How Alan Turing could have prevented the Natwest foul-up

Managers do not understand computer geeks or what they do. So they sack them and pay the consequences

Column LAST UPDATED AT 15:13 ON Thu 28 Jun 2012
Bywater

IT IS ironic that the centenary of gay geek hero Alan Turing should have fallen in the week that RBS/NatWest went so spectacularly belly-up.

It was, of course, the computers what done it, the mainstay of modern life that Alan Turing was so influential in conceptualising. There's a rule in business: know thine enemy. There should be a corresponding one: know thy friend.

How Turing would have loved the RBS spokeswoman who said: "The software concerned was UK-based". Laugh? He'd have cried.

Just look at The Register, an online news and discussion forum heavily populated by hoary old mainframe geeks: men (mostly) who were geeks before people who aren't geeks starting trying to look like geeks: men who are much, much cleverer than you or me, 1,800 of them "let go" by RBS in order to "offshore" their data processing to India.

Mainframe computers are complex animals. Huge, multiple-machine set-ups running hundreds of barely-compatible legacy systems kludged together, many orders of magnitude more complex than the individual components would suggest.

The software at the heart of this mess is called CA–7. It's a batch job scheduler, and makes sure that all the overnight jobs run in the right order.

CA–7 is coded in upstate New York. It's running on machines… where? Edinburgh? Channai? The Cloud? The operators are now in India.

So the idea that the software is "UK-based" is a classic pre-emptive PR move by a bank who don't want customers to think it's screwed everything up by outsourcing a critical operation — the critical operation — to India in case it upsets Indians, encourages racism, or makes RBS look like foolish bean-counting short-termists.

Fail.

Yes, there is a cultural problem but its nothing to do with India. It's that management people have almost nothing in common with geeks. They wish geeks didn't exist. They don't understand what they do.

The amazing thing is that it ever got off the ground. The father of modern computing, Alan Turing, was not only the geekiest of geeks, clearly some way out along the autism spectrum, but homosexual into the bargain (so they convicted him and chemically castrated him and, allegedly, he committed suicide, though the evidence is ambiguous; perhaps it's wishful thinking; as the 7th Lord Lygon said, "I thought men like that shot themselves").

And yet, with the outbreak of World War II, someone somewhere had the insight or foresight or just simple intelligent humanity to give this fairy, this frightful swot, his head.

The result was the cracking of the Enigma code, so that we aren't now being bossed about by Angela Merkel, in theory anyway.

And the wider result: the computers, which enable institutions like RBS to screw up on a scale and with a speed hitherto unimaginable.

So when an organisation like RBS sees the chance of getting rid of 1,800 senior, experienced IT professionals, it leaps at the chance. It's only computers. They're only geeks. And there's the cultural problem.

Management do not understand that a bunch of rattletrap legacy systems like the RBS has are closer to a living thing than a machine, nor that the odd interactions between them are undocumented, a matter of tacit knowledge.

When the unfortunate chap in Hyderabad or wherever fouled up the CA–7 update, that tacit knowledge was unavailable. When they went on to corrupt the system while trying to back out of the damaged update, there was nobody around to say "Oh, best call Geoff in, he knows the ins and outs of this like the back of his hand" because Geoff was in England, having his dinner and relaxing on his redundo.

They'd have done better to read Andrew Hodges's philosophical biography of Turing and get a flavour of what a computer scientist is actually like. Which in turn might give them an idea of what they actually do.

One of the commentators on El Reg put it beautifully. There are, he said, two ways of looking at it.

(1) The systems run flawlessly because we have 1,800 IT professionals on the payroll.

(2) The systems run flawlessly, so why do we need 1,800 IT professionals on the payroll?

Alan Turing would have enjoyed that analysis.

  • Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, Vintage. ISBN 978-0099116417

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I was in IT for most of my working life and saw systems getting ever more complex with a rush to implement the latest updates and no time to document any of the changes. Consequently a total reliance on a few key people mainly contractors who by their nature would move on. All systems are on this knife edge and could cause major problems in the future.