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How to Fire Your Best Friend

How to Fire Your Best Friend

Remember Xeno's paradox from those richly rewarding high school maths classes? In case you don't, it's a mathematical absurdity that goes: if you travel from point A to point B, you necessarily must travel half of the distance to point B before travelling all of the distance. Now from that point, you must again travel half of the remaining distance. If you continue to do so (always travelling half the distance) you will never reach point B.

The fact that we do, on occasion, reach point B is, in a very roundabout way, proof that we not only live in a digital age and digital economy, but in a digital reality. In spite of what our senses tell us about our shades-of-grey experience and what the social arbiters tell us about the absence of absolutes, there exist in the universe measures so small they cannot be halved, distances so short they take no time to travel, endpoints so close together even the slimmest prevarication cannot be wedged in.

It was very early on one of those sweltering January mornings. I had to dash out before I could finish my bowl of CIO chow to meet a dozen or so of my top development people and an assortment of department heads from around the company. The meeting had been hastily assembled to discuss a project that had apparently and very suddenly - after nearly 10 months of on-schedule, on-budget progress - gone badly off track. The key objective of the meeting was to get a handle on where we were and to decide what, if any, changes we would need to make to keep our promised delivery date.

While I had been following the project with the regularly scheduled project updates and tracking reports, this was one of perhaps 50 major efforts we had under way at the time. As always, close scrutiny was reserved for the five or so projects that were currently circling the drain. This project never appeared to be doing that, so I was unprepared for this meeting and what I was about to find out.

Leading the discussion was one of my managers of application development, the individual in charge of the project and, as it happens, a close, personal friend. He and I had worked together for a very long time. We'd been through a lot. Our children were close in age, attended the same schools and played on the same sports teams. Our wives were friends, too, and usually organised a social get-together at least once a month.

When I walked in, he was attempting to explain the previous night's dismal technical and user test results in the context of what the project was reporting just a week or two earlier. I had, at that very moment, the same sense of uneasiness and confusion I get when I see Braille on an ATM. I could tell by the way he was employing technical terminology as a shield, his body language, and the defensiveness of his answers that candour had jumped the track and was wandering somewhere along a road paved with good intentions. Heartbreaking. He was lying and, by the looks of things, he had been lying for quite some time.

Even today, armed with incontrovertible proof, I'm uncomfortable describing this guy as a liar. Like most everyone else in this industry, I have been conditioned to the notion that calling someone a liar isn't considered an assertion; it's simply an unfortunate pejorative applied to those advocating a particular point of view or in pursuit of a sale. This weird form of tribalism routinely puts the needs of the bottom line or the agenda ahead of the truth. Everybody lies, the reasoning goes, and the transgression should not be measured in some old-fashioned notion of right and wrong, but in the relative righteousness of the cause the lie serves.

Take, for example, Oracle and Larry Ellison and their shameful efforts (beyond the occasional misrepresentations by their salespeople) to find ways to discredit Microsoft-friendly advocacy groups by rifling through their trash. Now, Ellison is a guy I've picked on pretty hard in past columns, so I should tell you that while I've had dealings with a number of his henchmen, I've never actually met him. My general impression of Ellison, haircut aside, is that he is not the devil. I suspect, though, that when he meets the devil (a certainty in my estimation), he won't need an interpreter.

According to an editorial in The Wall Street Journal (June 29, 2000), Oracle's defence for hiring a dirty-tricks firm to go dumpster diving is that they ordered their paid surrogates not to do anything illegal. That was good of them, don't you think? Oracle's stated reason for these shenanigans was that "left undisclosed, these Microsoft front groups could have improperly influenced the outcome of one of the most important antitrust cases in US history". Such is the state of our ethical universe - grand gestures justifying slimy antics, all funded by our software licence dollars.

The meeting adjourned some four hours later without a satisfactory conclusion, and I found myself saddled with one of the worst circumstances of my career. Not the hopelessly late project; as I'm sure you know, being late and over budget on some projects simply happens now and then in IT. Project planning and the assertions it makes about budget, head count and timelines are always extrapolations beyond the data and can't take into account things like budget squeezes, key user turnover and a thousand other unknowables. When you get behind in a project, you do what you can to fix it, you report the problem to top management and the stakeholders, then you take your lumps and move on.

My problem was what to do about the lies that my friend had either made or allowed others to make in an effort to mask the shortfalls of his project. Beyond the disappointment I felt, I was mystified by his behaviour and worried about the extent to which I might have, inadvertently, contributed to his decision to lie. Was he bullied into it by my insistence that his project team deliver on time? Was he feeling such a deep and misguided sense of loyalty to me and my career that he was afraid his performance would make me look bad? Under the circumstances, how could I repay his loyalty in kind?

I knew one thing for certain: he should have had no fear of termination for falling behind on his project. Trust me when I tell you, I dislike firing people so much that in order to get dismissed by me you have to do something dreadful on a cosmic scale and shoot my dog in front of my children to boot. In 25 years, I've never fired anyone for making a mistake. I have, without exception, kicked out any person I've caught making a mistake and then lying about it. Sometimes the costs, the loss of talent and the hit to morale among those we never confided in has been enormous. The alternative, allowing the lie to slide, would have been far worse in the long run.

The case for ethical leadership, beyond the karmic, is compelling to the point of absolute. CIOs, in their role as leaders and the primary consumers in this planet-size technology bazaar, have a vested interest (for reasons as simple as accuracy and speed) in establishing truth in its purest form as a nonnegotiable condition in our business dealings with our customers, our suppliers, our peers and our people. Not just a story or a consensus, but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is, affirming that the distance between what is true and what is untrue cannot be halved for anyone's purposes.

I spent the better part of the rest of that week meeting with various members of the project team to understand where we stood and the gravity and source of the misrepresentations. For a while after I made the decision to fire him, I clung to a small hope that I might, somehow, salvage our friendship in spite of what I felt I had to do.

He and I went to lunch a couple days later so that I could listen to what he had to say and share my own feelings about the way he had handled things. During the course of a strained and indigestive conversation, we seemed to move further and further apart, backing into our respective corners, refusing to come out. It occurred to me then that the relationship could never be the same, regardless of what I did next.

Later that week, he and I sat across from one another in my conference room to plan a quick, orderly transition for his replacement. My number-one objective, and the only thing I had left to offer him, was a dignified exit. Friends no more, we parted company deeply disappointed in one another. He very quickly found another senior IT job. We have not, nor have our families, spoken to one another since.

I would do it again, if I had to.

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