Jokers on Files.

Joking jokers

In 2002, I started to work as an Oracle database administrator at a government agency near home. Most people in the Netherlands know about the agency because it processes traffic fines. For that reason, it isn’t popular with the general public, just like the Internal Revenue Service. So if someone asked who my employer was, I kept it vague and said the government or the Department of Justice. It didn’t take long before something went seriously wrong. On my second day on the job, one of the production systems crashed after running the batch jobs, leaving a corrupt database, and with the benefit of hindsight, that was a bit peculiar. After two days of searching, I still hadn’t found the exact cause. When I restored the backup of the previous evening, which was still valid, and ran the batch jobs, the database became corrupt again. It probably was a software bug, so I advised restoring the backup of the previous evening and upgrading the database software to the latest version and seeing if it would solve the issue. Instead, the IT director declared a crisis and set up a multi-disciplinary task force to deal with the situation.

The head of the task force was a corpulent project leader who decided we should find the cause, which I hadn’t uncovered. I just wanted to fix the problem. Every day at 10 AM, there was a meeting to discuss the state of affairs. Every day I proposed to upgrade the database software to see if it would help. And every day, my proposal was brushed aside. I would have done it myself, but I was new on the job, and they used VAX VMS, an operating system I wasn’t familiar with, so I couldn’t install software or restore backups on my own. Two weeks later, after our experts had all weighed in and also after hiring a database corruption expert from Oracle, the cause remained elusive, and managers were getting desperate. Finally, they were willing to consider my suggestion. And it solved the problem. It was a harbinger of things yet to come. During a review, they grilled me for not being interested in researching the cause. I said that solving a crisis was more important as it was a production system, and the users needed it to work. And by the way, the upgrade demonstrated that it was a software bug.

A few months later, my employer hired a security officer. Probably the audit department had advised it. He was a guy in a suit who soon began to make our work harder by implementing unnecessary procedures. For instance, we had to lock up our Oracle manuals in a secure location after work and bring the keys to the porter’s lodge. But our manuals were public information like Windows manuals. Today, you can find this information on the Internet. At the same time, Mulder, the system that processed the traffic fines, had a superuser named MULDER with the password MULDER. Everyone knew that and could mess with the traffic fines. I notified the security officer, but being a true bureaucrat, he had more important things to do, such as attending meetings, inventing procedures and making management reports. Other systems had this issue too. And so, I contacted a few senior programmers, and we fixed that problem.

There were other issues with access rights too. As they would say in the course Professional Skills, ‘There was room for improvement.’ If a new employee came in, the service desk made a ticket stating, ‘Create user account X as a copy of account Y,’ and sent it from one department to another. Usually, it took two weeks for the ticket to pass through all our departments, and system administrators made errors. Hence, account X was rarely exactly like account Y. If people switched departments or left, the defunct access rights usually weren’t deleted. Perhaps the audit department had figured this out, as our management soon initiated a project role-based access rights (RBAC).

RBAC works like so. You have a role in a department. In ordinary language, it is your job. For your job, you need access to an array of systems. Your job description determines which rights you need, for instance, reading specific data or changing it. As a rule, employees should not receive more access rights than required to perform their tasks. RBAC is about the rights an employee in a specific job role needs. Business consultants came in and defined job roles and access requirements. A programmer then built an administrative database. But the database wasn’t connected to our systems, so there was no guarantee that the access rights in our systems matched the administration. And if you know how things fare in practice, you know that the administration would soon become stale and pointless. People are lazy, make errors, and forget things. And that would change once the administration and our systems connected. If the administration connected but was wrong, people couldn’t do their jobs properly, so the administration had to be constantly updated.

In 2004, I secretly began building an account administration system named DBB using Designer/2000, leaving the bureaucrats out of the loop because they would probably stand in the way and make it harder for me. Only my manager and a few colleagues knew about it. DBB automated granting and revoking access rights in our systems the RBAC way. It took me nine months as I also had to do my regular work as a database administrator. But when I was ready to implement DBB on the production databases, the bureaucrats became aware of what was happening and tried to block it. In early 2005, I introduced it sneakily with the help of the people from the service desk who wanted to use it. They installed the DBB client programmes on their personal computers. And I was a database administrator, so I could install anything I wanted on any database.

