Reeling 'Em In

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Michael Dellano said that for this project he did not want to tip the balance by sharing his own views with us. He was not one of the senior managers we were to interview. It didn't matter. After all the previous meetings, I already had a pretty good idea where he stood. Anyone who thinks consultants are hired for an objective view is fooling himself. If we were to win additional contracts, we knew Dellano, who hired us, was the guy to please. As Will Logan always said, every consultant comes with his own biases. We were fortunate. In this case our biases mapped pretty closely to Dellano's. If they didn't, he was the kind of guy who probably would have seen through it in about a New York minute and hired someone else.

We had just started interviews when Dellano told us that he had hired a program manager who would implement the new reporting system. "It would be a good idea for you to meet with him as soon as possible," we were told. I was getting the feeling that the train wasn't waiting for us to complete our work before leaving the station.

Tom Carter had a reputation in Chase of putting out fires and bringing high-risk projects in successfully and on time. His last assignment was international. He was short in stature, and his voice was a dead ringer for actor Joe Pesci. He had the same kind of larger-than-life demeanor that demanded your full attention. "You think I'm funny?" Like Dellano, he had strong opinions on just about everything. When I tried to initiate discussion, he wasted no time in cluing us in on his thinking. Carter wasn't much for small talk.

"I heard you have a pretty good track record in managing successful projects," I said, hoping to establish early rapport.

"Yeah? I hear yous guys are kinda new."

Before Logan or I could come back with an intelligent response, Carter had rambled on to his next point.

"You know the sad thing. Success doesn't seem to matter anymore. In the old days, when a project failed, everybody knew about it. People would walk around with their heads down and usually somebody would get fired. Today, the patient could be brain-dead and they still don't unplug the life support system. Money continues to get poured into it, and everybody talks as if it is a great success. I'm not about to let that happen here."

Before I started in, Will Logan quickly jumped into the conversation cutting me off, which was probably a good thing.

"Any suggestions for us on what we should look at?"

"Yeah," Carter replied with no hesitation. "Try to ballpark how big this monster's going to be and project how much it could grow. Just remember, once you give executives new information, they always want more. Tell them how much we made off of IBM and they'll want to know how much we made from IBM Europe versus IBM Far East. The key is to anticipate the follow-on questions before you get 'em. We're a lot bigger than just about everybody else. What might work for some, won't work for us. Sizing requirements will narrow the choices here real fast."

Here was another guy who didn't sound like he needed a consultant.

It took us almost the whole month to run people down and complete the interviews. We met with a cross section of Chase personnel, including financial executives, technology executives, and managers responsible for current revenue-reporting systems. We also interviewed some of the techies. Thank God that Logan was there to go toe to toe with them. You could tell some of them were the type who viewed ripping vendors apart as sport, a relaxing diversion from the more mundane aspects of their jobs. As a new, small start-up we could have been pulverized.

Logan's years of consulting experience came through. He was an expert at leading the witness. This came in handy when we met with the people running the System 10 pilot and the rest of the client/server bigots who came in all kinds. The System 10 pilot had been up and running before we came onto the scene. The people running it felt they had the answer, and it was just a matter of getting a green light to roll it out across the rest of Chase. The key for us was getting the discussion away from technology and onto business needs. A little FUD would also help. I let Logan take the lead. He would have anyway.

"So you say the vendor is pretty responsive when you have a problem?"

"Yeah, they're very responsive."

"Do you call them a lot?"

"Well, yes, but that's because this is the pilot. You've got to expect that with a pilot."

"If this is rolled out globally like you suggest, any idea how vendor support would be handled if you had a problem in Mozambique?"

We met with some very impressive senior managers. Most had a very different view of things from Dellano and Carter, particularly the manager originally responsible for initiating the pilot solution. We finally met with his boss, the key guy responsible for the System 10 pilot and a bunch of other client/server projects. The interesting thing was that he and the other senior managers acted as if they had already lost the fight. The people working for them were a different story, but the senior technology managers advocating client/server seemed resigned to defeat before our interviews even started.

So what was up with this? Chase had some of the best technology people in the business. There was a dream team of senior technology managers who could probably all be CIOs anywhere else. Whether it was intentional or not, Chase was based on a contention system where these high-powered managers with different points of view fought it out before important decisions were made.

Consultants weren't hired for objectivity or for expert knowledge. "What's the point?" I kept asking Will Logan when we were alone. He could not understand why this was so surprising to me.

"Don't you get it? I told you before ... no consultants are completely objective. Nor does the client expect us to be."

I was starting to catch on. It was more important to keep the client happy. Objectivity could get in the way of lucrative follow-on contracts.

Logan could be a real chameleon, as long as we tiptoed lightly upon those areas where he held religious-like convictions. His background was in networking, and that was the area where he could really go off. If I mentioned a networking topic by mistake, Logan could spend half a day expounding. He could also sound like an expert on almost anything, whether he knew much about it or not. In these other areas, Logan could play it whichever way made the most sense, and most of the time, without getting long winded and emotional. Sounding the expert, whether he knew about it or not, helped make him a successful consultant. It was the amount of airtime that clued you in as to how much he really knew about something.

