Saturday, July 23, 2011

Disaster Week

A change in the environment created one of the worst weeks ever here at the support center. Imagine a change during business hours affecting the warehouses all over the continent.  Someone underestimated the risk which resulted in the late delivery of the items to the customer. What a mess, someone said. Frantic phones calls, teleconferences and group chats to resolve the issue were hastily called. Technical experts from IBM and Indian software houses, represented geographically with people calling from North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Every nationality of the world contributing to getting the problems fixed. But it took all day as the attention moved from one location to another.  One suggested to start fixing the problems in the facilities located in Eastern Standard Time and working across the continent until one reaches facilities working in Western Standard Time. It seemed to be a fair request considering that these locations were coming to work while the rest were already in the midst of their workday as the daylight made its way across the land.

But alas, everyone was shouting in the conference call to get their issues fixed at once and one resorted to the severity of the problem and the consequent impact to the business. My application was in the lower end of the totem pole and so addressed last. In the meantime, one had to appease one’s angry customers and support them with workarounds. It was touch and go considering one’s customers are about 45 minutes away by car, and trying to help them accomplish their work from head office. Fortunately, some piece of the technology was still working so one could print out the needed reports from afar, with the wonders of science allowing the flow of electronic bits through cables rushing by in megabits per second to reach the intended destination, translated into paper and ink as another hardware bursts into action spewing out reports in thermal transfer mode. It saved the day to keep the facilities working and the folks can catch up on their work.

It was a nightmare that could have turned disastrous. But everyone kept their head, logically discussing the problems and trying to determine the solutions. Facilities in Canada and Mexico were told to keep their cool as the North American, European and Asian teams traded thoughts and discussed the possible options. These were experienced professionals who remained calm during times of stress though there were a few who were clearly near wits end. Calmness in the face of adversity will clearly distinguished you even in today’s high technology world. Rudyard Kipling’s advice in his great poem ‘If’ is still valid today as it was to the British colonial officers and soldiers who faced adversity in India and Africa as the British Empire strived to control their dominions. If you can keep your head when all others are losing theirs, then you will be a man, my son. Still valid advice when facing technical problems and trouble shooting issues spawned by misbehaving software, or cables or even viruses and affecting people’s jobs and losing sales and money.

Losing money is a graver sin today than losing one’s life fighting some angry native in times past. Hence, the stress to keep the machine running so the goods keep spewing out from the factories, travelling down the road in trucks to be delivered and stored in warehouses, then leaving the warehouse again to travel the roads by truck, train, plane or ship until the product ends up in the customer doorstep somewhere in the world. It is keeping this system running that needs a global army staring into computer screens, monitoring the supply and demand, making sure logistical arrangements are well taken care of to make sure the products are produced and delivered. A global system no different from the British Empire keeping their hold on their far flung realms or Alexander leading and controlling his massive armies from the Greek and Macedonian lands into the far flung Persian empire in the Middle East, moving inwards towards the Hindu Kush and India. The parallels are the same with the American Empire but the scale and operation is repeated perhaps in a lower scale in the global corporations that stride the world. The armies of these multinational entities are remote workers sitting in offices around the globe, looking into computer screens and triggering actions in their software, making phone calls and chatting remotely, linked by the cables of cyberspace.

A chink in the armor maybe the way people interact and work together to keep the whole thing running. Any misstep or miscalculation will bring things to a standstill and crisis mode steps in with hastily called phone conferences and meetings to get the system fixed - misbehaving like some ethereal behemoth existing somewhere away from view. So far the beast has been appeased and brought under control. Afterwards the remote worker bees – the knowledge workers of today are settling back in their ergonomic chairs built with advanced synthetic materials, typing into their keypads and looking in their Technicolor computer screens to check on the software beast lurking inside the network.  Once again one tries to get back the previous rhythm and resume the work on one’s projects.  Last Monday was seemingly peaceful before the eruption that occurred midweek. What was one working on? One asks as if it was a decade ago.  Ah yes, there was a bug that needed to be fixed, complete some documents, call the supplier in Ohio to get a status report and continue testing another software. It’s a week in the life of a computer worker.

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