Thursday, August 26, 2010

Manners, Planners, and Ball-Peen Hammers

I spent most of my 26 year career in computer programming (Good Heavens, has it been that long!?) as a defense contractor, and one of our most sacred precepts was to be, above all, polite to the customer, namely, the federal government.  I have had the opportunity to work with (in order), the war planners -- U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and civilian personnel -- at a joint command (U.S. Strategic Command), the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a Naval shipyard, before settling down as a database administrator for a municipality.  And I cannot recall once, ever, being intentionally rude to a customer.  Now, I'm sure it happened anyway -- rudeness, I mean.  When I was younger, and particularly when I was under pressure (which seemed like, well, all the time), it wouldn't take much to make my forehead sizzle and my blood pressure percolate.  I'm here to testify, the federal government is a very trying customer.  But I fought against my urges, and for the most part, I like to pretend that I succeeded -- with a spectacular failure here and there.  I was certainly held responsible for my lapses and made to feel ashamed of them, as I should have been.

Now, I'm on the other side of the customer-contractor relationship, and at some point during the intervening years, something changed.  Maybe it's my perspective.  Or maybe it's the incentives.  I don't know.  But I deal with contractors now on a regular basis, and I haven't noticed that they particularly value anymore the old injunction to be polite to the customer. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Yesterday, I was explaining to a project manager for one of our vendors that, no, we cannot grant system administrator privileges to a service login -- it's bad architecture for their application, and it's bad security practice for our organization.  So we did finally arrive at a compromise, after some degree of wailing and teeth-gnashing.  After that, though, I got involved in a different project and of course there were still some emails flying.  It wasn't clear to me that I was required to do anything more, but apparently,I was very much expected to create a service login and password and give it to the vendors.  Finally, I got an email from the vendor's project manager that said:  
"When are you going to give us a login/password?  We are patiently waiting."
Now, part of this is the problem of email: it's hard to email a tone of voice.  But I maintain that it is hard to misread that remark; it seems very sarcastic.  It's what my sixth-grade teacher would have said if I were in arrears on a homework problem.  It's what my Mom would have said if I were eight years old and holding up dinner by having to go wash my hands.

Bolstering this interpretation is that others in the office had already dealt with this particular project manager, and so there was already a reputation there for authoritarian rudeness.
It's like the customer-contractor relationship has been inverted.  The customer is always wrong -- or at least always the obstacle to success.

This is by no means the only example I can tell of contractor rudeness.  It seems to make little sense from an economic perspective, but that may not be the way things actually are.  If a contractor makes promises to a particular office and then has trouble meeting their stated goal, the IT shop is always first in the line-up, first in the dock, and first to the Guillotine as the "preventer of Information Technology."  Nine times out of ten, your organization will side with the vendor, who promises the moon, over IT's own gratification-denying m.o..  If IT is successfully portrayed to upper management as the buzz-killing culprit, we get upbraided and the contractor wins.

Security is one of the big issues.  In IT, nobody wants to talk about security issues.  They cost time.  They cost trouble.  They force a vendor to think very clearly about what he really needs, and most don't want to spend the resources to do that.  (I ought to know; I was a contractor; I understand deadlines.)  If granting sysadmin rights saves time, the vendor will insist you do that and may just go into a snit about it.  A month or so ago, with a different vendor, I was having a go-around with their rep and insisting that they plan on not having a sysadmin-login for the application.  The contractor wasn't rude at all, but he did shrug and insist confidently, "We've never had problems with security."
Which is beside the point, because security is not their problem; it's our problem.  If someone sneaks into the system and starts committing electronic vandalism, who risks getting fired?  The contractor?  Nope.  That would be, uh, someone else.

I think some people are nice by nature, and can't be any other way, even under pressure.  I've worked with a few people like this, and they are a joy to be around.  Some others are not nice by nature, and can't be any other way, no matter what the inducement.  I've worked with a few of those, too, and it makes you want to hit yourself on the head with a ball-peen hammer just to create a welcome distraction.  (And at times, I fear, I have been one of those.)  But I think most people are nice sometimes, and mean sometimes, but tend to respond to the incentives to be nicer than they might like to be, or would naturally tend to be.  It's why capitalists are nicer than communists.  It's why customers are generally more rude than vendors.  As a counterexample, it's why post office and DMV workers have a reputation for rudeness.  But not every customer-vendor dynamic is the same, and apparently, that's what I'm seeing.

I'm a thankful man, or like to pose as one.  I love my job, I love my work, and I love the economic rewards.  And in this day and age, I'm thankful to have it.  Surely I can find the grace to accept vendors no matter how much they may try one's patience.  I'm happy I didn't respond in kind to the project manager, and believe me, that's casting against type.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Sorry, but you are not their customer (to them at least). They do not consider you their customer just because you happen to work for the same organization as the people who paid for and use their products. You are just an impediment to their success in their eyes or at the very least an inconvenience.