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Do you work in IT at RBS? Or at the next place to get hit ...?

Here's a handy guide to riding out the storm

What to tell the Big Guys

If you work at RBS you understand that they don’t know or care anything about technology. They care about “business” – ie, accountancy and internal politics – and so they so will judge your competence on those grounds. Someone who says: “We shouldn’t have fired everyone who earned more than a Glasgow street cleaner” is digging his own grave at this sort of meeting and frankly it doesn’t help in any objective sense.

I’m not a CA-7 guru, so adjust these key phrases to your local environment. Good things to say at war meetings include:

“Let’s focus on delivering a solution, not on how we got here” – to be said every time someone who hasn’t read this piece complains.

“The focus needs to be on a simple solution that we know will work.”

“However confident we are that this will deliver, we should make sure we have a plan B.”

“I agree with you.”

“We need to work as a team on this.”

Do not get involved in arguments, wait until a consensus emerges and reinforce it.

What if someone wants to do something crazy?

With this sort of stress it is tempting to come down hard on people who suggest solutions that will not only corrupt the database but set a server on fire as well (yep, one of my guys did that once).

Firstly, you’re tired, so before you shout them down, think a bit longer. You may be putting a stop to a good solution being tried you may make yourself look bad, and yes in this sort of situation that is the priority. In fact you need to look like the one who is trying to build a rational consensus. Since RBS shafted its experienced people your manager may not have the depth to mediate when warring factions of IT pro demand radically different approaches.

Yes, I use the words “focus” and “delivery” too much. So should you.

If you’re a senior exec at RBS

You’re only reading this because someone printed it out for you and other media are quoting us. That’s because your IT staff trust random tech journalists that they’ve never met with the truth more than they trust you.

The stuff I’ve written for your lackeys isn’t actually new. Many will have worked out that telling the truth is bad for their careers so they will be optimistic to their managers who will be spinning to their bosses who will be delivering good news to theirs (repeat until your pay grade is reached). This will have catastrophic effects on your cushy job and if you want to keep your corporate golf membership and nice dinners with suppliers who take you to the Olympics and Wimbledon you need truth.

Look at what happened to Sir Ian Blair, head of Scotland Yard, when his officers shot a Brazillian electrician by mistake. Because his staff lied to him, he spouted crap on camera that made him look dishonest rather than incompetent. Choose which of those got him fired. You need to speak to foot soldiers alone and to use the political skills that got you there to get them to trust you. Because let’s be clear: a rational IT pro knows the only side you are on is yours, not the bank’s and certainly not theirs.

Ironically that means the peasants (don’t kid me you have a more polite word), might actually tell you the truth simply because they know that you’re too important to bother screwing with them personally and that when this is over, they won’t be worth persecuting.

Conversely, they won’t believe your offers of protection for dobbing in their managers. You didn’t get to where you are today because of your personal integrity. And yes we have met, at Bishopsgate as you may recall.

If you’re to keep the board happy, you need to present some plausible version of the truth together with a plan that actually stands a chance of stopping it happening again. Your PR people are earning their keep, stonewalling the press. That’s their job as you defined it to them. It’s what they always do. Is that working out well for you?

Blaming the Indians

They’re cheap and foreign, so Unite and other unions are quite happy for them to carry the can. It is tempting to join in. Apparently it’s fine for unions to characterise them as incompetent, but do not say this about the ones in your office because they have legal rights that Indians who live in India do not. Plus it is rude.

Accenture sell their “services” heavily on the idea that they can get the firm working together. Whatever you think of their delivery, no one anywhere is better at marketing services and they know that an article of faith for senior management in almost all firms is that if only “people worked as a team” everything would be great.

As an IT pro you will see this mess as proof that outsourcing to India is insane. But you’re not going to be on the golf course when the nice men point out to the decision makers that their bonuses will be improved by the short-term cost savings to be gained that way. They’ve learned from the masters at Accenture and will spin this mess as being a result of the two teams not being integrated closely enough, so expect the UK dog to be moved to the Indian tail.


I wrote this piece because I’ve been involved in IT snafus myself (caused them, moi?) and my experience points to what may happen on 3/4 July. By this point the team dealing with the mess will be in a dreadful state. Bone weary, stressed and their stomachs retaliating from a diet of caffeine and fast food.

Some know that this morass was at least partly their fault and because no other UK bank was damned foolish enough to outsource to Hyderabad, using technology almost no one uses in India or the UK, they are looking at career meltdown.

The need to provide consistently positive messages to the golf players back in head office, meaning that there will have been pressure not to bring to light any risks, AKA “sending a consistent message”.

So you have people doing their job, but not thinking. Some critical staff will have gone home because they won’t be able to function even at the menial level required by RBS.

So I do expect an aftershock. Maybe a batch will be run twice (we’ve all done that – I’m just admitting it publicly), or test/debug code will be executed on the live database, or the “positive news” to senior management will have masked a problem that only gets worse until it gets fixed or RBS is shut down.

So I’m sticking my neck out and saying that during this week something else bad will happen. I put that at about 80 per cent during this week, with about a 40 to 50 per cent chance that the consequences will leak out of RBS, making the chances about one-in-three that customers suffer more pain.

That’s not enough for me to say that you shouldn't use RBS for any banking, but if it’s a transaction you care about, best do it somewhere else. ®

Before becoming a City headhunter, Dominic Connor was a mildly competent head of IT as well as developer for various banks. RBS still run some decade old code of his, he wishes them good luck with it.

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