Chapter 6: Friday, September 12 – The Unicorn Project

CHAPTER 6

• Friday, September 12

Friday goes by in a blur for Maxine as the emergency release preparations continue. She sees endless mayhem as Dev, QA, and Ops try to line up hundreds of moving pieces for the deployment. Dwayne was right, she thinks. And it’s too late to change her bet to Sunday in the betting pool.

At five p.m. the release starts on schedule. There are rumors of last-ditch attempts to call it off, because William, Chris, and Bill are nowhere to be seen. These hopes are crushed when an email comes out from Sarah and Steve, making it very clear that the release is to proceed as scheduled.

Maxine is still at the office at ten that evening. By now, there’s a sense of genuine panic that things are going very, very wrong. So spectacularly wrong that even Dwayne, who was the most pessimistic in the Phoenix release betting pool, mutters to Maxine, “This is going worse than I thought it would.”

That’s when Maxine becomes genuinely frightened.

By midnight, it’s clear that a database migration is going to take five hours to complete instead of five minutes, with no way to stop it or restart it. Maxine tries to be helpful, but she isn’t familiar enough with the Phoenix systems to know where she would be the most useful.

In contrast, Brent is being pulled every which way, needed for just about every problem, from the huge database meltdown in progress to helping people fix their configuration files. Seeing this, Maxine organizes a team to play goalie, protecting Brent from interruptions and fielding problems that don’t require him.

Maxine notices something else. There must be two hundred people responsible for some portion of the release, but for most of them, it’s only about five minutes of work. So, they have to wait around for hours to perform their little part in this excruciatingly long, complex, and dangerous operation. The rest of their time is spent watching and … waiting.

Even in the middle of this crisis, people are just sitting around, waiting.

By two a.m. everyone realizes there is a very real risk that they are going to break every point-of-sale register in every one of the nearly thousand stores, knocking Parts Unlimited back into the Stone Age. And with all the promotion that Marketing has been doing, the stores will be filled with angry customers unable to buy what they were promised.

Brent asks her to join a SWAT team to figure out how to speed up the database queries, still nearly a thousand times slower than they need to be in order to handle the expected load when stores open up later that morning.

For hours, she works with a bunch of Phoenix developers and Ops DBAs with her IDE and browser open. They are stunned when they discover that clicking the product category drop-down box floods the database with 8,000 SQL queries.

They are still working on fixing this when Wes pokes his head in the room, “Brent, we’ve got a problem.”

“I’m busy, Wes,” Brent replies, not even looking up from his laptop. “No, this is serious,” Wes says. “The prices have disappeared from at least half of our products on the e-commerce site and mobile apps. Where the price should be displayed, either nothing shows up or it says ‘null.’ Screenshots are in the #launch channel.”

Maxine blanches, pulling up the screenshot. This is much more serious than slow database queries, she thinks.

“Dammit, I bet it’s another bad upload from the pricing team,” Brent says after staring at his screen for several moments. Maxine leans over as Brent pulls up various administrative screens and product tables—some are inside of Phoenix and others on systems she doesn’t recognize.

Maxine takes notes as Brent pulls up log files, runs SQL queries against a production database, pulls up more tables in various applications … Only when he opens up a terminal window and logs into a server does Maxine ask, “What are you doing now?”

“I need to inspect the CSV file that they uploaded into the app,” he says. “I think I can find one in the temporary directory on one of the application servers.” Maxine nods.

When Brent squints at his screen, Maxine does as well. It’s a commaseparated text file with column names in the first row—product SKU, wholesale price, list price, sale promotion price, promotion start date … “It looks fine,” Brent mutters.

Maxine agrees. She says, “Can you copy that file into the chat room? I’d like to take a look at it.”

“Good idea,” he says. She imports it into Excel and several other of her favorite tools. It looks fine.

While Wes tries to get one of the development managers on the phone, Brent tries to figure out what is going wrong. It’s almost thirty minutes later when he curses. “I can’t believe it. It’s a BOM!”

Seeing Maxine’s confused expression, he says, “A byte-order mark!”

“No way,” mutters Maxine, pulling up the file again, this time in a binary file editor. She stares at her screen, stunned that she missed it. A BOM is an invisible first character that some programs put in a CSV file to indicate whether it’s big-endian or little-endian. She’s been bitten by this before.

