After Java developers became surplus to requirements at the MCPS-PRS Alliance I had to suddenly hunt around for work again. The PRS people were very nice to me and had no problems with me looking for new jobs while at work. With almost year of working in London behind me, it was surprisingly easy to get interviews. Rather than the months of waiting previously experienced, a number of positions came through agents quite quickly. The best of these was at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), in their corporate and retail banking operations (very separate and distinct from their investment banking operations).
So I began a 3 month contract as a Team Leader on the Service Charge Review System (SCRS) just as it started. The project had a 12 month timeline, so if things went well I expected to hang around for further contracts. SCRS was driven by the corporate relationship managers. These are the people who dealt with businesses, big and small. Unlike retail customers (normal people going to bank branches), businesses and corporations paid a raft of fees for the services they use (thus service charges). While there are a set of “standard” fees that businesses pay by default, in reality all the fees are negotiable. The bigger the business, the more negotiable the fees they pay. There are a large number of possible fees, from receiving a cheque, running a credit card or having an overdraft. Perhaps a medium-sized consumer firm has a need for large amount of cash-handling (cash passed to a branch has to be secured, counted and transported), but rarely makes international transfers. It might look for the cash fees to be lowered in return for higher international fees. Part of a relationship managers’ job is to work out if that is a change the bank is willing to make, and if so arrange it. The relationship managers also create speculative fee structures to tempt business to shift banks.
At the time I joined RBS in May 2003, this process was performed on a spreadsheet in an ad-hoc process. Creating a moderately complex fee structure could take over a day and was both error-prone and hard to modify later. This was seen as a bottleneck for expansion. The plan was to create a simple internal website that could import data on current fee structures/usage/profit, allow the quick creation of fee scenarios (often from common base templates), and then save them centrally for future use as templates or new relationship managers (as at the time, people leaving meant all their scenarios were lost). The goal was that a half dozen scenarios for a moderately complex business could be created in a morning, and then easily adjusted based on customer interaction. Based on my consulting experience I didn’t think this was a particularly ambitious objective. It was a matter of loading data, performing some simple calculations, displaying the results on a screen and allowing editing, then saving it again afterwards. There would only be a few hundred users, each of would be trained to use the system, and no one expected it to look pretty. A reasonably straightforward job.
The first task was to recruit the programming team which I would manage. There was the project manager (who hired me), an analyst, a database person and a junior Java developer already on board. However there was budget for two more Java programmers, but they had to be internal hires. At that time RBS was just in the process of shifting from using mainly COBOL to Java for its internal development. Hence all the other developers had only a couple of years of Java work total amongst them, and I was expected to mentor them through the project. Internal hires also worked on the basis that HR would send me a single CV for each position, and I could reject it and ask for another, but it was frowned upon. The project manager strongly suggested that I accept whomever was sent unless there was a serious issue. In the end it didn’t matter. Both the suggested developers were fine.
Along with the traditionally COBOL environment came a waterfall process. Luckily, my manager was an up manager and was not greatly concerned about how the project was actually developed as long as he knew what was happening and it all progressed nicely. So SCRS was developed iteratively inside our small dev team, before being handed off (in a waterfall-like manner) to the separate deployment and support teams. It also helped that SCRS was a small project among giants in the corporate IT section. A couple of large 50+ developer projects (one on a unified document system, the other I don’t remember) had started around the same time as SCRS and were sucking up developers and managerial attention. We were largely ignored and left to our own devices. We started fortnightly iterations and developed a prototype which got a couple of the relationship managers involved on a part-time basis giving feedback. They were generally happy we were doing as they requested. At the end of each iteration we had a working (but incomplete) system that could be checked. Progress was steady, my team was capable and learning fast enough. Confidence was high. Everything was fine.
RBS was the start of my contracting career in London. From that point until now, I have not been a permanent employee. IT contracting may have a bad reputation in some countries, but not in London. It is common among more experienced developers who do not wish to become managers. There is a large community of contractors, many support services, pay rates are high and jobs plentiful. It is assumed that in downturns, contractors are dismissed first, but in my experience pay rates just decrease instead. I started as a contractor by chance; the RBS job was specifically a contract, so that is what I did. My agent suggested an accountant and off I went. Unfortunately, my inexperience caused problems. The accounting firm was borderline incompetent. I sacked them after a couple of years when I learnt enough to do their job. They also suggested a financial advisor who only promoted schemes that involved huge kickbacks to himself. Hmmm, I managed to avoid all of them. Also the agent set up the RBS contract in such a way I got caught by IR35, and stayed that way for the next 5 years. IR35 is the UK tax law that determines whether a contractor is considered a “disguised” employee. Most contracts are written to avoid falling foul of this law, saving the contractor 5-10% on their tax bill. Market contract pay rates take this into account.
