BY DAVID MOORES
Copyright is held by the author.
TO SAY Mark’s knees were knocking would have been a lie because he was sitting down. But he could feel a cold sweat pooling in his armpits and trickling over his ribs as he waited outside the second floor boardroom at Corporate HQ.
Arlene Whitworth, queen bee of the executive assistants, glanced over from her workstation every so often, her gaze a combination of pity and irritation as Mark fidgeted, lips moving as he tried to rehearse his pitch. He’d been here before, but he did not expect to return after today. Today was going to be different.
The boardroom door opened eventually, to a buzz of conversation from within, and Arlene went to alert status. A gust of stale air and boardroom funk accompanied Terry Hartley, the corporate controller, normally the roly-poly class clown, who came out looking shell-shocked and red in the face.
Arlene looked over the top of her half-moon glasses at Mark. “Mr. Williams, you’re up,” she said and made a head-motion towards the boardroom where the executive council of Eastern Telecom was holding its monthly meeting. “Good luck.”
Mark stood. Clutching his laptop and briefcase in sweaty hands, he straightened his back, took a deep breath and entered the lions’ den. Fuck’em all he thought. Today they’ll get something they don’t expect. So why am I still nervous? Because I’m a loser. Tell me something new.
Derek Short, chief information officer and Mark’s boss, caught his eye and nodded as Mark moved to the podium. It wasn’t an attaboy look. Mark and Derek had long respected each other from afar as rivals. The CIO job with its perks, stock options and prestige, could have gone to either one but the winner was Derek and Mark still wanted to clench his fist every time he thought about it, which was at least once an hour.
Prior to Derek’s promotion they had been peers. Derek had climbed the ladder to head up the “Business Solutions” wing of the IT function, schmoozing with division heads, executive VPs of marketing, finance and such. Mark on the other hand came to own the “wires and boxes” side of the operation: the data centres and the corporate network. The role was largely invisible to the business, the nerds toiling in the basement, as in “That’s Mark Williams the chief nerd,” snigger, snigger. Well paid and all, but no recognition, no respect.
Mark knew his career had gone as far as it was going and he had no desire to start over and prove himself elsewhere, but the chip on his shoulder had grown ever harder to bear as the months went by.
His PowerPoint slides were cued up on his laptop ready to project and his title slide, thank Christ, popped right up when he plugged into the projection system. One opportunity to fuck things up had passed without drama. Good he thought, this is not the moment.
Derek went to stand and do an intro, but the chief executive officer, Charlie Carson, sociopath, bully and general-purpose A-hole, waved him down. Charlie’s jowls, pop-eyes behind thick rimless spectacles, and broad fleshy mouth turned down at the corners, gave him the look of an upset toad.
Heads around the table turned towards Charlie.
“Let’s just get going on this one, can we? No dancing and giving us the big picture will be required Derek, thank you. The October outage cost this company 40 million in revenue. We want to know what happened.”
And crucify a victim, Mark thought, because the lost revenue had contributed to the small matter of a second consecutive quarterly earnings miss, not great news for a CEO whose big claim to fame was cost cutting but not much else. The Board was rumoured to be getting restless.
“You, Mr. Williams, I assume, are here to explain what happened, why it took so long to fix the problem, and how you, Sir, are going to make sure we never have such a disgraceful situation facing us again. You may assume that your future with this company is at stake today.”
In that moment a Zen-like sense of serenity came over Mark. The nerves had gone away. He put one hand on the podium, another in his pocket. Taking his time he surveyed the room, making eye contact, his face impassive. As if I were the sergeant-major eyeballing a bunch of green recruits, he thought. And it felt so damn good. Keep them waiting, and wondering, because presenters at the executive council rarely displayed this kind of self-assured, demeanour, bordering on disdainful. They were supposed to be diffident, grovel even. Derek, his boss, was giving him a WTF look. Up yours, Derek.
Here we go. “Mr. Carson, I sense you are looking for a concise response from me. Not a problem. Gentlemen, I can sum this up really quickly in three slides. First of all what happened, then why it happened, and last of all what am I going to do about it.
So, what happened? It’s simple:
Slide 1: WE. ALL. FUCKED. UP.
Indrawn breaths around the room. Charlie Carson expressionless, his most dangerous aspect. Something very bad is about to happen to this guy, the audience’s look said, but let’s give him some more rope. Take our lead from Charlie. Say nothing, wait. This could be entertaining.
Quietly, almost reflectively, Mark spoke. “Gentlemen, by now I’m sure you’ve all heard the essentials. A server went down during a system-wide upgrade. That resulted in the loss of one month’s worth of order data because, as we found when we attempted to recover, the previous night’s backup had corrupted the database. There was no human error at the working level.”
