When outsourcing goes bad – a cautionary tale

Back when I was working in a corporate communications office the buzz-word was ‘outsourcing’. Anything other than ‘core business’ (which was never fully defined) could be dispensed with in favour of ‘service providers’.

That didn’t mean the work went away, but this ‘rightsizing’ did mean that everybody’s job was suddenly under threat, as loyal and experienced employees were swapped for temporary contractors with no vested interest in the place. But this world of endlessly churning ‘service providers’ with no knowledge of the systems and no interest in the corporate business, we were told, was the permanent future. They were better than experienced employees. Cheaper once the accountants had finished doing a jig over the numbers. Fresher. More skilled. More efficient because they were, you know, contractors. How stupid everybody was not to think of this earlier!

The cycle came and went, but in the end it came back and the organisation’s computing department was mostly ‘outsourced’. A new manager openly told long-standing staff there would be blood on the floor, and proceeded to get rid of the teams supporting a large network and custom software. Many years of knowledge and intimate familiarity with systems were thrown out in favour of a physically absent company that provided everything ‘virtually’, including software updates.

Where did this go? The computer I got out of the ‘modernisation’ lasted as long as the first update. Then it blue-screened. To get help I had to raise a ticket which would be attended to in a contracted period. This required me to log on to the computer.

Yah. Logging on to a blue-screened device. But they’d thought of that. I could phone the ‘help desk’ that remained in the building. Except that the phone directory was part of the blue-screened computer (in fact the phone was physically interpolated on the network cable, dropping the connection speed from 100 to 10 mbps due to phone hardware constraints – another change that was somehow ‘better’).

I went for a walk to the help desk – residual computing department staff who were very good to deal with and extremely helpful, if demoralised. The computer was re-imaged, something they could still do. Ran perfectly until the next update. Then it broke – same problem.  That went through two or three repeats with the same result. Every update. Every time. Nobody could find out why. The software was standard. All the hardware checked out.

My colleagues told me it was obvious the fault was mine, as only an idiot couldn’t run a computer. Yup, as soon as I got this new office computer, my years of experience in that field with DOS, Apple Mac, and Windows of all flavours – which included custom-build computers at home – were instantly forgotten in favour of ignorant bumbling that consistently broke the automated update of a system that was locked off from users. Well, quite.

Eventually one of the help desk folk tracked the problem down to the all-new, all-shining outsource company. Of course. The computer had two drives, C and D. One was the small(ish) solid-state drive to carry the system, the other a spinning disk for data.  However, these had been labelled the wrong way around when the computer was built by the outsource provider. Thus Windows was installed on D. However, the service provider’s update service defaulted to C. On restart to complete the update the boot-strapper looked for the operating system on C, couldn’t find it, and blue-screened. Nor would it then boot from D.

There was an obvious fix, but the contract relationship with the ‘outsource service provider’ was so utterly dysfunctional it was impossible to get them to attend to it. Instead I ended up with a ‘temporary computer’, which I still had when I left the place.

Looking back I can only laugh. These days, running my writing business, I have my own computer services department in-house. Me. Cheaper, highly efficient, and I also get to choose the coffee.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

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