Finance / The American View: Disposable Side-By Heroes

The American View: Disposable Side-By Heroes

Printers seem like a weird thing to get excited about. They’re just tools, right? Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert explains why grumpy old IT pros tend to get strangely excited about elegant logistics solutions.

My mate Eduardo razzed me about getting worked up over printers in last week’s column. ‘Nobody,’ he said, ‘cares that much about printers. You IT people are all loons.’ I countered that since he’d never run an IT outfit before, he probably couldn’t relate. Sure, maybe end-users don’t need to care, but whoever’s running the IT plant spends far too much of his or her time obsessing over lifecycle management issues. We get quite keyed up over planning, evaluating, purchasing, prepping, deploying, sustaining, inventorying, and scrapping material. It’s sort of like being an armourer and tracking of all your regiments’ armaments. In fact, that’s a really useful way to think about it …

Let’s step back to the late 1970s. I was unashamedly Army-mad as a kid. Cold War, family tradition, looming Soviet threat saturating pop culture, all that. I wanted to be a soldier. To humour me, my father took a group of us primary school aged boys down to our local National Guard armoury for a tour for … some reason. I was young enough that I can’t remember why we went. Scouts, maybe? Whatever. What I do remember was getting to climb on one of unit’s M151 4X4s and pose next to its (to nine-year-old me) enormous M40 recoilless rifle. We got a great photo of that: two of my very bored classmates in the jeep’s front seats with me doing my best pre-pubescent Patton impression beside the anti-tank gun. Even with 70s photo processing, it’s clear that I was over the moon.

Flash forward to the late 1980s: I was a scrawny seventeen-year-old in Army Basic Combat Training. When our Senior Drill Sergeant announced that we’d be marching to the ‘weapons familiarization’ range, I excitedly asked if we’d get a chance to fire a recoilless rifle. [1] My highly-annoyed Drill Sergeant explained that the Army had wisely replaced the 17kg rifle with the much more portable, less-expensive, and (most importantly) disposable M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon, a 2.7kg single-shot rocket launcher. [2] He promised that we’d get to fire one of those, instead (and we did!).

We only got to fire one harmless training rocket, but it was exhilarating. Bittersweet, too, since I wasn’t allowed to carry or use a rocket launcher as a field medic. 

‘After all,’ he said, most soldiers are only ever going to need to attack a tank or a bunker once or twice in their lives (if at all). There’s no sense wasting a heavy, cumbersome, expensive, recoilless rifle that requires considerable skill to use on a disposable grunt like you.’ As he explained it, it made sense. The Army could spend tens of thousands on a vehicle and assigned it a dedicated crew (driver, gunner, and loader) to race around with a crate of shells, or they could give a disposable rocket launcher to a dozen grunts for a few hundred dollars each and spread the capability out to make it more survivable. Made perfect sense.

Anyway, flash forward another dozen years to when I took over an IT department. Trust me – this is related. One of my first challenges was to ‘do something’ about the infuriating state of the organization’s printing infrastructure. One of my contractors – call him Scott [3] – had been given free-reign to ‘modernize’ the printer fleet. He’d replaced all of the legacy ribbon- and ink cartridge-based devices. He’d also switched every building over to shared infrastructure, placing one networked laser printer in each office. Saved a bundle, buying up super-cheap Lexmarks for about £500 each (back when a comparable HP model would easily run double to triple that).

Scott was quite pleased with himself. He’d halved the total number of printers on the master inventory, easily doubled the number of users who had access to a printer, and got far more for his money than he’d could have purchased buying the organisation’s preferred brand. His radical redesign should’ve been a ‘win’ for IT. Instead, the users were furious … and I got an earful over it. I’m not trying to blast Scott’s judgment; his decision made economic and technological sense. He did purge an awful lot of obsolete gear, too. I called it a qualified success. That being said, Scott’s implementation made some users’ situations worse.

For starters, the super-cheap Lexmarks he’d bought were built based on an extreme implementation of the ‘razor-and-blades’ business model. To be fair, nearly every printer manufacturer (other than HP) had worked out that it was better to sell their gear at cost and then profit on the consumables. These beasties, though, took the model to ridiculous extreme. Lexmark sold their units for a £500 each, because their replacement toner cartridges cost £300 each! That was (at the time) more than double what the equivalent genuine HP version cost, and quadruple what a third-party knockoff cost.

‘Cost-competitive’ my left boot. It would have been cheaper to hand-write all of our official correspondence with quill pens and bald eagle tears. 

Making things worse, many of these networked ‘workgroup’ printers were shared by multiple offices … but were only owned by one. That meant that a department that routinely printed 1,000 pages a month (and budgeted accordingly for paper and toner) was responsible for paying for 5,000+ pages/month in consumables … but they hadn’t been funded to cover multiple offices’ requirements. Smaller offices got to leach off of the nearest large office’s budget. Whoops!

So, what was a responsible cost-centre manager to do? Buy the cheap Chinese knock-off toner cartridges, of course! IT had forbidden doing that in official policy, but our rule was difficult to enforce when every cost centre manager had his or her own company credit card. The result was predictable: broken machinery everywhere. Over six months, the number of ‘fouled printer’ tickets in our Service Desk queue skyrocketed. Many of those machines were down for weeks at a time while we waited for replacement parts … which drove the affected users to print to the next floor over’s shared printer, thereby increasing the stress on someone else’s budget, which led to more cost-cutting, then more reversion to cheap knockoffs, and … yeah. Lovely domino effect.