The outcomes were spectacular. The service desk now created the accounts, so the tickets didn’t have to pass through so many departments. We created accounts in one day instead of two weeks. And the service desk could reset passwords on the spot instead of relaying the request to a department, bringing down the time to reset passwords from hours to seconds. And the access rights accurately reflected job roles. So, once DBB was operational, the opposition crumbled, and DBB became a regular application, even though not an official one, and we had RBAC forcefully implemented.

The logo of DBB was a drawing made by Ingrid. She had drawn it for another purpose. It features jokers grinning at a set of file folders. To me, these folders symbolised bureaucracy. DBB joked with the bureaucrats as the bureaucrats considered it a rogue system. Supposedly, I was one of those jokers, so I made one of them my avatar on the web. DBB was my love child, just like Fokker once was Jürgen Schrempp’s. And so, I ensured DBB could survive if I ever left the agency. I produced design documents and manuals and built DBB according to accepted Designer/2000 practices. We had a lot of Designer/2000 programmers, so they could easily have maintained DBB. But I hadn’t followed the proper procedures when building and implementing it, so it never became official. So, if something went wrong, it was not a mere incident, as would be the case with any other system, but a cause to replace DBB. And something went wrong once.

For over ten years, bureaucrats devised plans to replace DBB. Our management started two projects to replace it. The first effort stalled because they had underestimated the complexity of the matter. They might have thought, ‘If one guy can do it, how difficult can it be?’ In 2016, a new project team realised it was pointless to replace DBB as it was doing fine and replacing it was costly. The newer Java systems ran on Postgres databases and used web access, so they didn’t use DBB. And our management planned to decommission the old Designer/2000 systems so DBB could retire by then.

And so, I wondered how bureaucrats think and concluded that it is like so, ‘If I mess things up but stick to the rules and follow procedure, no one can blame me. If do the right thing but do not follow procedure, and something goes wrong, my job is on the balance.’ If something has gone wrong, the government hires consultants to investigate the issue and propose changes to the procedures to prevent it from happening the next time. Sadly, the next time, the situation may be different, and then it goes wrong again. You might think it is better to do away with procedures, but in a government administration, that might not be a good idea. The role of government is to provide and implement rules. Just imagine that every government employee does as he sees fit. Nevertheless, there could be room for improvement.

DBB not only joked with the bureaucrats. The joke was also on me and in a most peculiar fashion. In June 2010, I received a highly unusual request from a system administrator to drop a user account manually. That hadn’t happened for several years. DBB usually took care of that, but for some unknown reason, DBB failed to drop this particular account. The username was ELVELVEN. If you read that aloud, you say eleven elevens in Dutch, a reference to the 11:11 time-prompt phenomenon. Usernames consisted of the first one or two characters of the employee’s first name followed by the employee’s last name. In this case, the user’s last name was Velven. To me, 11:11 signals a combination of two related unlikely events. And indeed, the joke had a part two, and it was even more peculiar.

In 2014, I tested an improvement to DBB. My test signalled that an illegal account had sneaked into our systems. The username was AD******, the first character of the first name followed by the last name of A******* [the lady who might be God and appears to stalk me with coincidences]. Had she been employed with us, this would have been her username. And her name isn’t common, so this was unnerving, even more so because it was the only username that popped up. It couldn’t be her, or could it? It turned out that a guy with the same last name as hers had worked for us. His first name began with an A too. And the account wasn’t illegal. I had mixed data from two different dates in the test, which made it appear that this account had sneaked in illegally. Just imagine the odds of only this account popping up.

In 2005, my manager promised me a promotion. He told me that I had managed to introduce DBB. ‘You had a vision and you made it happen and you overcame all the opposition, and now we have RBAC,’ he said. He added that I was the best database administrator of the lot. I doubted that and said we had a tech genius in our department who was better than me. And then he said, ‘Having the right vision and making it happen are far more important.’ Only, he didn’t formalise the promotion, so I tried to make him put his promise into writing. I asked him several times to do that. And then, he took on a new job somewhere else, so I feared I would end up empty-handed. After all, I hadn’t many friends in high places.

Just before he left, I pressed him again to put his promise into writing. As the promotion had not yet come through, he wrote I could get a minor wage increase, and then he filed it for processing at the human resources department. A few weeks later, they summoned me to the human resources department. A bureaucrat had come up with a technicality. I couldn’t even keep the minor wage increase. That was a breach of contract, plain and simple, but to bureaucrats, only rules and procedures count. My previous manager had already left, so they blamed it on him, and his temporary replacement didn’t care as he also was on his way out. As I had put a lot of effort into having it in writing, and my manager had already fobbed me with a minor wage increase, I walked out of the meeting angrily.

