Business theatre is a lot more common than most people expect. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert shares a tale about being tasked to make a silly movie idea come to life in a Dot Com company.
I mentioned at the end of last week’s column that I had a duffel bag full of ‘business theatre’ stories.  I meant it –business theatre is a far more common practice than most people want to admit. Here’s one of my favourite examples:
This happened right at the nadir of the Dot Com Bubble era. The firm I was working for at the time had been hired to create – from scratch – an entire Internet business. By ‘create,’ I mean we were expected to create a business plan, outfit a new corporate building, hire and train all of the employees, write the applications, build all of the support systems, take the ‘product’ live (whatever it turned out to be), and start making money so that the would-be venture capitalists could ‘flip’ the business after its IPO and make a boot full of dosh. In theory, each expert in our little army of Dot Com consultants – 120 strong – would complete his or her assigned company creation tasks and would then hire someone off the street to replace him-/herself. It was a suspect plan to begin with, especially when you realized that we were blitzkrieg-ing the creation of a company that was the fifth entrant in a market niche that could barely keep one dominant player financially afloat.
My role was to kit out and staff all of the internal business IT systems and services. We had one dynamite team for networks and infrastructure, and a separate team for app development and production hosting. I got to spin up everything else – the ‘ash and trash’ elements that the sexy teams didn’t care about – elements like e-mail, file servers, print servers, the telephone switch, etc. The other two teams were staffed entirely with ‘rock star’ programmers and router technicians; they didn’t bother hiring any outsiders until after their setup work was done. I was on my own – no other consultants – and got to hire all of my help desk staff and field repair techs to help me get the company’s internal systems built. If I’m being honest, I preferred it that way. None of my lads had a swollen ego to manage, because I chose my players; I didn’t have them foisted upon me.
For reasons I’ll probably never understand, my IT Ops team was quartered beside the data centre on the skyscraper’s eighth floor … that is, beside the production team’s data centre. Theirs was a massive ‘fishbowl’ complex with floor-to-ceiling glass panels that showcased three parenthesis-shaped rows of Sun Microsystems servers. I think they had 45 different 5U and 7U sized monsters in that room, most of which didn’t do a damned thing (even back then, you could run the entire business off of one Solaris box). Their glamorous data centre was intended to be a crowd-wow’er – the architect even built a little ‘viewing gallery’ space at the end of the wing where visitors could be escorted to bask (with appropriate mood lighting) in the glow of the MIGHTY INTERNET SERVERS!
Meanwhile, all of our day-to-day kit was stuffed into a couple of dull Compaq racks in the tiny utility room on the ninth floor. Our gear wasn’t sexy, but it ran the company.
The super-sexy-awesome™ production-side web server data centre was shaped like an orchestra pit rather than like a conventional working room, which left us some strange shapes in the architecture to work around. My team all shared the same cubicle lane on the Southwest-most corner of the eight floor, and we managed to claim a triangular-shaped void in the building plan as our storeroom for all of new kit and spare parts, since no one involved in the design of an ‘Internet company’ thought that we might need space to store computer parts. 
Exactly at the junction between the curvy-wacky showcase data centre and my minimally-efficient storeroom was a peculiar little closet that seemed to have been designed by an angst-y teenager who was going through her Goth phase: the room was too narrow to be good for anything, and it had been painted completely black. The walls, ceiling tiles, door, and even the carpet were all black. A slab desk (also black) was built down the length of North wall, just underneath a large, tinted, plate-glass window that looked into the East-facing sexy data centre from the side. I’d reviewed the plans for the building and had never received an explanation as to what this little sepulchre of a closet was supposed to be for.
Most of the time, our more cynical consultants would use the Black Room™ as a reasonably safe break area where we could talk amongst ourselves without risk of being overheard by the client. We’d slip away form the cubicle lanes and would drift back to the hidden hallway where the secret entrance to the mysterious little empty room was. Most of the time, if you positioned yourself just so, you were invisible from the viewing gallery outside. You could then bitch about whatever was vexing you with a sympathetic audience. The room was useful in that respect.
