A HOW-NOT-TO STORY
I’m not bitter. Not anymore. Not much anyway. Hardly at all.
When I arrived at a new company, I asked to sign all the checks for the first few months because, well, that’s just what I do. So, the first check that came through for the EDMS caught my eye since it was for twenty thousand dollars or so. For a small company, that was a lot of money. When a second check came through for about the same amount a few weeks later, I started asking a lot more questions. Then I picked up the phone and called the CEO.
“Are you aware that we’re on track to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a document management system?” I asked him.
“What’s a document management system?” he responded.
I asked to tour the computer room to see where all this money was going. In the middle of the room, rising from the floor like a gleaming black monolith, was the stack of shiny HP servers that housed the document management system, its database, and its backup. The expensive monster smirked at me. Scattered against the wall, on old carts or on the floor, were some junky-looking Compaq servers that held our clinical data, our research and engineering studies, our accounting and inventory systems, and all our personnel records. By now, the IT guys were hopping around me.
“I know how this looks. This was not my recommendation. I felt that we could make this investment in a different way. I…” the external IT consultant was CYA-ing super fast.
The technical guy was more pragmatic. “Can I use these? Because the EDMS guys won’t let me. And I want to.”
“I gotta talk to some people. Is all this stuff backed up?” I asked.
“Yep, it’s all backed up every night, and there’s a backup power supply,” they told me proudly.
I backed out the door and gave the monster a dirty look.
The next day we were scheduled to have an offsite strategic planning session, and the senior staff was ordered to leave their cellphones behind so there would be no interruptions.
“But how can I reach you if I need to talk to you?” my IT manager, Mike, asked.
“You can’t, but you won’t need to,” I said rashly.
In the middle of the morning session, my cell phone (hidden in my bag) rang. Flustered, I saw that it was Mike and hung up. It rang again. Mike. I turned it off. Go away.
A few minutes later, the Engineering VP’s cell phone (hidden in his pocket) rang. He answered surreptitiously and looked at me. I shook my head. The CEO paused in his presentation and looked at us sternly over his glasses. I shook my head more vigorously. The Engineering VP spoke quietly into the phone again and then handed it across the table to me.
“He’s making me hand this to you,” he whispered. It was Mike.
“What,” I said into the phone.
“The emergency power supply has had a catastrophic failure,” he said excitedly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It kind of—blew up,” he said.
I got up and walked out of the room. I could feel the CEO’s eyes following me.
“Say that again?” I said disbelievingly.
Mike explained that the outside technician had been on site changing batteries, and when he tested the system, it suffered a “catastrophic failure.”
“You mean the technician was there when this happened?” I reiterated dumbfounded.
One of the managers appeared in the door. He had been sent to retrieve me.
“You have to come back to the meeting,” he said nervously.
“There’s been a catastrophic failure,” I told him. He went away and didn’t come back.
“What’s it going to take to fix it?” I asked into the phone.
You guessed it. Money, lots and lots of money. Money that we didn’t have because all our IT money had been spent on, you know, the EDMS.
Nine months later, after endless meetings, explanations, presentations, arguments, and verbal fistfights, the backup power supply was fixed, and the monster now housed all our corporate information, including the EDMS shell (still not a single document was in it), and the Compaq computers had been recommissioned for less critical data processing tasks.
But more madness was around the corner.
“Now we have to validate the system,” the EDMS guys told me. And someone hired a validation consultant.
“This guy’s an expert,” they said as I dolefully watched his shiny sports car pull into the lot. The name of his company was abbreviated on his vanity license plate. The bills started rolling in. I was almost stuttering by the time I showed up at LSIT’s quarterly meeting, an organization committed to standardizing Good Informatics Practices for life science companies.
“We just added a piece of equipment, and the validation cost more than the hardware,” I said, shaking my head, now more shocked than mad. They patted me on the back and made comforting noises, but this problem was not going to get solved in the short term.
Validation took months but aged me years. It occurred to me that EDMS was an anagram of “meds.” We eventually just stopped and asked the validation consultant to go away.
Then the “Training” phase began. I discovered that I am not a “process” person. I am a “Can we actually start using this darn thing?” person. And the meetings went on and on. I remember someone pulling up a screen full of little words and fields and beginning to discuss it at length. I think the point was to select the fields that you wanted to require each user to fill in to record the metadata of the document before it could be stored on the system. There must have been fifty fields on that page. I felt physically repulsed by this screen, simultaneously bored and horrified. It dawned on me that very few people in the company would have the patience to use this system, and that I myself would never put anything in there.
When the committee began to roll out the system, the EDMS guys wanted to mandate its usage for all company departments.
“We’re not going to use it in Administration,” I said firmly.
“But we’ve spent so much money on it,” the CEO said.
“That’s true. But we don’t need both a calamity and a disaster,” I groused.
The company eventually got the document management system semi-functional. It was expensive, painful, and destructive. The money and effort would have been more productively spent developing anti-viral compounds, because that’s what we were good at. I learned that lesson the hard way. When I joined my next company, the concept of an on-line DMS that required no additional hardware was very appealing. That image of the black monolith was still easy to conjure up, particularly its mocking face and associated checks. But that’s in the past. Now I can look back on it and laugh. Mostly.
Copyright © 2011 Jennifer K. Crittenden
Published in the Mission3 Newsletter-November 22, 2011