When I arrived home, Ingrid told me that a freelance agency had offered me a job. It was the first offer of this kind since I started working for my employer. And so, I made a rash decision and resigned. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a remarkable coincidence that the freelance agency called me on this particular day. It didn’t take long before I started to have second thoughts. Out of the blue, a strong feeling emerged that it was a wrong decision. I can rationalise it by saying there weren’t many jobs for database administrators near home. And the issues with my son didn’t allow me to work far away from home while my physical condition didn’t allow for long travels. That may all be true, but these considerations were not the real reason. The feeling became so strong that I had no other choice but to reverse course and try to undo my resignation.

There was a new manager, and he accepted my change of mind. He pledged to do his best to restore my confidence in my employer. Due to a bureaucratic error, I missed the promotion again a year later. I began to distrust him and feared he might not make good on his promise. That didn’t happen at the time, but he soon gave the tech genius a higher pay grade and left me out. And several years later, after he had risen in rank, in another remarkable coincidence, he tried to take away the pay grade that came with the promotion when I switched to Java programming. Nevertheless, he was a very competent manager who later played a leading role in improving the IT department. After some years of bureaucratic wrangling, the promotion finally came through.

Morality clause

Legal is not always fair

What is legal is not always fair. The role of morality in law may be too small. People have different views about right and wrong, so the prevailing view in many Western societies is that people should be free to do as they please unless their actions harm others. Even that view can justify an increased role of ethics in judicial matters. And if moral viewpoints converge, this becomes easier. That begins with setting priorities.

We can get trapped in contentious issues. People reason according to their beliefs and political views. Debates are often framed to make the opposing view look evil:

  • Leftists might be concerned with the rights of criminals in jail but not of the rights of unborn children who are innocent of any crime.
  • Conservatives might be concerned with the fate of unborn children but as soon as they are born in misery their compassion suddenly vanishes.

Science indicates that the degree to which a fetus is a baby gradually increases during the pregnancy. If you are religious and presume that an unborn child has a soul, it becomes a discrete process. When the soul enters the fetus, it instantly becomes a baby. These are two fundamentally different views, so if you have one particular view, it may be hard to stay moderate. If there is a soul then abortion is killing an unborn child. If there is no soul, and a fetus has an awareness similar to a mouse, it is about the right of women to decide about what happens inside their own bodies.

Moral issues are often complicated. Euthanasia can be an act of compassion but it can also be a way of getting rid of undesired people. Perhaps criminals have had a difficult childhood or have mental issues that are not their fault, but making them suffer can give victims a sense of justice. This is about conflicting moral views. In economics, morality tends to take the back seat. In other words, you can do as you please as long as it is legal.

In some areas ethics are needed urgently. Research has shown that CEO is the job with the highest rate of psychopaths while lawyer comes in second,1 possibly because traders in financial markets were not included in the survey. Media came in third because it was a British research. Salespeople make a rather unsurprising fourth position.

Vulture capitalism

Rural areas in the United States are turning into an economic wasteland. Closed down factories and empty malls dominate the landscape. Communities are ravaged and drug abuse is on the rise. One reason for this to happen is that jobs are shipped overseas. Several factors contributed to this situation, but a major cause is CEOs not caring for people and communities. In many cases other solutions were possible.

Paul Singer is wealthy hedge fund owner. He made a fortune by buying up sovereign debt of countries in trouble such as Argentina and Peru at bargain prices and starting lawsuits and public relation campaigns against those countries to make a profit on these debts at the expense of the taxpayers of these countries.2

In the United States Singer bought up stakes of corporations in distress. He then fired workers so that the price of his shares rose. In the case of Delphi Automotive he and other hedge fund managers took out government bailouts, moved jobs overseas, and cut the retirement packages of employees so they could make a huge profit.2

Vulture capitalists prey on patients too. They buy patents on old drugs that are the standard treatment for rare life-threatening diseases, then raise the price because there is no alternative. Martin Shkreli was responsible for a 6,250% price hike for the anti-retroviral drug Daraprim. Many people died because of his actions.3 Perhaps he should be in jail for being a mass murderer but he is not because what he did is legal.

