier and, by buying a package off the shelf, the hardware too. I was lucky that the senior IT person that I should have deferred to was a coward and elected to turn a blind eye. He was already stung by my criticism of the way that he had run the 1989 implementation and felt that if what I did worked, he could take some credit, and if it failed it would have been all my fault. He was sharp enough to know that what I was buying was a proven product, so why bother?

I had left my first wife in 1989, and the Berkshire Belle and I became a couple personally as well as professionally. Perhaps she thought that I needed keeping an eye on. We made a dynamic duo and had a few spectacular falling outs, some stage managed for effect, others quite genuine, but we got married along the way (and are still together). The place got transformed: We had computer terminals on the new forklift trucks, new racking, bar codes all over the place and would, in the next phase, have gone into RFID tagging. We were exploiting the possibilities that computers and allied technologies could bring us and, because of what we were doing, attracting new business that we could not have hoped to have won the previous year.

It was my swansong though, at least as far as playing with major computer projects was concerned. I had barely finished the second 5-year plan, 1996-2000, when corporate changes, one of which I had instigated, did me out of my own job. Sunshine promises were made, but I had no faith and jumped ship. Just over a year later they split my old job into two and, whilst some of what I had planned was implemented, it all went very wrong. I didn’t gloat; too many of my old team, including the Berkshire Belle, were still there trying to survive the new regime.

I wasn’t entirely done with computer systems though, for I was using the emerging technical products. I was now completely location independent, and my new role was to manage several headquarters properties, so there were things like access control, CCTV and similar systems to install and manage. My new team used CAD systems to plan office layouts and we installed video conferencing and all sorts of whizzy stuff in meeting rooms. My latest laptop had satellite access to the network, no more searching for a LAN connection or hooking up via ‘phone or dongle, I could just log in from almost anywhere,

There is one computer story from that era that must be told though. We were bidding to manage the properties of a client in a far-flung part of the UK, and, in conversation with the person doing the buying, they mentioned an interest in having some way that users could report faults, book meeting rooms or other services from their desktop or laptop. I knew of at least one system that did just that and so, with the client coming to see one of our sites for a visit, I faked up just such a system. It was not complete but had two or three working functions and we showed it to the client when they came to see how we worked.

They chose us as their new supplier and asked for that software package as part of our service. No problem, the supplier of the real thing was happy to make a sale, and we are talking about a £10k order for them here. A check list of system hardware requirements was sent to the client, and their IT people confirmed that all was in order. We were ready to take over from the previous suppler and the software company flew a couple of their people in on the Friday afternoon to install and set up the programme. I was strolling up the path to my front door that evening when I got a call from the installation team: The client had no LAN to run the system over. I know now that I will never have heard everything, there will always be a new one somewhere.

Over the twelve years that I spent managing commercial property estates I came across many computer systems, but they were all ones that I inherited along with the buildings. My days of specifying, designing, programming, buying, implementing or whatever were over, and I was also disillusioned with being a suit on a salary. In a stunning display of strategic foresight, I walked out in the Spring on 2008 and went freelance. What was I saying a while back about strategy? Within five months the business world was in a tailspin, the clients I saw myself working for weren’t hiring and the freelance market was awash with people who had been made redundant.

In the next part I’ll talk about surviving that and how computers came back into my life.

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