It didn't happen right away, but eventually I think I figured it out. Chase was a highly charged political environment. As consultants, we were merely providing cover for management. We were human shields, like the guys in trench coats who protect official heads of state. We would complete a report that could be pulled out and quoted if decisions were questioned. It was essentially an insurance policy to offset the risk of decision making.

There wasn't much more to it than that. Once the consultant was hired, the battle had already been won. Whoever did the hiring was the winner. As consultants, we helped carry forward the agenda of the winner who hired us. Consultants were playing parts in a ceremonial tribal dance with a predetermined outcome.

Still, Will and I had a report to produce. Future business would depend on it. We continued to research the various options. The more I learned, the more I was convinced Tom Carter was right. There was no client/server solution on the market at that time from Sybase or anyone else that could address the sizing requirements for the wholesale-reporting-and-analysis system. There were other issues as well. In spite of all the hype in the trade press, client/server was still, at best, a departmental solution for most large companies. It was very unstable and became increasingly more inefficient as it got bigger. It was bad enough the CFO had gotten three different answers to his question. What if he couldn't get any answer at all? "Sorry, the system crashed, we'll have to get back. Not sure when. It depends on what's wrong, and that will take some time to figure out."

If the system wasn't functioning properly, the answer was always to buy more client/server equipment and services. Studies were finding that over time the costs of client/server could dwarf the costs of the mainframe. What was saved on hardware was often lost on labor. One study found that over 43 percent of the costs of client/server were consulting fees. A definite pattern seemed to be emerging. If it was good for consultants, it was recommended to clients. But, how could corporate clients be so gullible?

Client/server required minimal investments on the front end. It always took time before the true cost and benefits could be properly evaluated. The problem was that once the client/server implementation began, who was going to call foul? It became almost impossible to turn back, even when the results were well below expectations. As Carter would say, "It's like a Ponzi Scheme. Everybody's too invested to call the bluff."

As I thought about it, I began to realize that in the minds of some, client/server could become a convenient excuse for implementing cutbacks. All those employees on the payroll costing an arm and a leg in accumulated salaries and benefits no longer had the right skill set. It didn't really matter what the right skill set was. Corporate success in the 1990s was measured by the stock value at the close of daily trading. Client/server could be used as the rationale to reduce technology investments and replace employees with contracted workers. That's where the big cost savings would come. An immediate impact on the bottom line was sure to send the stock up. Unload the traditional employees and hire more mercenaries. Luckily the people I was working for at Chase weren't in that camp. They knew better than to think of people like Logan and me as substitutes for Chase employees.

During the interviews, several people told us about the numerous articles on client/server success stories. By now you couldn't miss them. They were spilling onto the front pages of reputable business magazines and the major national newspapers. According to the articles, some of the most prestigious Wall Street firms had made the leap and were anticipating sizable financial benefits. They had readily embraced the new computer revolution being espoused by the technological consultants. Like corporate executives, I doubted they fully understood it, but I figured they must have loved the potential consequences to the balance sheet-less people, less costs.

Some of the big-name Wall Street firms were claiming in the press to be using client/server solutions such as System 10 as replacement for mainframes. I decided to check with some of these firms firsthand. It must have been that internalized cop thing acquired from dad. I had been raised not to take things at face value.

In every case, the client/server wasn't the full story. There was a mainframe computer, often many, in the back office doing most of the real work. "Over time, we will get rid of it," I was told whenever I asked. I doubted it would be any time soon in spite of their optimism. Mainframes may not have been very flexible, but they were stable, reliable, and could churn out an enormous amount of work when compared with the client/server world. No one talked about it because mainframes were yesterday's news. Everybody was reading about client/server. It was hot and everybody wanted to say they were doing it, too.

Logan and I recommended a politically incorrect mainframe solution with some client/server-like functionality. Will Logan joked that recommending mainframes could dovetail nicely with our going-out-of-business strategy. "Nobody will have to worry about skills transfer now," he said. This did not spoil my optimism. Our recommendations were a big hit with both Michael Dellano and Tom Carter. I knew they would be, and this was what was most important to me. Frankly, it was more of a surprise when they didn't say, "By the way, we already have it up and running."

At one point, I asked Tom Carter, "So why do you hire from the outside when you have the skills to do this yourselves?" A big, wide grin lit up his face. "Because you are the consultant," he said. His comment made me feel that in his mind as a consultant I was nothing more than a necessary evil, a prescribed medication he was being forced to administer. Consultants were all over Chase. The only way to fight off other groups hiring consultants was to hire your own. For an old-school guy like Carter, he must have felt there had to be lots of potential negative side effects with all those consultants running around recommending and implementing all kinds of different departmental solutions without much thought about how it could all work together across the rest of Chase. It must have made him nuts.

A new department was built around Tom Carter to support a new revenue-reporting system that everyone in wholesale banking could use. He employed other consulting organizations to assist in the development and roll-out. We were able to get follow-on contracts here and there, but the bulk of the work went to larger vertical-consulting and technology-integration firms focused on banking. These firms provided a combination of skills and lots of bodies. When I wasn't able to get any farther with Carter, I went to Michael Dellano. He explained to me that we were too small to compete against the bigger organizations and that he viewed us as having more of a strategic focus as opposed to the necessary "body shop" mentality of the integrators. "There's plenty of work for you and the others, provided no one gets too greedy," he said. "You can't expect all of it to happen overnight." But I did.

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