Profiteering at the expense of the public

In the years preceding the financial crisis of 2008 there was a widespread mortgage fraud going on in the United States. Few people have gone to jail because much of what happened was morally reprehensible but legal. Financial executives and quite a few academics share this view.4 And so nothing was done. Perhaps fraud can be proven some day but that may take years if it ever succeeds.

Healthcare is another domain for fraudsters and unscrupulous corporations. Patients are often not in a position to bargain. Perhaps that is why privatised healthcare performs poorly compared to government organised healthcare. In 2015 the Dutch government introduced the Social Support Act, making municipalities responsible for assisting people who are unable to arrange the care and support they need themselves.5

The municipalities were ill-prepared so fraudsters took advantage of the situation. Most businesses are legitimate but several private contractors enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers and people in need. The Dutch prosecution is overwhelmed by fraud cases and it is not always possible to get a conviction because of loopholes in the law. Until these loopholes are fixed, several schemes remain legal.6

In the United States hospital bills are feared. A routine doctor visit for a sore throat can result in a $ 28,000 medical bill.7 And so many people in the US go without healthcare because they can’t afford it. Efforts to reform healthcare in the US haven’t succeeded, perhaps because those who send $ 28,000 bills for sore throats have plenty of money to bribe politicians into keeping the US healthcare system as it is.

Attributes of the law

First we have to recognise why it is so hard to prevent these things from happening. On the political front it is because once politicians are elected, they can do as they please until the next election. Lobbyists prey on them. Citizens have few means of correcting politicians, except in Switzerland. The Swiss have direct democracy. Swiss citizens can intervene in the political process when they see fit and fix laws if they think that is needed. Direct democracy might help to fix many of these issues.

Laws are often made with the best intentions but it is not possible to test them in a simulation to see how they will work out in practice. So once laws are enacted, unexpected problems pop up. The process of law-making is slow and it can take years before issues are fixed, at least if they are fixed at all because law-making is often political process, and that can make it rather complicated.

Even more importantly, the underlying principles of law benefit the savvy. The system of law is the way it is for good reasons. No-one should be above the law and people as well as businesses should not be subject to arbitrariness. The rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. It is agreed that the law must be prospective, well-known, general, treat everyone equal, and provide certainty. Only, in reality not everyone is treated equally.

Laws being prospective means that you can only be convicted for violation of laws in force at the time the act was committed. Legal certainty means that the law must provide you with the ability to behave properly. The law must be precise enough to allow you to foresee the possible consequences of an action. Businesses prefer laws to stable and clear. Corporations invest for longer periods of time. If laws change they may face losses. If laws are not clear, investments won’t be made, and a country may end up poorer.

With the rise of neo-liberalism came the era of shareholder capitalism. Making profits became a goal in itself. Greed was considered good. Wall Street traders and CEOs were seen as heroes even when they were just psychopaths outsourcing jobs for profit. There was little consideration for the planet, people and communities. Consumers preferred the best service at the lowest price so businesses were pressed into cutting costs and moving jobs to low-wage countries. Ethics in business were a marginal issue at best.

A bigger role for ethics

More and more people believe that ethics should play a bigger role in business. Activists pressure corporations. That may not be enough. Corporations must be competitive and can’t make real changes if that increases their costs. Levelling the playing field with regulations is an option but that may not be sufficient. The law needs a morality clause, making unethical behaviour unlawful, even though the action itself is not explicitly stated as forbidden in the law. That increases the cost of unethical behaviour.

A randomly selected jury of laypeople could make verdicts in these issues. Perhaps it is better that the legal profession stays out of these matters because it is not a legal matter in the first place. There are a few issues that come with a morality clause. Ethics in business can be a political issue. People may differ on what kind of behaviour is ethical and people may differ on what kind of unethical behaviour should be punished.

Introducing a morality clause to enforce ethical behaviour in business affects legal certainty. It will be harder for businesses to predict whether or not a specific action is legal. Business owners may incorrectly guess moral sentiment and believe they did nothing wrong. The uncertainty that comes from that might reduce the available investment capital for questionable activities. But that may not be so bad. And if immoral profits and bonuses from the past are to be confiscated, it affects the prospectiveness of the law.

International treaties like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have been set up to accommodate the unethical practises of corporations and to protect those corporations from making those unethical practises unlawful. Because that is often what reducing the regulatory barriers to trade like food safety laws, environmental legislations and banking regulations often amounts to in practice.

In most cases it can be known on beforehand what actions are unethical. For instance, investors in corporations that extract fossil fuels should know that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. They are gambling with the future humanity. So if some countries decide to outlaw the use of fossil fuels then these investors should not be compensated.

