About Me

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Always fascinated by the paradox presented in Hesse's Magister Ludi between the worlds of the spirt and of the flesh, I left academia after completing the coursework for a Ph.D. in English Literature for a career in Information Technology consulting, foresaking Shakespeare, Byron, and Fitzgerald for Turing, Iverson, and Date. Soon thereafter, I, like Tom and Laura's father, the telephone lineman, fell in love with long distance. In the years that followed, I plied my craft in places strange and far, including Riyadh, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sarajevo, and (most pleasantly) Nice. Returning to my native America after many years abroad, I have found it dramatically changed, not necessarily for the better. Now I practice my trade more sedately, traveling to such exotic places as St. Louis, Atlanta, and Hartford. But, as Mr. Buffett reminds us, "there's still so much to be done." So hearkening back to Tom's absent father... if the phone doesn't ring, it's me.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Orangutans are Skeptical

Many, years ago I reviewed a work of the brilliant French philologist,
George Dumezil, The Destiny of a King, for a small, scholarly publication. In it, Dumezil continued to explore the underlying thesis of his most significant scholarship, the tripartite division of Indo-European society into priests, warriors, and farmers. The Indo-Europeans, as their name implies, were the ancestors of the Aryan culture that drove the Dravidians in the subcontinent to the south and east and the indigenous European populations of Picts, Basque, etc. to the extremities of modern day Europe.

Originating in the Caucasian steppes, the Indo-Europeans swept west into Europe and southeast through the Khyber Pass, their mastery of the horse giving them sway over all who stood against them. Dumezil explored the structure of their society through the remnants and clues he found in their mythologies, including the trinities of Mitra, Indra, and the Asvin in the Hindu pantheon and Odin, Thor, and Freya in the Norse. Subsequent scholars have further suggested that the agricultural class portrayed by Dumezil were not indigenous to the nomadic Indo-Europeans, but were rather the peoples subjugated by warrior-like Caucasians.

And, as Mr. Buffet says, "And some things never change. Hit it boys!"

It’s always seemed to me that this division between the Indo-European warrior and agricultural classes has persisted in many professions into modern times, including my own, Information Technology (IT). Right now in the U.S. there are two categories of professionals within IT, consultants (warrior class), who typically service multiple clients for short durations and across multiple technologies and varied geographies, and IT career professionals (agricultural class), who normally work within a single (or limited number of) organization(s) over longer periods of time and focus upon a narrower range of technologies and methodologies within limited geographies.

The role of the consultant is to instigate change in the community, through workflow rationalization, technological innovation, or resource reduction. The role of the career professional is to perpetuate the status quo, by accomplishing the actual work that needs to be done within the organization. The consultant essentially culls the herd, through the elimination of redundancies and inefficiencies, while the career professional perpetuates and sustains the herd, through the generation and accomplishment of work.

As is often the case in life, the characteristics of the nature of the work performed are reflected in the personalities of those perform that work. Consultants tend to be self-centered “nomads,” who relish the Monday through Friday travel, who are absorbed by their work, and who often don’t have ties of kith and kin. Career professionals are often “nesters,” whose emphasis is on family and friends rather than work and consider traveling one or two weeks a year a major inconvenience.

If you read my profile, you will know where I fall on this spectrum of work and personality. The idea of going to the same office every day, seeing the same people every day, working with the same problems/technologies, every day, and coming home to the same 30 year fixed mortgage, 2.1 kids, 1.9 pets, and
3.7 neighors every day would convince me very quickly that Hemingway found the right solution. This was brought home to me about three years ago when I had a client in Northern NJ.

The client is a very large financial services company, based in a small, rich suburban area in NJ approximately 40 miles due west of NYC, for whom I was leading a conversion of their systems from one pre-historic database system to a slightly-less prehistoric database system. The executive sponsor was an affable Italian-American in his late 50’s who held the overblown title of “Director” (he was really simply a line manager) and had worked for the company (the SAME company!) for 35 years! The client Project Manager was a very nice woman, a “Manager,” who celebrated her 25th year with the company while we were completing the engagement. Others had been there 18 years, 15 years, etc. The most junior, a spinster from Scandinavia, had just completed her 14th year.

35 years!

While the first two in this cast of characters had their own offices, the remainder worked, as is common in today’s corporate America, in their little cubicles. They decorated these with distinctions of their own identities, as if, without the pictures, mementoes, trinkets, they would lose all sense of their lives, their purpose, their selves. The screen savers all proudly displayed shots of their children or grand-children.

35 years performing the same work!

Every day, with 2-3 weeks off for vacation, they drive to the same facility, see the same colleagues, perform the same (generally speaking) type of work, and drive home. They strive mightily to destroy any remaining embers of youthful exuberance, of strange cultures and exotic places, of freedom and travel, love of culture, history, scotch,or strange (wo)men.

35 years eating at the same company cafeteria!

All of this was brought forcibly back to me recently as I was leaving another client’s site, this one a Wall Street bank, walking past the cubicle nests neatly ordered with the same square footage and the same size “walls,” Each was decorated with the compulsory trinkets, as cat’s define their own territory by urinating along the boundaries. Each represented an expression of the identity their owners could only find in the external objects representing their history, their accomplishments, their progeny.

35 years seeing the same people every day!

And here I was, the consultant doing what consultants do. This particular engagement involves measuring the amount and type of work associated with testing specific types of changes to the client’s large-scale software applications in order to outsource that work to cheaper resources. In other words, my job is to oust these people from their cubicles, their identities, their lives—to make them aware that there is a harsh world outside their comfortable nests by pushing them out to be on their own.

No 36th year for you! Come back next life!

In need of a scotch (after all, it’s always after noon somewhere in the world) and feeling a bit melancholy about life, the universe, and all the fish, I proceeded toward the exit and the “A” train. But, of a sudden, my mood was broken by an epiphany generated by my ipod selection on my morning commute combined with an image on a screen saver. Like a drunken sailor, I began to quietly sing the lyrics that came to me not from subway walls, but from a lcd display. As I was passing, a monitor popped up a shot, possibly taken from National Geographic or something similar, of a pair of orangutans playing in what appeared to be a fairly dense forest. And, in a revelation, the answer to the character of these nesters, part of the grand puzzle of the universe, came to me in the lyrics of Paul Simon…

Orangutans are skeptical
Of changes in their cages,
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

Hell, 35 years and you might be fond of rum as well!


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