A week before the company’s so-called ‘Global Launch Party,’ one of the directors called me down to his palatial office and demanded to know why I (meaning IT Ops) hadn’t finished kitting out the company’s ‘Monitoring Centre’ yet. I told the man that I had utterly no idea what he was talking about. I’d designed internal tech services for the entire complex, and there wasn’t a ‘monitoring centre’ anywhere in the business plan or anywhere on the blueprints. It took me several minutes to figure out that the irate gentleman was referring to our blacked-out mystery room, and that he had a spectacular vision for it … a vision that he’d neglected to ever share with anyone else.
‘The Monitoring Centre,’ he hissed, ‘is where our 24/7 Internet command centre crew will watch the Internet in real-time to guarantee that our customers’ transactions get through reliably.’
I choked down the most appropriate retorts and said only: ‘Eh … no. We don’t have anyone in the company that does that.’
‘Yes we do!’ He shouted. ‘Our customers expect it!’
I blinked, and tried to play along. ‘Just for clarity’s sake, our customers expect what, exactly?’
The director sneered at me as if I were a disobedient toddler. ‘When we bring investors to the building, they expect to see a crack team of engineers reprogramming the Internet to make sure our service is faster than any other!’
I blinked again, now stalling for time. I had no response to the man’s assertion that didn’t involve rudely questioning his tenuous grip on reality. The man was daft. After several seconds, I changed tack slightly and asked him to describe to me what his desired end-state would look like. He grudgingly obliged.
In this director’s vision, a group of wealthy investors would be taken on a tour of the building as part of the company’s sales pitch:
- All of the outsiders would be treated to a slide show in the executive conference room (easy enough).
- The marketing director would then walk the visitors down the North hallway where they could see all of the programmers in the North-side long hall, hard at work ‘writing code’ (er … okay).
- At the end of the hallway, the visitors would reach the viewing gallery and would find themselves dazzled by the shiny chrome-and-white production data centre (sure; it wasartsy).
- Then the guide would point out the ‘Monitoring Centre’ through the fishbowl glass, where a team of engineers would be hard at work ‘re-routing the Internet’ to mitigate ‘network storms’ on the ‘other side of the world’ (No. No! No no no no no no no no …).
In this fellow’s vision, the visitors would be awestruck by the sight of a dark room that was totally covered (floor to ceiling) with massive video screens that displayed real-time representations of all Internet traffic, superimposed over maps of the world. Young men with crisp haircuts and headsets would be typing furiously and manipulating panels that were saturated with buttons, blinking lights, and levers. Such a sight would reassure our awed investors that their money would be safe with us, since our competitors had no such capability to ‘manage the Internet.’
That was true enough, because no one else had any such ‘capability.’ The one glaring problem with the idea was that we didn’t have any such capability either. It was utter fancy. It was a fever dream crossed with an LSD flashback. ‘Reprogram’ the Internet? ‘Re-route’ our customers’ network traffic ‘around’ broadcast storms? The director was talking utter bollocks. Anyone with an ounce of technically savvy would be able to call us out as awful liars if we tried to claim that we were going anything even vaguely like that.
Eventually, I managed to suss out that the director wanted our little start-up to have something like the famous NORAD Command Centre in Colorado. To him, the photos that he’d seen on the news about how the USAF monitored the skies for Soviet nuclear bombers was exactly like what all ‘high tech’ companies should have. He dreamed of a massive room full of video screens and serious men in suits ‘tracking’ things.’ He expected us to cram a dozen large screen displays into a four-foot by twelve-foot room where they’d all be clearly intelligible from twenty feet away through two layers of glass. Also, he wanted us to display content that we didn’t have access to in a fashion that we couldn’t use, in order to give the (utterly false) impression that we could perform miracles.
I wasn’t about to put any of my people into a position where they had to either (a) try and create this impossibility, or (b) try to fake it. I was just a consultant, and would be safely outside the blast area before the summer was over. My hires, however, would have to live with this nutty director until he inevitably imploded. If he felt like we were stalling, or trying to thwart him, or somehow threatened his pocket empire, he might take his fear and frustration out on my lads. That would not do.