Perhaps you have serious doubts about this proposal as it upsets the very foundations of the current system of law. And I can imagine that you think: “Where does this end?” But there is something very wrong with the current system of law. Business interests often take precedence. So do you want the law to protect the psychopaths who maximise their profits at the expense of people and the planet? And do you really think that the law can be made without failures so that corporations and savvy people can’t exploit them?

Featured image: Of course the laws are always functional. Loesje.

1. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Kevin Dutton (2012).
2. The death of Sidney, Nebraska: How a hedge fund destroyed ‘a good American town’. Charles Couger, Alex Pfeiffer (3 December 2019). Fox News. [link]
3. Vulture capitalists prey on patients. The Sacramento Bee (22 September 2015). [link]
4. How Mortgage Fraud Made the Financial Crisis Worse. Binyamin Appelbaum (12 February 2015). New York Times. [link]
5. Social Support Act (Wmo 2015). Government of the Netherlands. [link]
6. Gemeenten starten onderzoek naar Albero Zorggroep. Eelke van Ark (31 October 2019). Follow The Money. [link]
7. How a routine doctor visit for a sore throat resulted in a $28,000 medical bill. CBS News (31 December 2019) [link]

Master of my own destiny?

It’s a miracle

In 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 1,600 people applied, of which they selected 200 for a series of tests. I was one of them. Before these tests began, other applicants told stories about assessments and job interviews they had gone through. The economy fared poorly, so there weren’t a lot of jobs. Many graduates were already searching for a long time. It was discouraging, so I expected to remain unemployed for quite a while.

That was not meant to be. The tests went well, and they invited me for an interview and some more psychological tests. On my way to the appointment, a guy I knew from dormitory Witbreuksweg 389-2 came sitting on the opposite seat on the train. 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 fix it for you.’ He then arranged the tie correctly.

If this event, which appeared accidental at the time, hadn’t happened, they may not have hired me. The interview and the tests went well. My misfortune because of not fitting in during my student years made me investigate cultures and cultural differences. It wasn’t hard for me to translate the expectations of Cap Gemini concerning its employees into test answers. And so, the test results made it appear as if I fitted perfectly into the corporate culture of Cap Gemini. Cap Gemini stressed I was the master of my own destiny. It was one of their company slogans.

They hired me and sent me to a junior programming class to prepare for my first assignment. My self-confidence was low as I had manipulated the test. Perhaps, I didn’t fit in. And it was shortly after the encounter with Suzanne. I was afraid to turn up because I felt unfit for the job. These feelings receded once the class had started. We learned about programming. I was often joking about a programme I was planning to write. I nicknamed it DoEverything as it was supposed to do everything, which is noteworthy because we may be part of such a programme.

My classmates often discussed what car they would choose once they were on the job. I was the only one planning to use public transport. Not surprisingly, I was not a model employee. One classmate, a cheerful guy from the Eindhoven area named Ad, expressed his amazement about the fact that I passed all the tests. ‘There were 1,600 applicants. And they picked you? It’s a miracle! How could that happen?’ Ad and I had a good laugh about it. His last name referred to Burgundy. In the Netherlands, a Burgundian lifestyle denotes enjoyment of life and good food, most often found in the vicinity of Eindhoven. And Ad radiated this lifestyle. He seemed the personification of it. His first name and the region he came from make another peculiar coincidence in light of later developments.

With regard to the work that awaits us

My first assignment was on a project at the Groningen office of Cap Gemini. I became part of a team of six with a few colourful personalities. Our customer had hired us but didn’t come up with work. For months we had nothing to do, but we had a lot of fun. And I had more fun than I ever had during my student years. Our project manager was ambitious. He organised project meetings and demanded progress reports he could present to senior management even though we did nothing. One of us was a graduated linguist, so he used his skills to produce eloquently written progress reports. For instance, he wrote, ‘With regard to the work that awaits us, we can only assume a wait-and-see attitude.’

Another guy was a hippie and had been part of the squatters’ movement. He always wore the same orange sweater. Perhaps, he had two orange sweaters, but I am not sure. He was the type of guy who might wear the same sweater for months. He often made fun of the project leader and his ambitions. At the time, Windows was gradually becoming the standard operating system. It had new features like WAF files for sounds. Some team members played around with these features, so if I started my computer, it sometimes made an unexpected noise. I had so much time on my hands that I familiarised myself with database administration. After a few months, the work came in, so the project manager was busy managing our work. He constantly demanded progress updates.

