Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Inglorious By-lane To Innovation in IT

Melinda Turner 

I always thought dumb people were fat. Marcos Alphonso Pedurey was an exception. 
Being a Mexican and working in America is not easy, especially if your work doesn’t involve laundry or smuggling. For other things in life, you can count on racism, hip-hop music, and the Thanksgiving Day, wherein again, for the latter, in effect, you count on the turkey. People used to call him Pedurey, just that. Once though, I had heard an American colleague succinctly call him ‘Peds’, which had made his face wilt and head tilt, out of overt distaste.
To the sane view of a non-encroaching onlooker, he was an affable man with a nose for Pizza, and a few wrinkles emanating from that nose. Legend has it that Pedurey could smell a Pizza in the vicinity, and deduce its variety and toppings.
His fragile face donned black-rimmed spectacles, and if one’s hair could make one rich, he would be a millionaire. Each week he wore a different story on his hair, in as much as the dye could tell, with a finishing always outdoing the brevity of his small face. Most weekdays would see him in a general attire, and on weekends, his fingers would remind him of the beer glass instead of the computer keyboard, letting go of even the thoughts of the latter, let alone the inclination to be useful.
‘Work-life balance’, he would joke sometimes.

“Hey Mela, get ready, we have a client briefing at five” he worked up, his eager eyes lapping up the time on the hour’s hand. “I have booked the conference room – ‘Grand Canyon”, he sprang. I snapped up the laptop and closed it upon my chest, gathered my pencil whose plight was often underlined by the ills of a deprived graphite, and clutched my notebook-diary – one that had the grocery list tucked in a swish scramble. I ran for the ‘Grand Canyon’, my life now, but not before Pedurey handed me the conference number that began with a ‘866-’ and was interspersed with zeroes as if they were cherries on a cake - the making of a generous vendor. I wasn’t going to memorize it anyways.

I door-crashed ‘Grand Canyon’, and sped to deposit myself on a cushioned seat. It was a huge table, all glass, and inundated with plugs and ports, a neural mess. There was a speaker phone right in the middle, and a conference bridge meant to cater to the vocal services that interject from far and wide in a not-so-solemn communion. I keyed in the numbers, being prompted at adequate intervals to state my name. A minute later, Pedurey joined me, and now, with us counted, there were twenty one people in attendance in the call. They were spread across geographical boundaries, and their accents ranged from the vastly lingual to the overtly shallow. There were teams from Hungary, Costa Rica, Manila, Toronto and Los Angeles. Pedurey and myself were the saving grace, and face, of Houston, Texas.

It was a conference on ‘Innovation, Emerging Technologies And Challenges in the Evolving World 2011’. Now that’s a mouthful, I thought. Especially for the little that we do, or are capable of. In a corporate IT environment, however, you need to remove yourself from the truth. The farther you are, the more blissful is your life. The moderator for the conference was a technocrat named Bruce from LA, a AVP reporting to the Technology Head. When I heard his introduction on the phone, I remembered Bruce Willis, the actor. The psycho-flick ‘Unbreakable’ came rushing in my thoughts, in which Bruce’s acting was as extraordinary as the man himself. I lost myself for a few minutes until the word ‘Innovation’ hit me hard, like a fly-swatter.

There were other Bruces and Bobs in the conference too. In fact, it was Bruce-Bob all over the place. There were guys from Manila who had to their credit jumpstart strategies for innovation, and their Greenwood Development Center was doing a good job we were told. There were regular camps and seminars aimed to bring talent and ideas on board, and the best engineering brains were picked through competitive aptitude tests. Herbert Pantaleon was their SPOC. (The term ‘SPOC’ being a corporate blitzkrieg for what stands for the ‘single point of contact’). He was an able communicator and articulated his dealings on the phone well, which is important in such ghost-infested conferences where a person’s voice is the only disembodied identity. A ‘fat voice’ would mean a voice that would make you think the owner of such a voice is a really overweight woman. There are similar inferences for a ‘haggard voice’, ‘sexy voice’, ‘gruff old moronic voice’, and such. There were other teams from Hungary, that were equally competent, and had long names that I would have put down only for soccer players of Russia, or Ukraine. The Costa Rican teams seemed to be a bunch of energetic creatures, with a certain degree of verve, loafing around with ideas of innovation. I, for once, just stopped short of thinking they might as well one day innovate innovation itself.

