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True Stories

This is a true story.

Some years ago, I was running a development and support unit in the subsidiary of a large UK bank.

This particular evening I had stayed late. Why I stayed late that night I don't know, but if I hadn't you wouldn't be reading this story.

It had gone 6pm. Not late, by some peoples' standards, but when you start at 7am it feels very late indeed. Anyway, as I was saying, it had gone 6pm when a colleague, Brian, came beetling down the corridor. He was looking anxious, but then he always did, except tonight he looked more anxious than ever. "I'm sorry to disturb you," he said. This was one of Brian's habits; he would apologise for anything, even if it wasn't his fault. One lunch time the conversation got around to the Spanish Inquisition sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus when Brian joined us. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "The Spanish Inquisition," we said. "Oh," said Brian, "I'm sorry about that." Or, "The traffic was bad this morning." "Yes," Brian would say, "I'm sorry about that".

Anyway, back to the plot. Brian said "I'm sorry to disturb you, but we've lost the March accounts, can you help us please." I followed Brian and asked relevant questions along the way such as, "What do you mean, you've lost the March accounts?" "They were being typed," said Brian, "and they just disappeared. Well that's what Debbie said." Debbie was Brian's secretary at the time. He'd had a succession of secretaries but they all seemed to get pregnant and leave the company. The conversation between Brian and his secretary would go something like:"Brian, I'm pregnant."
"Oh, I'm sorry about that."
"So I'll be leaving in six months."
"Oh, I'm really sorry about that."
They tried everything from changing the chair his typists sat on to providing leaflets on contraception, but they came and went as regular as clockwork.
"Is Debbie pregnant?" I asked.
"Not yet," replied Brian, "I'll be sorry when she goes though."

We got to Debbie's desk. She had the latest PC, printer and copy of DisplayWrite 4 (shows how long ago this took place). "I was saving it and the file disappeared," she said.
"Not to worry," I replied in my best knight-in-shining armour voice, and I began to ferret around the PC to see what I could find. Now, I was never a fan of DW4, except that this particular evening it came up trumps. There was a way to recover lost files. A few key strokes later, there it was, just as Debbie had last seen it.

I was about to mount my charger and ride off into the night when I noticed something on the desk beside her. It was a printed copy of the March accounts. "Aren't these the March accounts," I pointed to the sheets of paper.
"Yes," said Brian, "Debbie's typing them."
"Why," I asked, "when they're already done?"

I won't repeat the conversation that then took place but I'll describe the accounts preparation process that I discovered taking place.
  1. The accountants prepared the accounts for each company in the group. They prepared them using Lotus 123.
  2. Once the accountants were happy with the results they would print them.
  3. The printed copy was taken to a secretary who re-keyed them into DW4.
  4. A printed copy of the DW4 version, and the 123 printed version went back to the accountants for tick-checking.
  5. Errors in the typists re-keying were sent back for amendment etc, etc, etc.

When I asked why this happened I was told that the Finance Director (affectionately known as the "Big P"), didn't like the way the accountants printers output the data. Helpfully, I suggested that the accountants either get the same printer as the secretaries or they copy the data to a floppy (no networks in those days either) and print it out on a secretary's printer. I took a look at the faces around me. The expressions said it all - there was no room for innovation in the organisation. I should have known. My little department was a radical move that they never repeated.

A few years later I, along with most other people in the group who dealt with small systems, was made redundant. Not long after that, the subsidiary I worked for was allowed to "die". Shortly after that the parent compant was swallowed up by another bank reknowned for its innovative outlook towards IT.


Published: 17 January 2004
Last edited: 19 May 2008 16:30