We soon realised we would miss our deadline at the end of July. Before the project manager went on a holiday, he discussed the situation with our customer and arranged a new deadline date at the end of August. Once he was gone, things suddenly went smoothly, so we met the original deadline date in July, possibly because the project manager stopped managing us. When he returned, the programmes were already running at the customer’s site. His superiors praised him for delivering a month ahead of schedule. He was on his way to a great career. Perhaps he received a bonus too.

There is room for improvement

The next job was restructuring a database at a telecommunications company. I had some database knowledge. And my managers were impressed that I had familiarised myself with database administration. And so, I did get that job. The company doubted the capabilities of their database administrator, so they hired me to reorganise one of their databases. They took this delicate task out of the hands of their own database administrator and gave it to me, a novice with little experience. And so, their database administrator didn’t like me from the start. And I didn’t follow his advice because he was a bungler. After all, that was the reason they hired me. And he was showing off his expertise by using incomprehensible language, so I often had no clue what he was talking about.

It was a highly political environment. The telecommunications company had been a government operation for a long time, but the government had just privatised it and put its shares on the stock market. The board wanted to purge the old-fashioned government bureaucrats from management positions. And the department I worked for was led by a risk-averse bureaucrat fearing for his job. If something went wrong, his head might roll. And the database administrator might have felt that his position was on the line too. He often complained about me to his manager. And the manager passed on these complaints to Cap Gemini. I also had a team leader who knew the situation and gave a more accurate depiction of what I was doing to his manager and my account manager. That is why they didn’t take me off the job.

And I caused a major accident. To reorganise the database, I needed a list of the tables in the production database and their sizes. Production is the database that matters. The data in the production database is precious. For that reason, I had no access to the production database. There are also databases for development and testing. But I needed production data, so I prepared a file named tablelist.sql containing a query that delivered the necessary data. And for once, they allowed me to access the production database using a tool called SQL Plus. I could start the script by typing @tablelist and pressing enter. I started typing @t. The system didn’t respond, so I pressed enter to see if there was any response at all. And then, I saw the system respond with table dropped, table dropped, table dropped. I cancelled it, but it was already too late. Some precious data was already gone. The operators restored a backup of the previous night, so a day’s work was lost. The database administrator had left a file named t.sql in the SQL Plus directory, dropping all the tables. It was an accident waiting to happen. And even though everyone knew that, the incident reflected poorly on me. With the benefit of hindsight, it was odd. How much bad luck can you have?

Because of the fuss, Cap Gemini sent me to a course called Professional Skills. I was not politically sensitive, and that could be a handicap when you work at the site of a customer. I was aware of that as I had a way of formulating things clearly, so I considered it a good idea. And the course taught me something. For instance, positive framing can contribute to a better atmosphere. You can call it political correctness. So if it is a complete mess, you can say, ‘There is room for improvement.’ Even though it is the same mess, it sounds a lot better. After all, a consultant’s primary responsibility is not to solve problems but to make money for Cap Gemini by making the customer happy. I let it all pass by, concentrated on my task and successfully finished the database restructuring job.

My next assignment was at the real estate department of the telecommunications company. They hired me to make database queries in their financial system for management information. Usually, managers or salespeople wanted a report promptly. It was always very important and, of course, very urgent. I called them jokingly life-and-death queries. It took a few hours to write a query, check the validity of the output, and deliver the report. By then, it often wasn’t needed anymore. The availability of the data rather than necessity created a demand for these reports. In other words, the reporting usually wasn’t that important. Over time, I found patterns in their requests, so I made a set of standard queries with parameters and delivered 90% of the reports on the spot. No one had ever thought of that, so they saw me as a genius and hired me for a longer time to work on their systems.

Hit the moving target

Cap Gemini emphasised the concept of employability. You were responsible for your employment by ensuring your skills were in demand. ‘Hit the moving target,’ is what they called it, referring to the constantly changing market for skills. You must be there where the demand for skills is. During a company meeting, they once gave us toy guns to aim at moving targets on a large projection screen in the front of the room.

