How the BlackBerrys Stole Christmas

The BlackBerry gave ambitious liars a great way to pretend to be more active in company affairs than they really are. Business Technology’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert laments how some schemers use their remote e-mail to interfere with IT operations during the traditional holiday exodus.

Today marks the approximate halfway point in America’s traditional ‘holiday exodus’ period. Every year, starting the fourth week of November, it becomes amazingly difficult to find key decision makers in American businesses. The great escape continues through the end of the first week of January. It’s a holiday tradition that goes back decades, according to some of my older teammates. Since the fourth Thursday in November is America’s ‘Thanksgiving’ holiday, and since many US companies recognize the Friday after Thanksgiving as a bonus holiday, it’s common for savvy employees to burn three days of vacation at the start of the week, turning it into a very cost-effective nine day holiday. Further, the closer that you get to Christmas and New Year’s, the more that people who have vacation days to burn will spend it so that they’re home while their children or grandchildren are on their winter break from school.

It’s also a general trend that the higher the position a person holds in a company, the more vacation days they get per year. Also, the longer someone has worked for a company, the more vacation days they’re usually entitled to per year. When you put those two factors together, it means that the new line worker may get a day or two of vacation during the holiday period (if she’s lucky), while the Vice President of Widget Calibration usually has dozens of accumulated vacation days built up and, therefore, can’t be found on most work days from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

Further, the so-called ‘holiday season’ often imposes a great many external activities on people. It’s not just the kids coming home from school; the wealthier folks around the office have a great many fêtes to attend in the evenings and over the weekends. The more organisations a person belongs to, then the greater number of holiday events that they’re expected to attend. These can occur during work hours (like a departmental luncheon) or after (like a company-sponsored formal dinner). Regardless, they take time to plan and prepare for – thereby necessitating more time off.
The net effect of all this vacationing and partying is that normal business activities get compromised. For any activity that requires multiple participants, there sees to always be at least one important team member that’s inaccessible. As you get closer to Christmas week, the probability that a key person will be available drops to zero. The office becomes a ghost town. It’s … wonderful.

It's not that we don't like you; you just get in our bloody way when we're trying to get things done.
It’s not that we don’t like you; you just get in our bloody way when we’re trying to get things done.

For an IT person, it’s our winter wonderland. With so many people missing from the ranks, we finally have time and manoeuvre room to make disruptive changes to the company’s infrastructure without the usual roster of jack-waggons making a fuss over it. Even on the days when you have half-staff around, it usually doesn’t take more than a visit with a tray of biscuits to convince the people who actually came to work to allow you to take them offline for a switch upgrade. Everyone is accommodating – after all, they can’t accomplish most of their critical tasks either, so what’s the big deal about another mild annoyance. We’d often get more infrastructure enhancements completed in late December than we’d get done throughout the rest of the year.

At least, that’s how it used to be … before the thrice-damned BlackBerry changed business culture.

The BlackBerry handset was little more than a silly status symbol when it first came out. Would-be movers and shakers carried them to show off how important they were. The bloke with the BB would whip his little two-way pager out and make a big show of how he could dash off an e-mail from anywhere, as if that actually accomplished anything meaningful. I loathed the damned things, because they gave vain executives the illusion of productivity. It actually made them markedly less effective than they’d been when they only had a mobile phone. But, whatever. Status symbol. Ugh.

Over time, the CrackBerrys became more accessible to the non-executives. Soon, everyone wanted one to show off how important they were. That led to a new style of posturing that continues to vex us all today: an ambitious schemer wants to give everyone the impression that she works longer and harder than her competitors, so she uses her mobile e-mail device to make unreasonable demands of her co-workers at odd hours. She may be at the club at two a.m., but she’ll make it look like she’s slaving away in the office by issuing demands via e-mail for information from co-workers who are most definitely not paying attention to their inbox in the middle of the night. Then, when people don’t respond by the schemer’s unrealistic deadlines (‘I need those files before 7!’), she gets to crow about how no one else in the company is as dedicated as she is, and therefore why she deserves to be a vice president, etc.