Years ago, a colleague gave her a file exported from the SPSS statistical analysis application, and she spent half a day trying to figure out why her application couldn’t load it as expected. She finally discovered that the file had a BOM, which got interpreted as part of the first column name, which caused all her programs to fail. Which is almost certainly what is happening here, she thinks.

Any intellectual satisfaction she feels at understanding this particular puzzle quickly disappears. She asks Brent, “This has happened before?”

“You have no idea,” Brent says, rolling his eyes. “Different problem every time, depending on who generated the file. The most common problems lately are zero-length files, or files with no rows in them. And it’s not just the pricing team—we have data problems like this all over the place.”

Maxine is appalled. The first thing she would have done right away is write some automated tests to ensure that all input files are correctly formed before they allow them to corrupt their production database, and that the correct number of rows are actually in the file.

“Let me guess. You’re the only one who knows how to correct these bad uploads?” Maxine asks.

“Yep,” she hears Wes say from behind her. “All roads lead to Brent.” Maxine jots down more notes, determined to investigate this and do something about it later.

It’s almost two hours later before the pricing tables are corrected. Because of what Brent said, Maxine double-checks the file and is certain that it’s missing a significant number of product entries. And because the pricing team wasn’t part of the release, no one knows how to get a hold of them in the middle of the night (or early morning as is seems to be). Maxine adds some more things to her list of things that she’ll insist on building so that this won’t happen again.

At seven a.m., Maxine rejoins the database team. They’re still working on speeding up queries—but it’s too late. An announcement is made that stores are beginning to open on the East Coast.

The Phoenix release is still nowhere near complete. “We’re fourteen hours into the launch, and the missile is still stuck in the tube,” Dwayne says glumly.

Maxine doesn’t know whether to laugh, smirk, or throw up—when missiles are stuck in the launch tube, it’s a very dangerous scenario, because at that point the missile is already armed and too dangerous to approach.

At eight a.m., they are still hours away from having a working point-of-sale system. Sarah and her team are forced to train every store manager on how to use carbon paper imprints, and some stores are forced to only accept cash or personal checks.

For Maxine, the rest of Saturday goes by in a blur. She’s unable to go home. The Phoenix rollout was more than just a spectacular outage … it was the most amazing example of production data loss Maxine has ever seen.

Somehow, they managed to corrupt incoming customer orders. Tens of thousands of customer orders were lost, and an equal number of customer orders were somehow duplicated—sometimes three or four times. Hundreds of order administrators and accountants were mobilized, reconciling database entries against paper order slips being emailed or faxed from stores.

Shannon texts everyone in the Rebellion, horrified that boxes of customer credit card numbers are being transmitted in the clear—but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another blip in the Phoenix disaster.

At three p.m., Kurt texts everyone:

Not to put light on this big pile of suck, but Dwayne wins the betting pool. Congratulations, Dwayne.

Dwayne replies:

Not worth it! FUUUUUUUUUUUU …

He posts an image of a burning tire fire.

By Saturday night, Maxine finally manages to go home and sleep for six hours before coming back to the office. Dwayne was right, this will go down in the record books, she thinks glumly.

On Monday morning, Maxine is shocked to see her reflection in a mirror. She looks like crap, just like everyone around her—bags under her eyes, hair stringy. Long gone are her carefully pressed blazers. Now it’s jeans and a wrinkled jacket to cover up a stain on her equally wrinkled blouse. Today she doesn’t look classy. Like everyone else, she looks like she’s recovering from a hangover, having slept in her outfit from the night before.

Since Saturday morning, their e-commerce site has been continually crashing under the unprecedented levels of customer traffic. In a status update meeting, Sarah crowed about what a great job Marketing did promoting Phoenix, then demanded that IT pull their weight.

“She’s unbelievable,” Shannon mutters. “She created this whole disaster! Is anyone ever going to call her on this?” Maxine just shrugs.

The carnage is unbelievable. Most of the in-store systems are still down—not just the point-of-sale registers, but nearly all of the back-office applications that support the in-store staff.

For reasons that continue to mystify everyone, even the corporate website and email servers are having problems, further hampering their ability to get critical information to people who need it—not everyone has access to the developer chat rooms.

In situations like this, technology failures cascade through the organization, like water flooding through a sinking submarine.

Trying to stay alert, Maxine goes to get more coffee from the kitchen. Dwayne’s there doing the same thing. They nod at each other, and he says, “Did you hear we have hundreds of people who can’t even get into their buildings because their keycards won’t work?”

