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Fire Your Boss: The best place to cut IT organizations is generally at the top.

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By Robert X. Cringely

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This week marks the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This week is also a time when the world economy is under stress comparable or greater to that imposed seven years ago. Whatever you are feeling in your wallet, I can’t overemphasize the impact the current global credit crunch is having on our economy and that of other nations, including Germany and Japan. We’re in a mess — one that is at least TWO YEARS from being resolved no matter who is the President. This matters to a technology columnist because it is something the technology community will eventually have to address, just as we did 9/11. I think some coping skills are in order.

First let’s take a look at a small part of my column from September 13, 2001 — a column that wasn’t especially popular with readers at the time, but I think stands up pretty well with time:

” ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,’ wrote Mark Twain. In the current context this means that the organizations charged with reacting to this catastrophe will do so by doing what they have always done, only more of it. Congress, which controls the budget and passes laws, will want to pass laws and to allocate more money, lots of money, forgetting completely about any campaign promises. The military, which is the nation’s enforcer, will want to use force, if only they can find a foe. The intelligence community, which gathers information, will want to be even more energetic in that gathering, no matter what the cost to the privacy of the millions of us who aren’t thinking of terrorist acts. And agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulate, will want to create more stringent regulations. Now here is an important point to be remembered: All these parties will want to do these things WHETHER THEY ARE WARRANTED OR USEFUL OR NOT.

In 2008 we’re facing cuts in IT that are prompted by economic decline. Many of the IT shops I talk to are in denial about this. Many more, while not in denial, are making bad decisions. I think this is a good opportunity to do some housecleaning that probably should have been done years ago. If you have to cut your budget by 10 percent, where do you cut? What if you have to cut by 30 percent?

As I have written before, one of the great problems in IT management is that the big bosses typically haven’t a clue what is happening, what is needed to happen, and what it all should cost. There is a role for trust here, but if the Big Guy is signing off on a budget he can’t even read, much less understand, well something is wrong. Some IT departments like this, of course, just like my students liked it when class had to be cancelled (they liked getting LESS for their money), but in tough times, facing reality and speaking the truth is usually the best course.

Because power in IT organizations tends to be based on head count, preserving jobs takes a priority. And when jobs have to be eliminated, they tend to come off the bottom of the organization when they should more logically come off the top — or at least from near the top. A tech who directly helps users is more important than a manager who can’t manage. This is especially true if that manager is making 2-3 times as much as the tech.

If your boss doesn’t understand your job enough to describe it in technical detail, that boss is in the wrong job.

If you are managing an IT shop and can’t write the code to render “hello world” in C, html, php, and pull “hello world” from a MySQL database using a perl script, then YOU are in the wrong job.

I should point out that these latter tasks can be copied and pasted straight from properly composed Google queries. They aren’t a test of programming knowledge at all, just of the ability to use the Internet. Yet many technical managers will fail and should get the boot as a result. You can’t manage what you can’t understand.

Think about whole projects that can be chopped, too. What’s really needed, after all? That knowledge is in your organization, though often not where it is available to the decision makers. The essence of efficiency is doing only the parts that are absolutely needed and almost every shop has at least one project that everyone except the big boss knows is either pointless or hopeless. Cut it.

One can argue, of course, that MORE IT, not less, is in order, and maybe that argument will work. But make it only if it is true.

I think a good argument can be made for embracing cloud computing, even to the extent of eliminating data centers and facilities. We’re very close to the point where relatively few organizations really ought to have their own data centers.

This could also be a good time to embrace open source tools. Yes, there is a learning curve, but the price is right and I can argue that open source quality is substantially better.

Oh, and cancel those contracts with Gartner, Forrester, IDC, etc. You’ll feel better in the morning.

Some folks who WON’T feel better in the morning are the next class of IBM employees to see their jobs moved overseas. I understand that there is a new round of cuts coming in October and it will be different from the “death by a thousand cuts” that has been happening for the past year. The technique is the same, of course — cutting unneeded workers in the U.S. while suddenly needing virtually identical (if younger and cheaper) workers in India and Argentina. It’s pure coincidence. Yeah, right.

If you were disappointed with Apple’s product announcements this week, take cheer from knowing that more announcements are coming, including new MacBooks and iMacs. You don’t have to take my word for this — just look at the closeouts Apple is offering on current models. Christmas is still the most important quarter for Apple so they won’t let these announcements wait too long. I just wonder how they slipped out of this week’s event.

And finally, I am surprised to admit that the latest version of 64-bit Windows Vista seems to be running pretty darned well on my desktop. No driver problems, 32- and 64-bit apps seem to be running well — why hasn’t Microsoft been shouting about this? 32-bit Vista still sucks, of course.

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