Jokers on Files.

Joking jokers

After working for Cap Gemini I became a freelance IT specialist. A few years later there weren’t any freelance jobs available. And so I started as a database administrator at a government agency near home. Most people in the Netherlands know about the agency because it processes traffic fines for the police. It didn’t take long before I was seriously tested. Already on the second day one of the main systems crashed, leaving a corrupt database. After two days of research I realised that the exact cause might never be found so I advised to upgrade the database software to see if it solved the issue.

Instead management decided to turn it into a crisis and to set up a multi disciplinary task force to deal with it. They decided that the cause of the crash should be found. Every day at 10 AM there was a meeting of the task force to discuss the state of affair. There was no progress so every day I proposed to upgrade the database software. And every day my proposal was brushed aside. After two weeks of investigating the cause had yet to be found and managers were getting desperate. Upgrading the database software ended the crisis. Knowing the solution matters more than knowing a lot of other things like for instance the cause. This was a harbinger of things to come.

There were some serious issues with access rights in the main systems so in 2005 I built an account administration system named DBB to solve these issues. DBB automated granting and revoking access rights for all the main systems based on job roles. Nobody ordered me to do it but I expected that it would be appreciated. Instead DBB faced opposition and red tape. In 2005 I introduced it in a sneaky way with the help of the people who wanted to use it. After DBB had been installed, there was no way back because DBB solved a pressing business problem while there was no alternative.

The logo of DBB was a drawing made by my wife Ingrid. It features jokers grinning at a set of file folders symbolising bureaucracy. Bureaucrats considered it a rogue system but it worked well. DBB made a joke out of them so the logo became a bit prophetic. For more than ten years they were busy scheming and devising plans to replace DBB. Two projects were started to this aim. The first one was halted prematurely because the complexity of the matter had been underestimated. In 2016 a new project team realised that it was pointless to replace DBB. After eleven years the main systems of 2005 had become of age and it was expected that they would be decommissioned within a few years, so that DBB could retired together with those systems.

DBB was also joking me. In June 2010 someone requested me to drop a user. This was an unusual request as normally DBB took care of that. In fact, this hadn’t happened for several years. The username I had to drop was rather peculiar: ELVELVEN. If you read that aloud, you say eleven elevens in Dutch, a reference to 11:11. Usernames were made up of the first one or characters of the employee’s first name followed by the last name in full. To me 11:11 signals a combination of two related unlikely events that are related. And indeed, the joke had a part two, and it was even more peculiar.

In 2014, when I was testing an improvement to DBB, a test signalled that an illegal account had sneaked into our systems. The username was the first character of the first name followed by the last name of the lady of the dormitory. If she had been employed with us, this would probably have been her username. And her name isn’t common like Jane Doe, so this is peculiar, even more so it was the only username that popped up. It turned out that a guy with the same last name had been employed with us. His first name began with the same letter as hers. The account wasn’t illegal but I had mixed data from two different dates for the test, which made it appear that way.

In 2005 my manager promised me a promotion. He believed there should be a senior rank for experienced database administrators. He didn’t take a lot of action so I tried to make him put his promise into writing. Just before he left, he wrote it down, but he only gave me a minor wage increase, not the promotion he promised earlier. A few weeks later I was summoned to the human resources department. A bureaucrat had come up with a technicality so I couldn’t even keep the minor wage increase. Having it in writing didn’t help. My manager had left and his temporary replacement didn’t care.

When I arrived at home Ingrid told me that a freelance agency offered me a job. This was the first time this happened after I had stopped working as a freelancer three years earlier. That was a peculiar coincidence as I was angry because I had worked so hard to have the promise in writing, because I didn’t trust the bureaucracy but that didn’t matter because I was right. And so I made a rash decision and resigned. It didn’t take long before I started to have second thoughts. There weren’t many jobs for database administrators near home and my physical condition didn’t allow for long travels. There were also issues with my son so working far from home wasn’t an option. There was a new manager who accepted my change of mind. And after a few years of bureaucratic wrangling, the promotion to the senior rank came through.

Master of my own destiny?

Early 1993 I started to look for a job. My first application was for an IT traineeship at Cap Gemini. They had sixteen vacancies. Some 2,000 people applied and 200 of them were selected for a series of tests. At the tests other applicants were telling stories about assessments, tests and job interviews. The economy fared poorly so there weren’t a lot of jobs and many graduates were already searching for a long time. It was discouraging to hear their stories and I expected to remain unemployed for quite a while.

That wasn’t meant to be. The tests went well and I was invited for an interview and some more psychological tests. When I was in the train on my way to the interview, a guy who had lived with me in a dormitory, came sitting on the seat in front of me . He asked me why I was wearing a suit. I told him about the interview. Then he started to laugh loudly. “Your tie is a mess,” he said. “Let me put in order for you.” He arranged the tie correctly.

If this event, which appeared mere chance at the time, hadn’t happened, I may not have been hired. The interview and the tests went well. The misfortune during my student years because of not fitting in groups had made me investigating culture and cultural differences, so it wasn’t hard for me to translate the expectations of Cap Gemini with regard to its employees into test answers. The tests made it appear as if I fitted perfectly into the corporate culture of Cap Gemini. And so I was sent to a junior programming class to prepare for my first assignment.

I was afraid to turn up. I felt unfit for the job. My self-confidence was low and I had manipulated the test results to make it appear that I fitted in. During the class we learned about programming. I was often joking about a programme I was planning to write. It was named DoEverything as it was going to do everything. It is a remarkable coincidence that I later fount out that such a programme may already exist.

My classmates were discussing what type of car they were going to drive once they were on the job. I was the only one planning to use public transport. I was not a model employee. One classmate, a cheerful guy coming from the Eindhoven area, expressed his amazement about me having passed all the tests. Remarkably, his name refers to the initials of the lady, who later moved to the Eindhoven area.

The first assignment was a project at the Groningen office of Cap Gemini. For months we had nothing to do. I often went out late but I also did some additional training. Our project manager was ambitious. He organised project meetings and demanded progress reports he could present to the senior management even though there was nothing to do. After a few months, the computers and the work came in, and the project manager was busy managing our work. He constantly demanded progress updates.

It soon became clear that we were going miss our deadline at the end of July, so before he went on a three-week holiday, the project manager arranged a new deadline date at the end of August. Once he was gone, he didn’t bother us any more. Things suddenly went smoothly so we were able to meet the original deadline date in July with ease. When the project manager returned, all our programmes were already installed, so he was praised by his superiors for delivering a month ahead of schedule.

My next job was a database job at a telecommunications company. The company had difficulty tracking what their database administrator was doing. I was hired to reorganise one of their databases. This important task was taken out of his hands and was given to me, a novice without experience. For that reason he didn’t like me from the start. To make matters worse, I wasn’t following his advice because he was a bungler. That was the reason I was hired in the first place.

There was a fuss because of my disturbed relationship with the database administrator. Cap Gemini sent me to a training called Professional Skills. I was not politically sensitive. I didn’t let political expedience stand in the way of doing what’s right or saying what needs to be said. But framing things positively can contribute to a better atmosphere, they learned me. This is what political correctness is about. Cap Gemini stressed that I was the master of my own destiny. It was one of their company slogans. And I believed it.

Featured image: Cap Gemini logo