Laid-off IT workers: You want free on-demand service for what now?

Zombie programmers awaken ... and they're pretty tetchy

Updated Some HR person at Atlanta's SunTrust Banks has come up with what they genuinely believe is a clever idea – after dumping 100 of its IT staff, the billion-dollar financial institution is requiring them to remain available to help out for free for two years.

You can see how this makes sense; we’ve all had co-workers leave and then realised that they were the only one who understood some ancient REXX (ask your dad) or were the only actual F# programmer in the building (Visual F# and Visual C# are not even vaguely similar).

As a new grad I found myself in a firm where they’d shafted all the developers during a financial glitch and discovered that although they had the source code of the system, they didn’t have the right Makefile and so couldn’t tell which version of which source file actually worked. Couldn’t I "just put it back together?"

SunTrust has also made the staff train up their replacements. Yes really. Then it let them go. Nice.

Imagine the scene; you say to your boss that you’ve got to stop working on his project and go help a firm that’s probably a competitor. The fact that you’ve got that thing hanging over you hardly makes you more employable.

Also, the security permissions of people in IT are often more than senior execs, because like dentists and proctologists they must access sensitive bits of the IT body. As Jerome Kerviel showed, this ain’t no theoretical risk punted by a security sales droid.

Anyone who (like me) has had to deal with the tech/legal fall out of what happens when good IT pros go bad knows that the number one reason for sabotage, "accidentally on purpose" fraud, and sloppiness that is hard to discriminate from malice, is a feeling of being wronged.

It doesn’t even have to be justified, revenge motivates everyone from Bond villains to BOFHs. One hundred IT pros can wreak more damage than a Death Star and more cheaply, because they’re not being paid. I’d pay them money to stay away. So, what will happen?

Do you really want to call the ex-staffers in?

You’re a manager with a dozen staff back from the dead. They hate you. A lot. They hate your firm, your customers, your systems and your dog. How good a job do you think they’ll do? Maybe HR sent you an email saying that "not being paid will incentivise them to work faster". Great.

Can you trust even one line of code they write? Remember, if you deeply understood what they were doing, you’d not need them in the first place. Then we get the arguments.

Managing IT pros is like herding cats. If you change even one line of my code, you are responsible for every bug ever after. So they’ll blame the Indian outsourcers, and maybe they’ll be right, maybe their hatred of the people who took their jobs might possibly just affect their judgment ?

Of course the outsourcers will want to blame the old programmers for the crap code base they inherited, but of course they’re, umm, well, err in India, so your job is to referee slanging matches between an Indian whose boss has told him to blame every problem on the crap old code and someone who used to be your friend saying that it was supposed to work that way.

Of course I may be too harsh, maybe the outsourcers act wholly without self interest and with utmost personal integrity.

In the modern globalised world, one of the most important soft skills is not any given foreign language, but the ability to understand people who don’t speak English well. Imagine a conversation with a Zombie Techie when he actively doesn’t want to understand or be understood?

And there are other soft issues, such as morale. You’ve got really unhappy people who know dirt about your firm coming back and griping, and some will now have better jobs.

Then of course all of them will read this article. Perhaps some of them will adopt unacceptable behaviour like staring at female staff (or the groins of males), emitting noxious bodily gases loudly, parking in the CEO’s reserved spot, wearing a T-shirt with the logo of some hate organisation (or rude words in Hindi), smiling madly at people in the corridor, all stuff that would get you fired – but of course they want to be fired.

The nuclear weapon is of course the regulators. We all know banks systems are really bad and the regulators are (at last) keeping an eye on things. Forcing disaffected programmers to fix a broken system could so very easily arm a whistleblower with an investigation. Even if they find nothing it’s an expensive hassle.

Oh yes and as their manager, you get blamed, HR has already banked the bonus.

So SunTrust may say that some of the work must be done by phone. This is the clearest evidence that a clueless HR bod came up with this idea. We’ve all done a bit of phone support, of the form "have you looked at the Grotax log" and of course "try turning the entire bank's data centre off and on again".

Maybe you’re smarter than me, lots of people are, and maybe you can debug a 200,000-line program that you’ve haven’t looked at in two years without having the code in front of you, or a debugger and with the "help" of an Indian outsourcer whose primary reason for being hired is that he was cheap, but not good enough to get a work permit.

Saving money. Really?

Its "logic" was this is a cost-saving exercise, but it would have saved far more by simply saying that if we need you, would you come back for twice your daily rate?

Sweeten this a bit by showing them the glowing reference you’ve written since they’re sharp enough to know that this is a variable, and thus a gentle, threat. When you do call them in, do it with respect (maybe more money), not coercion.

Last time I dumped an entire team of contractors I cut them a deal where they’d have to come back a couple of days a month to fix and tweak the system they’d built, and we’d choose which days and we would pay them.

If you’re a freelancer, you know the difference between it being a lucrative option and something to fill the gaps, so they were very happy bunnies and I saved the bank a fortune by not paying under-utilised staff.

So when the fan was well and truly hit six months later, they literally came running and crushed the problems because they knew the system and were motivated to help us out. They fixed first and we sorted the money later.


Since the publication of this story, SunTrust released a statement about the severance deal, claiming it is "a rare occasion when we need to call a former employee. The 'continuing cooperation' clause is designed to assist the company under scenarios that arise infrequently when we need access to knowledge possessed by a former employee."

If you work at SunTrust or know anyone involved in this perfect shitstorm, feel free to contact me via The Register. ®

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