The Toronto and Los Angeles teams were suave and dignified, but only until they opened their mouth and spouted ideas. Once they did, they saw innovation in everything, and even legacy systems had scope for migration to emerging platforms. There would be challenges they said, and our customers would be averse to change, but we needed to educate them on what’s good for them. This was another way to tell you’d need to bullshit the Customers, and when you repeat your lies often, they start believing it. If it ends up working, of which there’s the slight chance whether you believe it or not, you can risk believing them too. If it succumbs and decays in a terrible morgue, you can always go back to your life-support system: ‘It was a good learning experience. We will file up our learning in the Shared Knowledge Database, that will help teams across the board derive benefit from this holistic learning repository.’ And then, you would bill the customer again for this documentation effort, as if documenting a failure is the only point where your and their ‘Karmas’ converge.

The Canadian SPOC was one Sarah Pablo, and her sensuous voice was a good hear. I brought images of Sarah Palin, the US presidential candidate who subsequently lost the elections, from whose sexy looks always peeped a dumb mind. Her voice seemed to make up for the shortcomings of her brain during the male dominated conference.

As for the LA guys, they were like James Bond-Steve Jobs duet on ‘innovation’. Technical jargons interlaced with words such as ‘cost-effective’, ‘optimize’, ‘challenges’, ‘customer delight’, ‘state-of-the-art’, ‘innovation hiccups’, ‘emerging trends’ covered most of the conference soundscape. Being an American myself, I understand how stupid we are. We have been trained hard though, to seldom accept that.

Also on the call was the Vice-President (Technology), James Roberts. ‘Our organization’s biggest asset is that we constantly innovate and think creatively to add value to our customers’ businesses. Hence our growth has been vertical’, James asserted. Here’s a secret that blinked inside me – Our CEO was fired by the Board of Directors for sexual harassment of one of his secretaries. Yes, to that effect, the word ‘vertical growth’ sounded more informative than ever before.

Thinking this, the corners of my mouth must have sniffed out a slight smirk. Pedurey was hovering beside me, waiting for his turn to speak. Corporate etiquette requires you to wait for your turn, and then hijack the ideas. The more you wait, and the more you compile the points and ideas given by others and present as your own, and the more adept you are at packaging stuffs in your own words as if to sound genuine, the more easily the waves take you to the shore. Pedurey might have been doing a dirty job, but he was doing it well. Atleast, if nothing, this dirt pays.

James was agog with his penchant for jargons that seemed to be as natural to him as a human yawn was to his listeners. Management terms flew in a jiffy,  attaching them to old universal truths, bottling the oldest wine in sparkling bottles. It was like asking Pussy cat where she had been since there are no direct flights to London from LA, or asking if Baba Black sheep had any wool left in the three bags that was bio-degradable . ‘All of our progress can be attributed to the out-of-box thinking and originality of ideas that our teams have been maintaining consistently’ James professed. Pedurey, for once, as if pricked by a flash of some metaphysical realization, scribbled something vigorously on his lonesome pad. Seeing him, I thought I should scribble something too so that he gets to know I too am serious. I scribbled: ‘Oh bullshit, what crap!’

There was no stopping James. ‘Are you guys able to hear me?’ he floated, to which, like the meek sheep in a herd, everybody thumped their big yes. It gave me shivers and a solemn inkling that more bull and horse and dog shit was on their way. Have my apprehensions in the corporate context ever been far from the truth? Decades of being an insect in this industry helps you distinguish a termite from a leech or a cockroach. Eventually though, you realize there’s nothing to make out. ‘Selling the same product (while protecting quality) at a cheaper price or adding more value (enhancing perceived quality) to product at same price is itself an innovation enabling the corporation to stay ahead of competition . Slashing costs to remain viable is both an art & a science’, James delivered. Pedurey closed his eyes in deep thought, but I think he was a bit tizzy after his sumptuous lunch – which invariably must have been a chicken Burrito the size of a human head.

‘Definition of innovation will never be changed. Neither it is any trick or sleight of hand. It is all about generating new ideas, processes & products to delight the consumer. Pricing is one aspect of it. Innovation in costing is at par for the course. Deliver more at the same price or same at a lesser price’ James dished out, convincingly. Somebody called Victor, or Rictor, or something similar, held out a query: ‘But don’t you think practical-pragmatic ideas and innovation should talk to each other at the same time?’