“What?!” Maxine exclaims, exhausted but laughing. She says, “I was just talking to someone who’s trying to figure out why a bunch of batch jobs aren’t running. He’s even saying payroll might be delayed again—umm, I’ll leave that to other people to fix,” she concludes with a small laugh.

“Huh,” he muses. “I wonder if we managed to knock out an interface to an HR application. That might explain these strange errors. We managed to screw up everything else.”

All day during the recovery efforts, she hears questions like: Why are all those transactions failing? Where are they failing? How did it get into that state? Of the three ideas that might fix the problem, which one should we try? Will it make it worse? We think we fixed it, but is it really fixed?

Once again, Maxine’s sensibilities are offended by how entangled all these systems are with each other. It’s so difficult to understand any part of the system in isolation.

At times, it was difficult not to feel panicked. Earlier in the day, it looked like the Parts Unlimited e-commerce site was being attacked by an external party actively stealing credit card numbers. It took over an hour for Shannon and the security team to send out an email concluding that it was an application error—if someone refreshed the shopping cart at the wrong time, the full credit card number and three-digit CVV code of a random customer was displayed.

The good news was that it wasn’t an external hack. The bad news was that it was a genuine cardholder data exposure event and likely another reason to be front-page news. All the attention and ridicule exploding on social media only added to everyone’s stress.

Taking a break, Maxine walks back to her desk. She sees the developer who was so unconcerned with the release last week. He’s wearing fresh clothes and appears to be well-rested.

“Rough weekend, I’m guessing?” he says to Maxine.

Maxine stares at him, speechless. He’s still working on features for the next release. The only big change for him is that all his meetings have been canceled because most people have been sucked into the Phoenix crisis.

He turns back to his screen to work on his piece of the puzzle, not caring that none of the pieces actually fit together. Or that the entire puzzle has caught on fire over the weekend, along with the house and the entire neighborhood.

From:

Alan Perez (Operating Partner, Wayne-Yokohama Equity Partners)

To:

Dick Landry (CFO), Sarah Moulton (SVP of Retail Operations)

Cc:

Steve Masters (CEO), Bob Strauss (Board Chair)

Date:

8:15 a.m., September 15

Subject:

Phoenix Release **CONFIDENTIAL**

Sarah and Dick,

I’ve been reading the news headlines about the Phoenix release. Not a great start. Again, I question whether software is a competency Parts Unlimited can create. Maybe we explore outsourcing IT?

Sarah, you mentioned the large number of developers you’ve contracted to help. How long until they are fully contributing? When you grow a sales team, it takes time for new salespeople to carry full quota capacity. Can new developers really be onboarded fast enough to make a difference? Or are we just throwing good money after bad?

Sincerely, Alan

From:

Sarah Moulton (SVP, Retail Operations)

To:

All IT Employees

Cc:

All Company Executives

Date:

10:15 a.m., September 15

Subject:

New production change policy

Thank you for all your hard work helping deliver Phoenix to our customers. This is a badly needed step for us to regain parity in the marketplace.

However, due to the harm that we did to our customers because of unanticipated problems caused by poor judgment exercised by certain members of the IT organization, all production changes must be approved by me, as well as Chris Allers and Bill Palmer.

Changes made without approval will result in disciplinary action.

Thank you, Sarah Moulton

Maxine reads the email from Sarah. There’s a new, maybe even sinister, dynamic creeping into the Phoenix Project. In each of the outage calls and crisis management meetings, senior leaders seem to be going out of their way to posture about how they did their job but other people didn’t do their jobs, sometimes subtly, sometimes very blatantly.

While the redshirts battle to contain the raging engine fire that is threatening the entire ship, the bridge officers continue to cover their asses, Maxine observes. Some are even using the disaster to their political advantage, often to punish individual engineers or entire departments for supposed dereliction of duty.

Apparently, no one in IT leadership is safe—Maxine hears whispers that both Chris and Bill, as the heads of Dev and Ops, are in jeopardy of being fired, and there are rumors of all of IT being outsourced again. However, most believe William, as head of QA, is most likely to be axed.

Which is bullshit, thinks Maxine. William was assigned to head up the release team less than twenty-four hours before the release! No one can get fired for trying to avert a disaster, right?