Walter Stevenson, executive VP of human resources, spoke up “Just now you said we all fucked up. So what do you mean?”
“Indulge me, Mr. Stevenson, I’ll get there very soon.” Several people opened their mouths to protest but Mark raised his hand and his sense of command somehow worked. The executive council all shut up.
“I have a fully developed plan for a new backup protocol that will prevent any recurrence of this sort of black swan event. My staff has taken the opportunity to run it past the infrastructure arm of Adventure Consulting. It’s sound, but of course it will cost. However the cost is minor. I’d suggest 5 million is nothing compared to the lost revenue we just experienced.”
Nobody reacted. Five million dollars was pocket change compared to, say, the cost of rolling out a new plant in Mexico.
“So let’s talk about the bigger ‘why’, the ‘root cause’ in consultant-speak. And that’s boringly predictable these days actually.” Mark was on a roll now. He could tell that he had his audience fascinated. He felt a sense of power over them and it was like a drug and he was high on it. They’d probably never seen anybody act this way. A few of them had quiet grins on their faces and maybe they appreciated a bit of chutzpah. At least he wasn’t boring them. Next slide:
Slide 2: IT. WASN’T. IN. THE. BUDGET.
“We had a top-down-imposed budget cut of eight percent last year. We made the case for extra backup servers and it was rejected.”
Charlie Carson raised his hand. “By whom?”
Okay you SOB, you asked for it. “Ultimately by you Sir.”
“Mr Williams, how long have you been with Eastern?”
“Then you surely understand how budgeting is done, and you know perfectly well that I do not personally scrutinize everybody’s annual budget for paper clips”.
“Sir, I promised you root causes. The budget cuts last year have tied many people’s hands, including mine, from making sensible, responsible investments in our operating infrastructure. Repeatedly many of us have petitioned you, directly or through your staff, on these matters. But here we are.”
Derek Short couldn’t sit still any longer. His face had become a mask of rage. For Mark, the whole business was worth it just to see him this way, his voice cracking with emotion.
“Charlie, gentlemen, I need to curtail the charade we’re being subjected to here. It’s totally and completely unacceptable. I hate to say it, but the truth is that I have for some time had serious doubts about the stewardship of our computing and network infrastructure. There have been a number of slipups and what happened last October is just the latest in a series. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Well Derek,” said Charlie, “You might consider saying ‘I’m sorry’. And let me ask you, did you review the budget submitted by Mr. Williams? And did you approve it in its final form, after the cuts?”
Uh-oh, eyes swivelling in the room. Had Derek Short just dug his own grave? Derek appeared to realize he had. He started babbling.
“I accepted the eight percent cut last year, yes, well of course. I believed IT should be a good corporate citizen and do its bit, I mean why should we be exempt? So when the order came down I told all my department heads to step up. I mean that’s what we all did, right? Right?”
Nobody met his eyes. Charlie then asked the killer question.
“So you didn’t actually evaluate where to cut? You just left it to your subordinates?” \This of course was exactly how Charlie himself had handled the matter with his own direct reports, but nobody was going to mention that right then, or ever.
Charlie waited for an answer. He appeared prepared wait a while but Mark was not. This was the moment.
“May I? I promised a three-slide presentation and my last slide is about where we go from here.” His finger moved ready to tap the track pad on his laptop but Charlie Carson had seen enough theatrics and just wanted to wrap this up.
“Hold on Mr. Williams. Derek, it’s quite regrettable that we have a CIO who can only act as a messenger boy, gives his staff no guidance on a matter like this, and then tries to evade the blame. Mr Williams, please implement your plan.”
“Oliver,” he looked across at the chief financial officer, “have Terry Hartley work with Mr. Williams on the funding. Be so kind as to get back to me when you’ve done that.”
“Mr. Williams, that was one of the more succinct pitches we’ve seen here. Cheeky, but it had a certain style. Now get yourself out of here. See Arlene on your way out and make an appointment to meet with me right away.”
“Gentlemen, let’s take a break. Derek, there’s no need for you to participate further today.”
In an a few moments Mark’s world had been transformed. His old rival disgraced. His future, who knew, but nothing bad he was sure. He felt about 10 feet tall, scooping up his laptop, briefcase, papers and whatnot before leaving the boardroom on a cloud.
A surprised Arlene set up Mark’s appointment with the CEO, raising her eyebrows when told nobody else would be attending. Then Mark floated down the stairs and out the door.
Descending the HQ building’s front steps he gave a celebratory little hop and a skip and dropped the laptop, left powered-up in the excitement. It unhelpfully brought up Slide 3. Bluetooth functioned perfectly and the 10 kilos of plastic explosive in Mark’s briefcase detonated like an email from God.