Pedurey sometimes amazed me with tit-bits of his brilliance, though few and far between. He put the speaker on mute. He made sure, twice, that the red light for the ‘mute on’ button was on. He quickly swivelled on his chair, put both his hands behind his Mexican head, and closed his eyes, deriving a sinister smile from a voice that was still speaking endlessly. “This guy is bull-shitting”, he said, upping his ante. “His definition of innovation is so jargonized, bookish, and clichéd, he might seriously need to work on it  - if only to innovate something out of it, even if it be in parts. O Lord, what crap! Do I have to take all of this in this life?” His frustration gave me a little gooseflesh, but nonetheless, I allowed myself some leeway to spurt out: “The real malady is not the people who can't think new and accept they can't, but the people who are packaging old wine in new bottle, wrapping those up with some random innovation-and-customer-delight-pepper and fizz. New, practical and pragmatic ideas play fast fiddle to such lofty tall-talk and jargons, so much so that one practically loses that faint voice that one set out for and sought, in the din of faked intellectual orgasms.”

Pedurey, for once, threw at me a look of complete acceptance of my words. He looked at the speaker with the voice and said: “I will not say your words are utter nonsense dear sir, but surely, in some part of the world, your craft will come in handy!”

He had made sure the mute was still on.

James, on the other hand, was answering some other query, banging it down with his idealistic pronouncements that comes with sleeping with a management book in hand, and nothing grey where it really matters – ‘Consulting corporates on daily basis, I think I needn't enter into debates on "innovation". A practitioner is bad doesn't mean the practice is bad. You are commenting from your specific experience. I can give numerous examples of innovation working. Those may or may not be path breaking ones, but tiny ideas incorporated into day to day corporate life. Things are not as mechanical as you may think it is. Your response is typical of a "manager" who sets too much store by what he thinks is his "practical experience" , takes pride in "managing the environment" and is allergic to anything having to do with the roots of a specific theory. Innovation is how I have defined and if that is ‘bookish’ I choose to remain so. By the way, if you have some other interpretation, I would be glad to be enlightened.’

I hadn’t heard the other’s query, but I guess he must have made some kind of a reference to his bookish interpretation. James showed some signs of agitation for the first time, and it was understandable.

After an hour of such deliberation, it was time for announcements and soliciting opinions. James announced to the crowd how ‘Innovation Club’ has been in existence for the past two years, making commendable progress in all respects. There were Innovation Days held for different business units, and prizes given for competitions and Tech-cons on innovation. The young and old in the company were coming forward to present their bits of innovation, some getting starry accolades from the customers for ‘optimizing’ their gigantic systems and businesses. In the corporate parlance, when you ‘optimize’ something, it actually means you haven’t made it any easier for the customer, but made it complex to the hilt, confusing him some more. The more they are confused, the more they believe theirs is an optimized system. 
In a twenty-word sentence spoken by James, eleven-and-a-half words were either: innovate, innovation, innovating, and other such parts of speech that takes care to prove the fact wrong, his English right.

“Can each of you take turns to speak on how you feel about our strategic plans on Innovation in Technology that I just outlined? Costa Rica team, you first please” declared James.

Edgar Amanda was the Technology Head from Costa Rica, the headquarters of the Best-shore enterprise. He explained how the idea was really fantastic. He described how each of his team members felt the same, how innovation was in their blood, and how many patents were filed by the Costa Rica Innovation Center each year. It was a rosy-rosy canvas, where even trees and water were in the happy colours orange and red.
Next came Herbert’s turn, and he made the Moon look like the Sun, having its own light and giving life.  Technology lead after technology lead took turns to glorify Innovation in return for instant gratifications, and the act of everyone applauding vocally made an Olympia crop up, just like spectators clapping to a gladiator’s rhythm of advances. Here, clapping was not in vogue, for the vocal chords did more than their best to make it up. Finally it was our turn to succumb to the guile of sycophancy, for all of us were paid as much to be timid observers, lethargic progress-animals, and brilliant sycophants.

It was Pedurey’s turn now, and he put off the mute, bringing the speaker bridge to speak, and his inimitable style ensured a couple of his right-hand fingers were tapping his forehead continuously. But what he said next captured my imagination, like a shock that descends as an abrupt lightning. ‘We are not doing any real innovation. We are fooling people and ourselves. If you talk of real innovation, its got to be just 0.0001%. All the papers, publishing, and articles that we talked about now are bogus, faked, redundant, useless. Real innovations happen at University laboratories, National laboratories, Research Centers of Public sectors, and Government-aided Projects that have a goal at hand. Not in the service and product-based IT industry. Creating a product as per customer requirements, and altering a bit here, a bit there, and then gift-wrapping it is not innovation. As for the service industry, the usage of the word ‘innovation’ should be expunged. Today, its been used, in meetings like this, to a farcical degree.’