“It’s like the TV show Survivor,” says Shannon. “All the technology executives are just trying to last one more episode. Everyone is freaking out. Steve has been demoted, and Sarah is trying to convince everyone that she can save the company.”

Later that afternoon, Brent invites Maxine to join a meeting. “We’ve got nearly sixty thousand erroneous and/or duplicate orders in the database, and we’ve got to fix them so that the finance people can get accurate revenue reports.”

Maxine helps the group wrangle the problem for an hour. At the end, once they find a solution, one of the Marketing managers says, “This is above my paygrade. Sarah is super-sensitive about changes right now. I’ve got to get her approval.”

Ah, the Square in action, just like Cranky Dave described. But now, decisions that might have needed only to go “up and over one” now have to go “up and over two.” Now, all product managers need to run everything by Sarah. Someone mutters, “Don’t hold your breath—she never responds right away.”

Great, Maxine thinks. Sarah has effectively paralyzed everyone in this room even further.

Throughout the day, all decisions and escalations quickly grind to a standstill, even for emergencies, which Maxine didn’t expect. She discovers why: every manager insists on being a part of the communication plan. Why? They want to hear any bad news first, so they don’t appear out of touch and can massage any messages up the chain.

Maxine is sharing this observation with Kurt when his phone buzzes. Seeing his sour expression, she asks, “What’s up?”

“It’s Sarah,” he says. “She says she’s getting conflicting information from Wes and me about the corrupted order data. I need to spend thirty minutes explaining it to her when I’ve got two actual emergencies going on.”

Kurt storms off before she can even wish him good luck. Maxine shakes her head. The lack of trust and too much information flowing around is causing things to go slower and slower.

On Tuesday, Maxine joins a meeting led by Wes about more mysterious, intermittent outages for both the e-commerce site and the point-of-sale systems.

Sarah has been sending out emails, sometimes in all caps, reminding people how important this is. But everyone already knows how important this is—processing orders is one of the most important functions for any retailer.

The room is almost empty, even though this is a Sev 1 outage.

Apparently, everyone has had to go home sick. The Phoenix release forced people to work long hours together in close proximity all day and night, and with little sleep. Now everyone is dropping like flies. Of the people needed on this call, no one is healthy enough to be in the office. In fact, only two people are healthy enough to even be on the conference line.

Maxine looks up when she hears Sarah shouting, “What can you do about this? Who can fix this? Our store managers need our help! Don’t people realize how important this is?”

Maxine stares at Sarah in disbelief, noting that she looks tired, not her usual immaculate self. Even Sarah isn’t escaping the Phoenix carnage completely unscathed, despite her Teflon-like ability to avoid getting blamed for nearly anything in her three-year tenure at Parts Unlimited.

Wes throws up his hands. “What can we do about it? Nothing. The entire application support team is out sick. Brent just went home sick. The DBAs are out sick. Even though we’ve got the supremely competent Maxine here, she’s like me—we don’t know enough about the service to do anything except reboot the systems, which is what the support teams are already doing.”

Maxine sees that Wes is sick too—he’s congested and looks terrible. Bags underneath his red eyes, hoarse voice … she suddenly wonders if she looks as bad as he does.

“This is not acceptable, Wes,” says Sarah. “The business depends on us. The store managers depend on us. We need to do something!”

“Well, these were the risks we warned you about when you proposed proceeding with the Phoenix launch—but you emailed saying that we ‘need to break some eggs to make omelets,’ right? We’re doing everything we can, but unless you want to help reboot some servers, I’m telling you there’s nothing we can do.”

Wes continues, “But here’s something that we should talk about: How do we keep our people healthy enough so they can actually do their jobs? And how do we keep them happy enough so they don’t quit? Chris says two of his key engineers quit in the last week. I’ve lost two people on the Ops side too, and there’s a good chance I may lose three more. Who knows how many more are actively looking?

“And when that happens, we will truly be up shit creek, because then we’ll have empty meetings like this all the time,” Wes says with a halfhearted laugh that turns into coughs.

He grabs his laptop and starts walking out the door. Before he leaves, he says, “Sarah, I know you think it’s strange that we have no one left on the bench to solve this important problem, but that’s the way it is. If you want to help, learn to be a doctor or learn some middleware. In the meantime, just stay out the way because we’re doing our best.”

Maxine likes the way Wes rolls—he’s fearless and he always says what he thinks.

She makes a mental note to ask the Rebellion about recruiting Wes.

