Elitist stupidity

28 February 2009 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in people | 9 Comments »

Once upon a time, I was a very early employee of an internet service provider that raised hundreds of millions of dot-com boom-days dollars. I was specifically a network engineer, and more generally just an IT infrastructure implementation and management guy. Heady days.

Some time after the company had issued its IPO and begun hiring people by the boatload, control of the IT department fell away from the executives I knew personally and into the laps of a bunch of new “white knight” corporate types hired in from the likes of the local phone company and various billion-dollar black holes of enterprises that had imploded in the not-too-distant past. My role remained in network infrastructure development and management for our customer-facing network; all of the internal stuff got reorganized under a newly-minted CIO. Internal infrastructure wasn’t strictly my problem any more, though I cared deeply about seeing it done right, both because of my own knowledge of the field and due to IT’s pivotal role in the automation and smooth management of a large number of complex business processes facing a customer base and deployment footprint that were literally exploding in size.

The new people charged with running IT were managers, not engineers. Their expertise lie in spheres like hiring consultants, drafting proposals and securing funding for projects. None of them had a deep grasp of the processes they were supposed to implement, and problems began cropping up almost immediately.

Ultimately, there was a grand proposal to spend something on the order of $30 million to outsource the bulk of the IT infrastructure and all of the business systems that managed those complex processes which we were only just learning how to implement, manage and scale ourselves, as a company. Now, outsourcing parts of your IT infrastructure often makes a lot of sense, if several things are true. You must have the right outsourcing partner, who brings solid experience in managing IT in your line of business. These were not in evidence. You must also be in a business where IT itself is far away from the focus. If you’re operating a nationwide network of sawmills and lumber yards, for instance, your top people really ought to be folks who know wood and the lumber trade inside and out. IT expertise is something you can outsource in such a case. But when your business is IT itself,  well, outsourcing your own brain is ill-advised at best.

Eventually I took my concerns to the Chairman of the company, to whom I had personal access simply due to my seniority. The Chairman was a brilliant engineer, a guy who had made a fortune developing a series of innovative projects in a burgeoning field and developed those projects in turn into successful products. His previous start-up had been acquired for a hefty sum, the bulk of which went to him personally, and he had stayed on there for a time helping to manage all the transitional stuff that comes along with corporate mergers and acquisitions.

I laid out my case over the course of twenty minutes or so: what was being proposed was ridiculously expensive, likely doomed to failure for reasons of ignorance of the players involved (the IT management and the proposed outsourcing partner), and foolish for the reason I outlined above. The Chairman valued things like “propriety” and “decorum” and “respecting the chain of command” rather more highly than I ever did, and I quickly found myself getting nowhere, as he assumed that if these men had been hired into these positions to manage IT, they must necessarily know what they were doing.

The end of the conversation boiled down to an exchange that went roughly like this:

“Well, Mike, I hear what you are saying, but what would you have us do? Fire the CIO, Mr. So-and-So?”

“Well, that’s certainly one option, and a better course than the one we’re on now.”

“And what then? Put you in charge? Are you, Mike Gogulski, going to run IT for a half-billion-dollar publicly traded company?”

“Well, if I were assigned to do that, I’d certainly give it a solid go, and I believe that I could do it far better than these jokers.”

“But Mike, that’s insane! We couldn’t give you such a job! You’ve never been head of IT for such a large enterprise before!”

A few seconds ticked by as gears turned in my head, my face no doubt flushing with mounting anger.

“And which half-billion-dollar publicly traded company has Mr. So-and-So served as CIO of in the past? And for which such company have you served as Chairman? “

The response consisted of several deep sighs and a great deal of spluttering — the answers, of course, were “none”.

And thus ended the meeting, with me storming out of the Chairman’s office.

I was reminded of this little anecdote of corporate elitist jackassery while watching the amusing — and terrifying — video at Congressman Pete Stark: crazed lunatic on the disinter blog. Enjoy.

  1. 9 Responses to “Elitist stupidity”

  2. By John Hirbour on 28 February 2009

    wow! Those were the good ol days…. sorta… it’s still very corporate and stuffy… maybe even more now than it was then…

  3. By Lila on 28 February 2009

    Well – my experience has been similar.
    Corporations might be better than states because they don’t actually put a gun to your head (although, there are quite a few who do that too). But that’s about all that can be said for many of them.

    My experience of them has been limited. But such as it is, some of the stereotypes are absurd. Many corporations are more bureaucratic,arbitrary inefficient, and dull-witted than any government agency.

    (Of course, it’s because most of them operate out of a manual written by the state, to begin with..)

  4. By DixieFlatline on 2 March 2009

    Shameless plug

    Sounds like Sunshine Capitalism to me.

    Believing in your own success creates confirmation bias and people who were previously objective critical thinkers, start to believe they have figured it all out, based on the feedback their success provides.

  5. By Mike Gogulski on 2 March 2009

    @Dixie: I’ll buy that.

  6. By Seth on 4 March 2009

    Success teaches you nothing. Failures teach you everything.

  7. By Nick on 9 March 2009

    Hey Mike,

    Hope you are doing well.

    Quickly if you would, what ended up happening with the company and your role within it?

  8. By Mike Gogulski on 9 March 2009

    @Nick: Yes, privately.

  9. By Ryan on 9 March 2009


    This was a good read. You know, that place for all of it’s faults, had some of the best people that I have ever worked with. Even if some of them were not worth the cost of the paper that their paycheck was printed on.

    I strongly believed then, and do now, that what you speak of in this article was the downfall of that company. The big telco people were not only a horrendous waste of time, money and resources, but they also had a naive view on how a company, like this one, worked. And the sad part, I doubt the words steady growth plan ever entered their brains for a nanosecond.

    Oh and your coversation (albeit hypothetical) is the watered down (I never got close to your level) version of the same thing that I recieved when I was there. Remind me to tell you about the 3 times I was told that I was too valuable to leave tech support.

    Hope all is well my friend.


  10. By Mike Gogulski on 10 March 2009

    @Ryan: You’re right, despite the amazing level of counterproductive non-thought going on at the upper levels, there were some damned fine folks working there. Maybe some day I’ll post another one of these stories, it has a nice lesson in it, too.

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