Times were changing, and I had been working on the obsolete systems of the real estate department for a few years. My manager and I agreed I had to catch up with the latest developments. In 1995 and 1996, two new development tools, Oracle Developer/2000 and Designer/2000, came to the market. And so, they sent me far away from home, to Zeist, where Cap Gemini had started an Oracle Developer/2000 software factory, a marketing term for a group of people working with Oracle Developer/2000. Zeist was far from home, so I stayed in a hotel nearby. The newest tool was Oracle Designer/2000, and Oracle introduced it when I worked at the software factory. It had a promising future. Designer/2000 could generate Developer/2000 programmes, so you didn’t need to write them yourself. I gained experience with Developer/2000 and also Designer/2000. After a year, I hoped for a Designer/2000 assignment near home.

My manager agreed, but there was trouble brewing once again. An account manager came up with a prospective assignment. I knew him. He was a rough guy who only cared about his bonus. People like him might have done well in the Wild West, playing poker, staring down opponents and engaging in brawls in saloons. I told him that I specifically aimed for a Designer/2000 assignment as I had invested much time and effort in Designer/2000. He said, ‘The customer is planning to switch to Designer/2000, and you can play a role in that process.’ He didn’t disclose any additional information. His vagueness put me on high alert, and I presumed he was planning to dupe me. And so, I warned him that I would decline the job if it wasn’t Designer/2000.

I contacted my manager and discussed the situation with him. I had invested much time in Developer/2000 and Designer/2000 and had been away from home for a year. I would rather stay away from home a few months more if needed to get a proper Designer/2000 assignment. Designer/2000 was just released, so work had yet to come in. If you intend to hit a moving target, you must aim just in front of it, considering the direction of the movement. It takes time for the bullet to arrive at the target. By then, the target had already moved a bit further. So, I was already there, where the target would soon be. And there was plenty of work at the software factory. And so, I asked him if I could decline the job if it wasn’t Designer/2000. He said that sales targets were important and we all must do our bit. But I was supposed to be the master of my own destiny. Knowing that my Designer/2000 skills would soon be in high demand, I said I would look for another employer if that would be his stance. He then gave in.

But the account manager pressed on, ready to make the kill. Before the interview with the customer, another department of the telecommunications company, we once more discussed the assignment. And again, he didn’t say much more than, ‘They are planning to switch to Designer/2000, and you can play a role in that process.’ Once more, I warned him in no uncertain terms. And despite his name being Warner, he didn’t appear to understand what a warning was. Still, his name was endowed with a whiff of coincidence. Then came the interview. The department manager told me they planned to use Designer/2000, but their people would do the Designer/2000 work. They needed me to maintain their obsolete systems. And my resume was perfect as I had been looking after the old programmes of their real estate department for a long time. That was the role I could play in the process. And the account manager knew that all along.

Assuming that the account manager was ready to close the deal and seal my fate, I declined and said I wasn’t informed about the nature of the assignment. And so, I humiliated the account manager in front of the customer and made Cap Gemini lose face. The account manager probably had believed he could get away with it. Indeed, I didn’t want to cause a fuss again, but I thought Designer/2000 to be crucial for my future employment. After all, life is a bitch. If you end up with obsolete skills, you end up unemployed. A few weeks later, I did get a Designer/2000 assignment in Groningen, so close to home that I could bike to work again. Later, my manager said that my actions were unprecedented and had raised several eyebrows. On closer inspection, I could have been a model employee, and more than Cap Gemini might have hoped for.

Walking out of Paradise, once again

After moving to Sneek, I looked for a job near home. There was a vacancy for a software designer at FBTO, an insurer in Leeuwarden. It later turned out that the job included being a project leader. The insurer had split the IT department into smaller teams working for a business unit. Every three weeks, we planned our tasks for the coming three weeks, and a business unit representative determined the priorities. It worked well as we had fewer political games, like business units competing for resources. The IT department was well organised compared to what I had seen elsewhere. This way of running IT departments has become commonplace two decades later.

The team knew what they were doing, so I felt redundant as a project leader. There is no point in managing people who know what to do. The atmosphere was friendly. I had grown accustomed to grim conditions, so I felt out of place. I could have gotten used to the friendliness but not the job itself. All those documents, meetings, and priorities were boring. Building information systems was much more fun. I was qualified for Oracle, but FBTO didn’t use Oracle. I decided to try my luck as a freelance Oracle Designer/2000 developer and database administrator. And so, I walked out of Paradise again, but this time out of my own will. After all, Cap Gemini had taught me that I was the master of my own destiny. But an ominous incident would soon suggest that I was not.

Latest revision: 7 January 2023

Featured image: Cap Gemini logo