This game evolved when we went to BYOD and opened up our company e-mail systems to every major handset operating system, and allowed workers to get their company e-mail on their personal mobiles. Soon, everyone could play the ‘I’m a better employee than you game’ all day, every day. You can always tell who the Bobs are in your office are by looking for odd demands for information or assistance that appear in messages featuring creation dates that fall outside conventional working hours. Sometimes, it’s because a worker really is dedicated; most of the time, it’s because some clever lad is trying to score points with upper management at his cubicle mates’ expense.

It's not that we don't like you; you just get in our bloody way when we're trying to get things done.
It’s not that we don’t like you; you just get in our bloody way when we’re trying to get things done.

This silly game had largely robbed us in IT of our treasured holiday upgrade window. Prior to the BlackBerry era, a worker who was out of the office was simply out. You might try calling them at home, or (later on) on their mobile, but it was hit-and-miss as to whether or not you’d reach them. No matter what, so long as they were away from the office, they weren’t negatively impacted by any systems outages that we IT folks caused at the office. Then the BlackBerrys came, and ambitious people realized that they could have it both ways: they could be out of the office for holiday parties and vacation, but still give everyone the impression that they were hard at work at the office.

Here’s how the dodge worked: IT would send a courtesy warning to everyone in a certain building that they’d be losing connectivity from, say, ten to noon for an upgrade. Up-and-comer Bob Blowhard would spot our announcement from his mobile and would immediately reply-all to it (so that his equally-absent bosses would take notice) stating that it was ‘simply unacceptable’ for IT to cut off his services while he was ‘deeply engrossed’ in the such-and-such project. Ninety percent of the time, when you went to Bob’s building to negotiate with him, his office was locked up and dark. Bob wasn’t actually working, and wasn’t at work – but if you went forward with the planned outage, Bob would raise holy hell to his boss about how he was ‘negatively impacted,’ and his boss would demand that IT stop interfering with Bob’s important work. There were some Blowhard Bob types who only checked their inbox each day to look for such opportunities in order to find outage notices so that they could pit their bosses against IT for their own aggrandisement. Bloody twits.

The end result was that IT is now caught handicapped throughout the traditional holiday exodus every year: when we try to take advantage of the relatively free time to get work done, we find ourselves remotely thwarted at every turn by ambitious Bobs. So, we can either comply with our Service Level Agreements to notify our customers via e-mail of potential network outages (and thereby get Bob’d via BlackBerry diatribe) or we can simply bull ahead with our plans without notifying anyone (and run the risk of taking a real employee offline on accident). It’s become a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation, and it’s annoying as hell.

Office Bobs are the main reason why us IT folks tend to drink heavily during the holiday season
Office Bobs are the main reason why us IT folks tend to drink heavily during the holiday season

The only way I’ve found to get around this is to pre-empt the Blowhard Bobs of the world by publishing a notice to all-hands at the beginning of November that systems outage notices may not be published by e-mail for the last two months of the year, in deference to people’s busy schedules. Then, when we want to actually cut a building or a network segment off, we either walk through the affected floors, talking to the employees who are actually there face-to-face, or else we use the building’s overhead paging system to let all of the employees who are physically present know that they’re about to be down, and that they can call the Help Desk if they have concerns. We try to deprive the Bobs of their ability to interfere with our work from their bloody BlackBerrys.

Along those lines, there is one thing that all of us IT heads would desperately like to receive for Christmas: we’d like someone to publish a AI that reads both the contents of e-mail messages and the geographic location of where the message was sent from. Any time a Blowhard Bob falsely claims to be ‘in the office’ in an e-mail message when they’re actually not on company premises, the AI will then send a command to the handset that discharges it’s entire remaining electrical charge into the sending Bob’s hand. Maybe a little Skinnerian conditioning can help get us our precious holiday exodus period back …


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership and IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

© Business Reporter 2021

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