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Issue Date: January 2008

Down memory lane

January 2008

I recently went to a tenth anniversary reunion for staff who were at Afrox Management Information Systems … um… 10 years ago. Indulge me while I recall some of the memories that were recounted by people who attended this bash. We did some strange and wonderful things in those days that even today seem to be quite quirky.

Probably the most enduring memories we had were of the parties - like the ghetto Christmas party that we held in the basement parking: everyone came dressed as hobos (or worse) and we partied in the dim candle-lit murkiness deep underground. (I am sure that the health and safety people these days would not allow that). My boss put in an appearance late in the proceedings, when Barry was conducting races on the tea-trolley down the entrance ramp. The trolley was never the same again, mind you nor was Barry, or many of the trolley-pilots whose only way of stopping the thing after the bottom of the down-ramp was to crash into a wall. When my boss arrived, someone had discovered the fire-hose, and he was washed back up the stairs as he tried to make a grand entrance.
Then there was the sheet party (the only item of clothing allowed, and the nuns-and-sinners party, and the many other strange events, some of which I actually remember. I recall going to a Greek restaurant and breaking plates (over each other's heads, as I was reminded), until the manager came and told us that we should not use the dinner plates, and that they had special un-fired plates for breaking - I wondered why it hurt so much.
Terry White
Terry White
But it was not all hard work
I was CIO at that time (of course no-one called anyone a CIO then, I was the MIS manager). The management team was MISMAN. Every month we had a full staff communications meeting where we had someone come and talk to us about their business experiences and we brought everyone up to date on what was happening at MIS. Once, when we got to question-time, Cathy put up her hand and said: "I want to complain about sexual harassment!" I was a bit worried about this being the wrong forum to raise such a delicate issue, but we were an open team so I asked: "Yes, Cathy, what about sexual harassment?" She replied: "There is not enough of it."
We did some really good IT too. Really. To my knowledge we were the first to introduce Change Management as a fully functional department whose objective was to get the business to use the systems to their maximum potential. I know we were the first to have a help-desk, because there was no software for such systems and I had to ask a friend to build a system for us - it later went on to become the core of one of the well-known CRM systems today. When I got to Afrox, we had 22 severity one problems per month, when I left we had one every two months.
Rob, our facilities manager, was reminding me last night of the time my boss was inspecting the new generator and UPS we had just installed for the mainframe. "Does it work?" asked my boss. "Yes," replied Rob, and he flipped the mains switch off - this during the peak online day. It worked.
One day I was reading about this brave new technology called object oriented programming. So I assembled a team of three programmers, gave them an office and six months to tell me if this was a practical answer to cutting our development time by two-thirds as Gartner was claiming at the time. After three months the team came back and told me it may work one day, but at the moment it was pretty much vapourware and 'the next cool thing' but not practical given the compute power that was required. I am sure OOP worked elsewhere, but we never made use of it.
There was also the network manager who came to me one day and said: "We have done a study and reckon we could outsource my department." This was before outsourcing was accepted practice, and I adjudged it to be too risky in our context. But what departments these days have such a concern for their company's performance that they recommend outsourcing themselves?
This was the same network manager who got into someone's e-mail and changed a 'Smoke-Enders' questionnaire that was sent to all staff. He replaced the word 'smoke' with 'bonk'. So the Bonk-Enders questionnaire asked staff if they should be allowed to bonk in meetings or should they have a special room set aside for it. I had to issue a written warning to him while keeping a straight face. Last night Andrew owned up that the network manager did not do it, it was himself.
We were the first IT department that I know of that had a full-time architecture department. In those days I had to explain what an architecture was. "It is sort of like a blue-print, that you can use to build things," I told our Exco.
We also did some forward thinking people-related stuff. Yes, we had self-managed teams, and in one instance when a team-leader left, I had the team interview the three shortlisted candidates, for the job of being their boss. One of the candidates told me it was the toughest interview she had ever had. This little initiative went wrong, because the team chose the boss they thought would be easiest on them. After three months they came back to me and asked me to transfer the team leader, and choose a tougher task-master, because they were slipping behind in their work.
Many of the things I introduced got me into trouble. No, most of the things I introduced got me into trouble. I was hauled over the coals by the HR director for introducing performance contracting and appraisals, when the rest of the company didn't have them. Two years later they adopted our standards. I was sworn at by a general manager for introducing a crèche (in one of our conference rooms) over the Christmas period, because it allowed a dozen or so of our women programmers to stay on over the period and not have to look after the kids - we had a nurse and a kids entertainer on site for two weeks. It was bedlam! The general manager swore at me because now all his departments wanted crèches as well. Two years later they had them. I introduced 'dress-down Friday' at a time where suits were somehow thought to improve the way people worked. (One of our bursary students came in dressed for the beach, and I had to have a quiet word with him). I was kakked-on about that too, but two years later. In fact I wondered why so many of the business people chose to work at MIS on Fridays, until I made the link between that and 'dress down Friday'.
We ran a Saturday school in our office for the kids of our black employees who were not getting the schooling they deserved. MIS staff volunteered to do the teaching, and the kids attended religiously - this was in the days before the 1994 election and the kids were braving bullets and walking past bodies in the street to get to our little school.
When we conducted a refresh programme, we did not recycle the old PCs. We donated them to township schools and MIS staff trained teachers and supported the PCs.
One day I was asked by a general manager how I had organised the recycling programme - we had large containers for cans, bottles and paper, and they were collected monthly. There were also posters everywhere reminding people to recycle. The general manager was surprised that I had no idea how this initiative had started or who started it, but I would try and find out for him. The culture of MIS was that you could do pretty much anything you wanted, without having to fill in forms or asking for permission, as long as you met your performance targets. And I remember how everyone always exceeded their targets. And had lots of fun.
Last night, Anne told me that on her first day at work, some scruffy guy came into her office. She thought he was the electrician and was about to ask him to fix the plugs, when he left. That was me.

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