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Addicted to Being Grumpy

Addicted to Being Grumpy

The state of IT: one Grumpy Old Man's opinion.

Time to lower the tone - an occasional privilege for being permitted to write on the last pages each month. It struck me the other day that addiction is addictive, and my particular source of pleasure of late has not been alcohol, cigarettes or women but the delight of being mid-40s and grumpy.

Inspiration has come from the recently-concluded TV series, Grumpy Old Men, in which a bunch of British tier-three celebrities, with the exception of Bob Geldof and Will Self, have a good grumble.

Their wisdom about the truly important - ranging from political correctness, the stigma of having a smoke, flared jeans, the flaunting of pierced belly buttons by young women, and mind-bending IKEA puzzles in easy-to-assemble flat-packs - has caused me to enjoy being grumpy about technology and all who sail in her. Or, all who sell in her.

A common source of consternation is the silver-tongued consultant who happily takes your money and dismisses really important enquiries, such as "exactly what are you going to do?", with a dismissive "that's the wrong question to ask" response. Your approach is not theirs, and therefore the context of your question is wrong. It is not so much the point they make but the superior way in which they evade you.

CIOs have plenty of reason to be grumpy, too. The fact that so many walk into work each day believing their colleagues have little or no appreciation of IT's sacrifice to the cause is enough to make even a saint grumble.

A consequence of this lack of appreciation is that an increasing number of organizations are forcing their CIOs to report directly to the chief financial officer - an individual whose reputation for being grumpy probably surpasses all.

CFOs also have a habit for asking the wrong question, such as "how much is this going to cost?". Of course, the obvious lines of interrogation are about benefits and value, but that doesn't fill in a cell of a spreadsheet, does it? And we all exist so Finance can complete its spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets themselves are enough to send anyone into a grumpy state. Should the world end in holocaust, I suspect the spreadsheet will survive with the cockroach. They deserve each other.

CIOs have other concerns, too, that can spoil their day. Staff movements are increasing and wage pressure is becoming an issue for some skills. Losing your best people is never fun and it costs a fortune to find replacements. Thankfully, headhunters are such nice, generous people that the quest for new staff is always a pleasure. Oh, it's not . . . they're not . . . Three months' salary as payment for some kid out of university with no experience - now there's a reason to get grumpy.

Job security is another issue to start a CIO mumblin' and grumblin'. The average lifespan of a CIO can be as fast as the technology they provide. There seems to be a conveyor belt of people moving on, forced out by management frustration of technology, corporate cutbacks, global realignment or goodness knows what. It all adds up to require a CIO to be brave, resilient and preferably have their mortgage paid.

Each CIO has their own way ensuring some sanity stays in their day. One new government CIO has made a decision to not see anyone from outside their organization. This supports my belief there is an anti-social tendency among CIOs. Many will accept business cards but never give out their own, despite the obvious etiquette. Government staff are the worst for this. No doubt this behaviour is due in part to a survival instinct for someone with a budget of millions of dollars to protect from marauding vendors.

Mustn't Grumble

Probably no group can make a CIO grumpier than the vendors with their integrated marketing solutions, dodgy pricing, even dodgier service and roller-coaster billing that makes it impossible to stay in the good books of the finance department.

If there is one thing that sets me off, it is vendor-speak; that diatribe about creating organizational value and gaining competitive advantage from their one-stop shop of standards-based, real-time integrated solutions in a heterogeneous, on-demand environment. (In other words, software to stick on your computers).

We all know they simply want to make the biggest sale, for the least effort and then have the nerve to send over some ditz from their marketing department to write a case study that helps them sell more on the back of your business. So, the next time you hear a salesman give you that spiel, ask them to spell "heterogeneous" and see what you get - even grumps are allowed some fun.

Another annoying vendor phrase is "killer ap". It gets rolled out with so many product releases in countless technology areas. Yet there has never been a product that has killed anything. Types of technologies such as e-mail do, but products don't. The latest killer claim comes from Microsoft, a gold mine of reasons to be grumpy. It reckons its new Win Mobile 5.0 (codename Magneto) is the BlackBerry "killer". Tell someone who cares.

The BlackBerry gets me grumpy, too. It is one of the most overrated gadgets around; not because of its utility but its market penetration. It is spoken of as if it is ubiquitous. In fact it has only 3 million users - most of them itinerant executives - and operates in just eight countries.

The BlackBerry is clever, it's probably having its day right now and will eventually become extinct, not because of anything Microsoft does, but because of the impending dominance of mobile phones. The iPod will go the same way.

While Microsoft or mobile phones may kill the BlackBerry, I doubt anything will stop the behaviour of the people who use them. I am bemused by those IT folks who attend a meeting but spend most of it playing around with their wireless connection and e-mails. This affliction is done with either no awareness, or care, for the normal graces of etiquette that were important just a few years ago. Colleagues who "do" their e-mails in management meetings boil my mercury, too.

About a year ago, I had occasion to regularly visit a senior executive at a vendor who would, after about 20 minutes, start to open files on his PDA during a conversation, even when he was talking. It was even more disconcerting if he got the fever when someone else was speaking. Eventually, the time came for revenge. While he was midway through a sales strategy monologue, I pulled out a crossword. Just as well he had a sense of humour!

Equally grump-inspiring - and this is not a habit unique to the IT industry - is the pathological need to answer a phone. It's worthy of an anthropological study. I would be fascinated to know the source of the DNA that makes people answer their phone and then state: "I'm sorry I can't talk now I am in a meeting." Why answer the phone if you can't have the conversation? Equally bizarre is my own instinct to say "sorry". For what, I have no idea. They answered their phone, not me.

Ah, I feel better now I've got that off my chest. It is only the fact that we are at the bottom of the page that is stopping me from grumping-on. If there is anything that gets under your skin, let me know. Being grumpy with others can be very therapeutic.

Mark Hollands is Asia-Pacific vice president for the business and IT advisory company Gartner. He can be reached at mark.hollands@gartner.com

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