Thinking about the Rebellion, she realizes how important that group is. To her, it’s a beacon of hope. Maxine knows she may be manic and loopy from lack of sleep, but the Rebellion has assembled some of the best engineers in the company. And they could liberate everybody from … from … all of this.

We need to keep the Rebellion together and keep this important work going, she thinks.

She texts Kurt right away:

No matter what, we cannot cancel our Dockside meeting on Thursday.

His reply shows up right away.

Great minds think alike. In fact, I have a surprise for everyone. See you in two days!

By Thursday, things have stabilized substantially. The most glaring defects and performance problems in Phoenix have been fixed. And it helps that customer traffic is way, way down. Who wants to go to a store or website that can’t take orders? The result is that it’s no longer necessary for everyone to work all night. Maxine slept in until ten this morning. As she was driving into work, she realized how much she was looking forward to the Dockside meeting that evening.

As promised, Kurt texted everyone in the Rebellion:

I’ll be a little late. Dwayne and Maxine, please run the standard agenda, including the Phoenix environment build. I will be bringing a very special guest.

Maxine is pretty sure everyone will be there tonight.

But despite getting some sleep, she doesn’t feel well. She desperately hopes she is not getting whatever illness decimated her fellow co-workers. Despite that, she is very glad to be working on the Phoenix builds again.

That evening, when she arrives at the Dockside, Maxine’s excited to see everyone. She wants to find out how to get a Rebellion sticker for her laptop and to trade war stories. She’s surprised to see that everyone looks angry and dejected.

Throwing her jacket over the back of a chair, she says cheerily, “Hi, everyone! What’s got everyone so grouchy?”

Dwayne looks at her. “Read the email that was just sent out. They fired William.”

From:

Chris Allers (VP Development)

To:

All IT Employees

Date:

4:58 p.m., September 18

Subject:

Personnel changes

Effective immediately, Peter Kilpatrick (Front-End Dev Manager) will be leaving the company, and William Mason (QA Director) will be on a leave of absence. We especially appreciate all their contributions.

Please direct all front-end Dev emails to Randy and all QA-related emails to me.

Thank you, Chris

Maxine slumps as she reads the message. The witch hunt has begun. Adam shakes his head angrily. “I wasn’t a huge fan of William,” he says, “but to blame him for everything is wrong.”

In Chris’ email there’s no mention about his own culpability in the Phoenix disaster. And even though Maxine doesn’t believe in punishment or scapegoating, it’s doubly unfair that all the blame is being put on the technology organization, and no one from the business or product side is being held accountable.

Cranky Dave looks up from his phone, disgusted. “Ditto for Peter—he was just doing what the business managers demanded. What a complete shit show.”

“This is so wrong,” Shannon mutters. “I don’t suppose it would help to write a petition or anything, right? You know, lodge our protest about their firing?”

Adam says, “No one who matters is being held responsible! We should …”

He suddenly stops talking, staring slack-jawed at something behind Maxine. “Holy shit …” he finally says. Everyone next to Adam is also looking shocked at whatever is behind her.

Maxine turns around and sees Kurt walking through the entrance.

Next to him is Kirsten, the director of project management.

“My God,” Maxine hears Adam say. He looks frightened, closing his laptop and standing up, as if he’s going to flee the scene.

“Oh, for Chrissakes, sit back down, Adam,” says Maxine. “This isn’t like the secret police showing up. Not one of us has done anything wrong—have some dignity.”

Cranky Dave laughs nervously, but like everyone else, he’s already closed his laptop, as if he has something to hide.

Kirsten is wearing a fancy blazer, two steps up from Maxine’s usual casual business garb and a full four steps up from the hoodies, T-shirts, and bowling shirts worn by the other engineers around the table. People in the bar are staring, clearly wondering who invited the management suit here.

Maxine knows that she looks slightly out of place at the Dockside, but wow, Kirsten looks way out of place, like she was on the way to an event for senior law partners but had a flat tire while driving by with a dead cell phone and had to come in to find help.

Looking around, Kurt smiles and says, “For those of you who don’t know Kirsten, she leads Project Management, which is undoubtedly the most trusted organization at Parts Unlimited, despite their association with us technology people.” Kurt laughs. “All of the most important company initiatives go through Kirsten and her project management clerics, and she routinely briefs Dick Landry, our CFO, on how they’re going.”

