Just returned from a work-related mini-conference. Every year all the sites that use Sage Millennium gather together in their regions and meet with Sage representatives and talk about the database, how we use it, how we get other people to use it, and to socialize between each other. For us, we are a part of the Great Lakes Millennium Users Group, GLMUG for short. Over the years we have gotten together at WMU, where I work, and other years we have gone to St. Olaf University in Minnesota, Medical College of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and this year Northern Illinois University.
For these events we are centrally located to pretty much every GLMUG member so for us, we pretty much always drive to wherever is selected to be our host for the meetings. We schedule a three day mini-conference, with the first day occupied by landing and socializing, then we dive into topics the next day, and the last day is mopping up any topics we missed on the second day and talking about the product and sharing notes between each other where one site does something unique and helps another site out. I always enjoy myself during these events because it gives me a ringside seat to some of the biggest changes to the software, brought to us by our Sage rep, as well as some of the biggest challenges to how we use the software. I am a DBA / System Admin so I see things in terms of IT, hardware, training, and the logical parts of how things are arranged. I also have a ‘unique viewpoint’ which often times is at odds with the more soft-pedal approach that most people prefer. I’m brash, sometimes vulgar, but I bring the same passion to these discussions that I do to my workplace. I don’t do anyone any good if I just shuffle along and mumble as a yes man. Fortune favors the bold. If nothing else, I am bold. Sometimes I’m a few other four-letter things too, but bold is nice and friendly.
This year we visited NIU, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been to Dekalb, Illinois. On the way up my coworkers and I got to talking about Illinois trivia that doesn’t have anything to do with Chicago, which is the obvious 800 pound elephant taking a figurative dump in the corner. The only thing that I could readily volunteer was that Illinois is the nation’s number one producer of pumpkins. Funny what you get from a John Carpenter’s Halloween movie trivia track on the DVD. I am the movie generation. We see things in terms of movies that we’ve seen, and in a lot of ways we relate to our world through the vocabulary of cinema that we are fond of. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve recognized situations that come out of Airplane!, Clue, or Princess Bride. To say nothing of the endless quotes from those movies. People often times wonder where I get my oddball humor from and I tell them time and time again that those three movies are a great place to start to get to know me better. My mind spends a lot of time thinking about those movies.
Northern Illinois is to Dekalb in a way that WMU is to Kalamazoo. Both schools sort of hug their cities and bring a certain flavor to the area that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Western has our Bronco and the colors from the black-eyed susans that grow here – while NIU are the Huskies and much in the way that Chicago pushed painted plaster cows as a cute city theme, Dekalb pushed painted plaster Husky dogs. Every mascot is adorable in their own way. Cows are harmless herbivores. Broncos are exceptionally handy to ride (and not eat, or turn into glue, Frau Blucher!) and Huskies are arguably one of the most recognizable and adorable dog breeds there are, plus they can pull a sled. The University staff welcomed us warmly and went above and beyond to ensure that our get together was a success.
During these meetings we cover a lot of topics and the overarching theme that I kept on noticing isn’t so much technical issues but rather strategy questions about prospect management. Of course listening to all these schools talking about how they manage their prospects gets me thinking about ways to once-and-for-all solve the issues they all have. Many of them bring it up over and over again and many institutions really kind of muddle along. I see a divide between those that understand the technology and those that have to use the technology but often times aren’t really keen on understanding what they are using coming into conflict with each other. It’s a lot like the gulf that develops between IT staff and those that they support. I’ve written about incuriosity before, that it leads to a kind of prized ignorance and ultimately devolves into an unpleasant puddle of rank dependency. Those that cannot depend on those that can to help them do their jobs. It’s a whirlpool sucking at the overall efficiencies of an organization as nobody can really be said to be nimble when they are trapped in this unusual back-and-forth between executives who should use the system but do not and the support staff that help them by, in some cases, only achieving progress by applying blunt force to the situation.
Much of my exasperation, because that’s really what it is. It’s not irritation although I’m often irritated, but mostly I’m just exasperated. I was raised with a certain work ethic by my parents that has driven me my entire life. Take pride in what you do, be responsible for your actions, and be motivated enough to get your work done in a timely fashion. While my closest coworkers were with me on this trip, I was a party to several conversations which I won’t really go too deeply in on my blog because the thoughts that I harbor in my mind aren’t the most complimentary or charitable when it comes to some of the workplace issues that surround me. The only thing I can really write about is how I feel and what I would do in the situation that has been described to me. It’s mostly a part of my upbringing. I chafe strongly whenever I am a witness to certain entitled vanities. It’s the reason why I’ll never be regarded as senior management because I refuse to sugar coat my opinions. I am not a yes man, I am passionate and outspoken and sometimes exceptionally blunt. I think what really bothers me deep down is laziness. I feel awkward and ashamed if I’m just sitting around spinning my wheels and doing nothing for anyone. I feel driven to help, address issues, or at least try to make a difference in a project or someone else’s life for the better. This drive of mine is in direct opposition to my perceptions of indolence that I see from time to time. I also prize my bluntness. If people can’t or won’t do what is expected of them, then perhaps they should seek out something else to do that suits them better. There is a name for the kind of manager I would be if I had any power, that would be “Hatchet Man” as I would more likely fire someone for being willfully indolent rather than have them hoovering up resources and masquerading as human anchors. Whenever I hear “nobody listens” my nearly reflexive response is “Make their employment hinge on it. They’ll listen then.” which goes over like a leaded balloon. I spend a lot of time keeping quiet under the banner of “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Plus it’s a good thing I don’t have any power over anyone. I’d be a monster.
Another thing that pops up over and over again in my mind is the fable of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” and I find my mind dwelling on the story a lot. There isn’t anything that can be done because in some situations you simply have to endure the awkwardness of the situation. You should speak up, you should say something. You should grab the Emperor and shake him or her like a deranged british nanny and try to wake them up. But in the end you don’t. You just sit there, floating in an irritated miasma and over time it eventually wears down all your sharp edges into smooth dull rounded ones. I sometimes have little fantasies that I like to entertain from time to time, what I would do in certain situations. I end up imagining what I would do in other functional positions with what I know of my passion, my drive, and my work ethic. That I just can’t sit around waiting. That I’ve got to do something, anything, because not doing something would be hell. A good part of this all is that I’m an accomplishment junkie. I love the emotional rush of getting something finished. I don’t care about recognition, I’m quite happy being the ignored little cog in the great watchmakers design, but this cog will do something! I think that’s what I left with from NIU and this mini-conference. What would I do in some of these situations? I still have the idealism and energy of my youth and I’d make sweeping pronouncements and back it up with aggression nobody has ever witnessed. Again, it’s a good thing I keep my own counsel and stay silent.
Beyond some of this more aggressive stuff, we were able to help other people out with some issues they were having and sharing the plight of one institution almost always leads to other institutions either suggesting a new thing to try or accidentally fixing something for someone else who happens to be a semi-involved bystander. It also helps to know that you aren’t the only one, that other people are wrestling with the same kinds of things and in the way that you aren’t really alone offers a kind of consolation. You aren’t singularly damned, you’re just like all the others who are struggling with, well, whatever it may be.
At the end of our meeting we opened the floor to a general question about who might host next time. The fine folks from the University of Wisconsin Foundation leapt at the opportunity so next year we’ll be Milwaukee-bound. I am looking forward to it.