James must have been swept off his feet, for he reminded himself something: “I come in a car everyday wherein the wipers clean the windshield, and a GPS-voice tells me where’s the nearest parking spot available in a busy Mall-area. Don’t you think its innovation?”

Pedurey wasn’t apologetic. He was firm, and shot back: “I am commenting from my specific experience, for the mere reason that I refrain from vouching for fields I have not tread, while feigning knowledgeable. You can give it a try too! When a person is in the software industry, he will talk about innovation in software processes and products, and all that happens infront of his eyes for years together - day after day. When he sees the Colossal corporations throw gimmicks and tantrums at customers to whip up profits, give false cost and effort estimates, trumpet whimsical statistics with bogus delivery, patch up craters of inefficiency with a lather of some adulterous dogma, masquerade as brigadiers for process and performance tuning, manipulate audits and auditors to hinge on to some equally lame certifications, cry out with a dogged alarm one fine day to show profits in the quarter-on-quarter results on the balance sheet, and then one evening over a pod-casted coffee-talk a regional-head barks about the ridiculous cost-cutting strategies, then surely there's something more than meets the eye. On top of that, there would invariably be talks on 'innovation', 'intellectual capital', and 'customer delight'! Am not sure what you mean by 'tiny ideas incorporated into day to day corporate life', but that is what the management mouthed after removing toilet papers from the rest-rooms, in what they said, was to "make the company more cost-effective, and more confident to face the challenges of the evolving cost-dynamics"! Innovation is an idol for you. Being privy to years of sinister campaigns amongst some of the biggest corporates, being a worm in the doled-out cans of branded ‘innovation’, it has left me bargaining with the truth. I will not contest your need not to enter into debates on ‘innovation’. I respect that as much as your will. Nor do I have qualms on you sticking to your definition of ‘innovation’. I respect your desire to do so as well, in all earnestness. I only wish one was a little more innovative in trying to accept the real-time scenario at ground-zero, and not be aloof from it in trying to fool oneself, or many less-enlightened souls like me in this huge cosmos. Don't call a spade a spade, done deal! Call it a stick or a baton atleast. Calling it a horse or a rainbow or a shoe-polish is way too off-the-mark!”

There was a stunned pause, painful and pregnant, after which James said: ‘But I can give you a list of the innovations that we have had in the last ten years, by none but our own folks! I can!’ His voice had a thaw and had gravitated to a ultra serious tone, though it seemed, given a chance, he could pounce and grunt vociferously. All the others in the call had fingers on their lips or mute buttons. Silence.

‘Hey James, I have been working in this company for more than ten years now, and if you have all those so-called ‘innovations’ on your list, I am not sure you know what innovation really means. I can only pity you.’

There was more silence, placed as globs of nothing. James was silent too, as was Bruce, the facilitator. After a few minutes, however, Bruce spoke up: ‘I think we need to take this conversation between James and Pedurey offline. I shall work out a meeting between you two, so that we can understand things in greater detail.’ Diplomatic maneuver, I thought.  James, bared on innovation, by now, seemed to be genuinely depressed.  When last heard, his ‘thanks all’ was little more than a docile squeak.

Me and Pedurey both walked out of the conference room. Pedurey was all smiles, unfazed. ‘Follow me’, he quipped. We took the elevator and walked straight to his cubicle, where he undid the screen-saver and turned his laptop for me to view. I could see an official e-mail drafted and kept ready, addressed to his manager and Technology Head. The body of the mail was simple – ‘I would like to resign from the services of this company with immediate effect.’

‘I have decided to go back to my home country, Mexico and continue with my doctorate there. I have got myself a lateral-entry seat for a doctorate on my pet-subject – ‘Artificial Intelligence’ at the highest place of learning in my country – the most sought-after University. I would really want to innovate and invent, and not keep lecturing all my life about how much innovation we all have and see. I want to follow my heart, as a first-grade citizen in my country of birth. You think I have taken the right decision, Melinda?’

‘Yes, you did.’ I said.
We remained speechless for a while and then went for a coffee and a fag.

Melinda Turner used to work in IT. She is now a writer who divides her time between LuxembourgAmerica, and Latin-American countries.

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