This is true, Maxine thinks. Kirsten is truly the high priestess of order and discipline. She assigns the score of red, yellow, or green to each major initiative of the organization, which can have career-catapulting or career-ending consequences for the people involved. Besides Sarah and the VP of sales, Kirsten is the person most mentioned by the CFO in his Town Halls.

Sitting, Kirsten pours herself a beer from the pitcher on the table and then pours a glass for Kurt. Kurt introduces everyone to Kirsten and then gestures at Maxine, “Maxine is the latest addition to our elite group of rebels. She was exiled to the Phoenix Project as punishment for the payroll outage, and of course, her vast talents have been completely wasted ever since. That is, until we recruited her to help overthrow the uncaring, ancient, powerful existing order … oh, um …” Kurt suddenly looks embarrassed, realizing Kirsten is part of that order. “Present company excepted, of course,” he finishes.

Kirsten merely raises her glass in response.

Kurt continues, “It turns out that Maxine, in her boredom and search for meaning, began working on creating repeatable Phoenix builds, something that has eluded the Phoenix teams for well over a year. We believe in many great and virtuous things, but one thing we all agree on is that getting builds going again is one of the most urgent and important engineering practices we need right now. Once we get continuous builds going, we enable automated testing. We get automated testing, we can make changes quicker, with more confidence, and without having to depend on hundreds of hours of manual testing. And that, I believe, is the critical first step for how we can deliver better value, safer, faster, and happier.

“Without continuous builds, we are like a car manufacturer without an assembly line, where anyone can do whatever they want, independent of the plant goals,” he continues. “We need to discover problems only when we are in the build or testing process, not during deployment or production.

“I’ve wanted to own this for a year, but my boss, uh, rather, my recently departed ex-boss, didn’t think it mattered. So, I’ve been taking people off my team to work on it in secret and seeking out the best engineers in the company who are willing and able to help. And Maxine has been a tremendous help in an amazingly short amount of time,” he adds.

Kurt pauses. “Uh, let’s all raise a glass to William—he and I had our differences, but he certainly didn’t deserve to take the blame for the entire Phoenix fiasco.”

Maxine raises her glass, as everyone else does the same. She takes the time to clink glasses with everyone around the table.

Looking at Kirsten, she says, “It sounds crazy, Kirsten, but I really think this group can make a big difference. I’ve seen developers wait for months to get a Dev environment. The lack of environments and centralized builds slow us down in countless ways. In fact, most Dev teams eventually stop waiting for environments or builds and just write code in isolation, without caring whether it actually works with the system as a whole.”

Maxine continues, “Look at what happened last week with the Phoenix release. Better engineering practices would have prevented so much of that. What a waste …”

“We all agree with Maxine,” Cranky Dave says. “But, Kirsten, uh, what in the world are you doing here?”

Kirsten laughs. “I’ve long harbored a suspicion that how we manage technology at this company is not working. And it’s not just the Phoenix release catastrophe. Look at all the things we need from Phoenix that are still years away on the project plan.

“Kurt has been telling me for months about the work the Rebellion is doing. But my aha moment was when Kurt pointed out that we’ve somehow created a system where hundreds of engineers are unable to get simple things done without an incredible amount of communication and coordination,” she explains. “Sure, it’s our job to safeguard the most important projects in the company. But ideally, everyone should be able to get what they need done without any help from us. Somehow, I think Project Management has turned into an army of paper pushers, being dragged into every single task because of all the dependencies.

“We track the work of nearly three hundred people working on the various parts of Phoenix. But, the real effort is even larger,” she continues. “You’d think we have thirty teams of ten people, with each team able to get things done independently. But at times, it’s like we have only one team of three hundred people … Or maybe three hundred teams of one. In either case, something is very wrong …”

She turns to Kurt. “What was that term you used? Watermelon projects? Green on the outside, but red on the inside? That’s what every one of our IT projects is these days,” Kirsten observes wryly.

She continues, “I’ve been here for fifteen years, and we’ve been playing this game of outsourcing and insourcing IT the whole time. The last time around, the CIO proclaimed that Parts Unlimited was ‘no longer in the people business,’ if you can believe that, and outsourced everything. We eventually brought most of it back in-house, but everything we got back was in worse shape than ever. And we’ve lost the capability to do some of even the most basic things ourselves. Last year, we had to make a simple schema change for our data warehouse. We put out the request to our normal list of outsourcing partners. It took them about three weeks to get an estimate back to us. They said the work would take about ten thousand hours to complete,” she says. “Before we outsourced IT, this was something we could have done in a couple of hours.”