So, then. I’d have to take the entire thing on my own without telling anyone what I was up to. By the time anyone noticed, I’d be past-tense … and all of my lads could honestly claim to have known nothing about the operation. I smiled, took out my notebook, and asked the (now seething) director what he’d like to see built – and I promised him that I’d build it myself.
We were far enough into our frenzied preparation for the launch party that explaining to the director why he was insane was a waste of time that was much better spent elsewhere. I told him that I’d get right on it and left his office before I completely lost my composure.
After everyone left the office that evening, I went back and forth from my storeroom to the ‘Monitoring Centre’ and rigged up a pathetic simulacrum of the man’s vision using spare parts. I rigged up two PCs with always-on screensavers to bathe the room in colour. I propped up a white board on the back wall and covered it with meaningless notes so that we’d have a back-wall projection screen for the PCs. I covered the desk with extra surge protectors so that their power-on buttons would project orange light upwards from the concealed slab desk. Then I turned the room’s lights off, so that the blazing spotlights in the data centre would make the ‘Monitoring Centre’ look more like a bunker. It worked: from the viewing gallery, you could just barely tell that there was a window in the South wall of the Data Centre. All you could tell was that there were a lot of electronics turned on in the room behind the mysterious window. You couldn’t, however, tell if there were any people in the room.
Having accomplished my tasks, I went home  and had a pint (or two). When I explained to my brother-consultant roomie what we’d had to rig up to satisfy the addled director, he laughed until he cried. So did I, if I’m honest.
As it turned out, the launch party was a non-issue. A few visitors took the marketing types up on their offer of a tour of the building, but they weren’t really interested in the gee-whiz spiel. Our building was done up in ‘Dot Com Chic,’ made up mostly of pretentiously-designed, purple-and-yellow, cubicle farms interspersed with ‘Brainstorming Chambers’ and a dozen executive suits. Not that it mattered; most of the outsiders were journalists, not investors, and they were all more interested in the open bar than the impossible-to-see ‘Monitoring Centre.’ They only speciality room that they wanted to inspect was the loo.
From a strictly ‘business theatre’ perspective, what the barmy director wanted was an impossibility. As best I could tell, this bloke really believed that networks staff could do the kinds of things that he’d seen in terrible movies. He was genuinely incensed that we weren’t living up to his unwarranted expectations. From a long-term perspective, the man needed to be taught why and how his expectations were irrational (preferably before he said something to a journo that would get the entire company laughed out of the market). We didn’t have the time to deal with him, though, so the only practical tactic available to us (that didn’t necessitate counterproductive drama) was to build a decoy ‘Monitoring Centre’ to mollify the fellow long enough for the rest of us consultant to escape the doomed outfit before it collapsed.
I left that gig about a month later. I heard through one of my mates that the whole company went under less than a year later, after the Dot Com bubble burst. I also heard that the ‘Monitoring Centre’ was still fully kitted-out on the day that all the employees were terminated and the doors locked forever.
I have no idea what ever happened to the rogue director. I don’t think I ever spoke to that director again after that ridiculous confrontation. He’s probably fabulously wealthy by now, and is no doubt torturing his current IT team: ‘I had a Global Internet Monitoring Centre in the 2000s,’ I can imagine him sneering. ‘So I see no reason why you can’t build me one now with modern technology.’
 Business theatre, as I defined it, means the manipulation of workers, workplaces, and activities in such a way as to give an outsider a completely false impression of what’s going on inside a business.
 I was viciously chewed out by an angry director at that company because I’d stacked some CRT monitors four-high in the storeroom and the tops of the boxes could be seen through the storeroom’s window from the hallway. I was acidly informed that it was ‘inappropriate’ to allow our computer equipment be seen by customers; such a gaffe was (somehow) as vulgar as wearing one’s pants outside of one’s trousers. Bear in mind, this was supposed to be an Internet company.
 ‘Home,’ in those days, was a furnished corporate flat in downtown Houston. All of us consultants spent 26-30 days living at the engagement site, working 6-7 days per week, with maybe one weekend off to fly home to see our families. Since I didn’t hold management rank, I was billeted with another senior consultant from the Business Development Office.
Keil 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.