We struggled to hold back the tide of user discontent. We intercepted and binned unauthorized toner cartridges. We sent our techs to Lexmark’s maintainer school so that they could order repair parts directly. We pre-emptively bought super-high-capacity Lexmark original toner cartridges for our entire printer fleet. None of it was enough. The printers kept failing and overwhelmed our ability to keep the fleet running. So, once they were out of warranty, we scrapped the lot of them.

This is where that ordnance reconceptualization story triggered a thought. It wasn’t that I wanted Scott – a grumpy old Air Force veteran – to adopt my Army way of thinking. Instead, I argued that we needed a more balanced mix of capabilities. Large and tough workhorses, small and cheap occasionals, and everything in between, all fit-for-purpose. I remembered what my Drill Sergeant had taught me about needs-based planning, and told Scott that we needed to reassess our users’ requirements. Then we could deliver them an equipment and support line-up that matched their hardware to their needs, while protecting IT from absorbing excessive repair costs.

Even taking replacement parts out of the equation, my labour cost for diagnosing and repairing some of these beasts exceeded some printers’ original purchase cost. 

First, we used historical consumables spending to show us which users printed the most. HR, for example, went through a ton of paper since they needed hardcopies of all of the hiring and firing forms, promotion and demotion forms, etc. Likewise, the accountants burned through paper for payroll and travel reimbursement forms. We noticed that those groups used almost exclusively standard US Letter (A4-ish) sized documents in black-and-white. They didn’t need special paper

sizes or colour printing; just a heavy-duty kit. To meet their needs, we reinforced their heavy-duty black-and-white office printers with direct access to the organisation’s monster Xerox photocopier.

At the same time, we only had a few workgroups that legitimately needed to print in colour. The executives, for example, generated scads of slide decks, marketing copy, and fancy correspondence. The data showed that they needed top-of-the-line multifunction printers with a rapid-response (i.e., expensive) service plan. We only had a few atypical work centres that required larger paper for things like engineering drawings, pre-press layout, or large spreadsheets. So, we bought those outliers larger shared printers that featured multiple, different-sized paper bins.

Most of the full-time staff could make do with more reliable work-group printers in the common areas – so long as those machines maintained an 88% or better reliability rate. We replaced Scott’s unreliable Lexmarks with higher-quality medium-duty machines. To ensure adequate redundancy and surge capacity in each workgroup, we reverted back to the older practice of allowing all senior supervisors to have direct-attached ‘side-by’ laser printers in their offices. These were the economy model printers that I mentioned in last week’s column – the ones that cost us about £50 each … £10 more than a replacement toner cartridge.

Because they were cheap and cheerful, we didn’t care if they broke. Instead, we bought two extra new-in-box printers during the mass replacement effort and set them aside as maintenance replacements. Whenever a side-by broke in the field, we replaced it with our ‘hot spare’ immediately and ordered a replacement. Then, because these side-bys cost less than the organisation’s minimum accountability value, [4] we could scrap the broken units and mark them off the official inventory without having to waste time on warranty claims – all above-board and legal.

Corporate life is fantastic when the head lawyer and the comptroller both approve of your plan. 

The little side-by printers were IT’s version of expendable resources, like those old disposable anti-tank rockets. We took a ton of flak over the decision, since the industry was going in the opposite direction. We defied conventional wisdom and came out the better for it. Partially, this was because we convinced our bean-counters to reconsider the problem from a logistics standpoint rather than a classic financial perspective. Normally, the accountants liked to execute a single large contract for a small number of very expensive items that they could then depreciate on the books over five years before considering funding replacements. Ten or twenty thousand dollars spent once every five years was much easier to plan for and track than Much smaller and irregular increments spent nearly every month in needs-based bursts. I get why they were upset.

I won the bean-counters over by emphasizing that printers aren’t like people; they don’t learn from experience. Printers never ‘get better’ with age. More importantly, printing was a critical business enabler in most of our administrative work centres, like aircon and flushing toilets. We couldn’t afford to drop an office off-line for a month while waiting on repeat service calls. Best of all, there’s no implication of betrayal or disloyalty when you had to scrap a failed or poorly-performing printer. A strategic shift to one monster copier, a half-dozen heavy-duty workhorse printers, redundant multifunctionals, and a distributed arsenal of disposable side-bys made the most operational and logistical sense for our users. The folks allocating the money agreed, and we got on with it.

It’s not a sexy story, and it really can’t be twisted into one. The thing is, it’s exactly the sort of story that gets IT leaders fired up. It’s about overcoming longs odds, archaic traditions, and cultural obstacles to secure a victory for one’s users. Outsiders see it as dry and dull administrivia; IT folks like me and Old Scott enthusiastically relate these sorts of ‘war stories’ to one another over pints.

Eduardo is right: us IT people are kind of weird. I argue that it’s a good kind of weird, though.


[1] I’d read the entire Mechanized Infantry Field Manual before going to BCT and had memorized most of the equipment and vehicle references that it called out. Looking back, I think I was determined to emphasize the ‘mad’ in ‘Army-mad.’

[2] The LAW had actually been in the Army inventory since 1963; my Drill Sergeant has been a radio operator, and didn’t know weapons from whipped cream. We’re still using the –A7 version of the M72 LAW in Afghanistan fifty years after it first entered service.

[3] Not his real name.

[4] That is, the price-point where a user would have to reimburse the company for breaking a device. Title Allusion: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, Disposable Heroes (1986 song), off of Metallica’s thrash metal album Master of Puppets.

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: taking hill thirty-nine, wesvandinter, officer special operations, specnaz-s,  laser toner cartridge, manaemedia, broken ink printer, golubovy, financial planning consultation, Ridofranz


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture 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 Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger.

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