Maxine does the math in her head. From her consulting days, she knows one fully loaded engineer works about two thousand hours per year—that’s forty hours per week, fifty-two weeks per year, if they don’t take any vacation. She bursts out laughing. “That’s five engineers working full-time for a year, just to make a database column change?! That’s something I could do in fifteen minutes!”

“Yep,” Kurt says, with a sad smile. “The data warehouse change requires work from two or three different outsourcers. You’d need to pull together meetings from the account managers from each of those teams. Each account manager would require a change fee and a feasibility study. It takes weeks to get all the technical people to agree upon a change plan, and even then, the tickets bounce back and forth for weeks. It takes a super-heroic effort to actually get the change made.”

Dwayne laughs loudly. “You think that’s bad? That’s nothing! We used to have three networking switches in all of our manufacturing plants. One for internal plant operations, one for employees and guest WiFi, and one for all our equipment vendors that need to phone home to their mothership.

“A couple of years ago, probably during budgeting season, some bean counter looked at those three networking vendors and decided to consolidate them down to one switch. Sort of makes sense, right?” he continues.

“So without asking anyone, they went ahead and did it. And not just in one plant, but in a bunch of the plants. They replaced the three switches with one bigger, beefier switch, and then moved all plant traffic onto it,” Dwayne says. “But what they didn’t know was that they had three separate outsourcers managing the three different networks. So now all three outsourcers who used to work on their own separate switches had to work on one switch and were suddenly stepping on each other’s toes all the time.

“Within a week, one of the manufacturing plants had their entire network knocked offline—absolutely nothing from inside the plant could talk with the outside world. No one could get plant scheduling information, no one could send out replenishment orders, equipment couldn’t get maintenance updates … All interfaces were dead!” Dwayne continues, still clearly in awe of the scale of the outage.

“The only thing that worked was the fax machine. Everyone from every department had to wait in line to send out things like weekly production reports to management, orders for raw materials …” Dwayne says.

Maxine bursts out laughing. “I remember that—it was incredible. We had to buy some USB printers from the local office supply store for a couple of systems that couldn’t connect to the network printers. It was like going back to the 1970s for almost a week.”

Adam mutters from across the table, “Yeah, just like we did to the in-store systems this weekend.”

Dwayne takes another drink of beer and leans back, enjoying having everyone’s attention. “You’re probably wondering why it took a week to restore service. Well, that entire time, no one took responsibility for what happened. All three outsourcers denied that it was them, even when we presented them the log files that clearly showed that one of the them had disabled everyone else’s accounts. Apparently someone got tired of having their changes trampled on by the other two, so they just locked them out.”

Everyone roars in laughter, but Maxine’s jaw drops.

Dwayne continues, “That entire week all three outsourcers kept blaming each other, and the network stayed down for days. It escalated all the way to Steve. Yep. The CEO. Even after he got all the CEOs of all three outsourcers on the phone together, it still took almost twenty-four hours for the network to be restored.”

As everyone jeers, Maxine says slowly, “That’s so interesting. Consolidating network switches isn’t inherently a bad idea. Before, three teams were able to work independently on their own networks. And when they were all put on one network switch, suddenly they were coupled together, unable to work independently, having to communicate and coordinate in order to not interfere with each other, right?”

With awe in her voice, she continues, “You know, after they got put onto one switch, I bet those teams needed to create a master schedule with all of their work on it. And I’m even betting that they needed to bring in project managers where they probably didn’t need them before.

“Holy cow,” Maxine continues, on a roll. “They did it to reduce costs, but surely, in the end, it was more expensive for everyone all around. And I bet it took everyone longer to do their work, with everyone having to communicate, coordinate, get approvals, with project managers shuffling and deconflicting all the work.

“Oh, my God. It’s just like the Phoenix Project!” she exclaims.

Silence falls upon the table as everyone stares at Maxine in a mix of horror and dawning realization.

“You mean everything that’s wrong with the Phoenix Project we did to ourselves?” Shannon asks.

Kirsten looks rattled, brow furrowed, but says nothing. “Yes,” says Maxine. “I think we did it to ourselves.”

“You are correct, Maxine. You are truly on the cusp of understanding the magnitude and scale of the challenges that await you,” a voice says from behind Maxine.