While at RBS, I was still considering becoming a manager. So I let it be known I would consider going permanent if the circumstances were right. As a result I got pulled into an HR meeting to discuss becoming a permanent employee. However, I left determined to stay a contractor - at least while at RBS. They explained to me the career progression and where I would fit in. Basically, they expected me to take a step down from my current team leadership position to become a straight developer, although I would still have the same duties temporarily. I would also earn about 40% less even after all the little benefits were added in. Plus I would become subject to all the normal HR forms and reviews. It seemed like a derisory offer. So I stayed a contractor and never looked back. The longer I stayed at RBS the clearer the correctness of this decision became. Just being able to avoid the bureaucracy of a large company turned out to be a surprising benefit and something of which my teammates became immensely jealous. Also there was little job security at RBS for the permanents. There was a common greeting among RBS IT people, “how many purges have you survived?”. Every few years a large number of people were made redundant. Morale was not high.
RBS corporate and retail IT was (and probably still is) an incredibly bureaucratic organisation. There were so many rules and forms to fill in for any occasion. Budget was sacrosanct. Here are a couple of stories to illustrate this. When I first arrived I didn’t have a computer setup properly and I didn’t have the permissions to do it myself. Luckily there was a sysadmin just one row over setting up about 100 PCs just like mine for another project that would be turning up a week later. Each took a few minutes, so I asked if he could do mine and he replied no. It required a form and budget. For a few minutes work? Doing the form would mean waiting a week that RBS would be paying me to do nothing. But still he refused. So I waited until he went to lunch, and added my PC to his pile. The next day I went and collected my PC from the pile and got to work.
Another time I was discussing how much database space we required on SCRS with a db admin (not the db developer). We estimated just a couple of GBs and the admin told us we could have it in a few months, after the budget was confirmed. What, why so long? I offered to give him a few pounds from my pocket as the cost of that much space at a high-street computer store. He laughed and told me how much it would cost at RBS. Many hundreds of pounds, per GB, per year. Huh? It turns out the cost was for the overstaffed (as he admitted) db admin team to justify their existence by forcing captive clients (we couldn’t get the space elsewhere) to pay their budget.
About 6 months in, we hit a couple of problems. This point was actually near the end of the development process. Creating the system was scheduled to take 9 months, with three months deployment, handover, training and support from the dev team, before our part was complete. The first issue was us Java developers racing ahead of the database developer interfacing with the backend systems. We were constantly told that it would be done soon. We agreed interfaces and wrote a mock database so we could continue work. However, the lack of the actual system and associated integration risks were now the top issue on weekly status reports. It was always coming “soon”. Then the database coder just disappeared for a few days. Then they returned and were clearly drunk at their desk every morning. In retrospect, at this point we should have cut them and rushed to get someone else. However, there was some sympathy for them (there were a number of known personal issues), so it was referred to HR and we tried to keep going. Involving HR had no noticeable effect. A few weeks later there was still no database backend, the dev was still drunk at their desk every day, and the rest of the team became blocked waiting on them. Now they had to go. We got an emergency replacement. The new database developer said there was nearly nothing to show for months work, but got to work and pulled some overtime to get everything up and running in just a couple of weeks. To our benefit, by this stage we Java programmers knew exactly what we wanted from the database and had the time to help the new guy get it all running perfectly for us. Although this process lost us about a month off the critical path on our schedule. Still we had built up a little slack beforehand, plus the 3 month slowdown to finish the project could include more development. So it was ok, final handover could still occur on time.
Soon after integrating the database the second problem hit. We presented the a near complete version of SCRS to our customers. They were happy, as they had seen it before on their weekly visits to our office. They took it away to try it in a production setting and show some other relationship managers. A few days later they came back and stated that there was a problem. They need it to be greatly changed. The changes were significant, but not difficult, just time consuming. A month of work at least, probably two. Considering the time lost with the database, there was no way we could make the changes and complete on schedule. More importantly from the RBS management process, our budget would be bust. We asked “why do you need these changes, you saw it being written and were happy with it?” They said we had absolutely delivered what they asked for and wanted. However, over the last few days they realised it was not what they needed. Urgh. They played hardball and threatened to refuse sign off, apparently this was a big deal in the RBS IT organisation, and would reflect very badly on the development team. Our manager countered that we had no money to continue.
After a couple of days an agreement was reached. The relationship managers accepted that the requested changes were new work and not the result of any mistake on our end. Thus they agreed to pay the budget overrun out of their own money. Although not all of us. The dev team would shrink to me and one other Java person for 3 months and one other programmer for half that time. Everyone else would move to other projects. Our manager also got the two relationship managers acting as our customers to sit with us full-time (they would still do their normal work, but from our offices and ready to answer our questions as required). This last point was immensely useful, and probably the reason everything got done to the new schedule. It also meant that news of the project began to spread among both the IT department and the corporate banking department. The relationship managers were very happy with the work being done and the progress on their “extra requirements”. As friendly and talkative people they started telling everyone around them about it. It was like having a marketing department for an internal project.
It didn’t take long before we had early builds going out again to the test users, and the responses were extremely positive (much more so than the first build). It seemed the extra requests really did make a big difference. Thus as the original 12 months expired and we started our handover process, something strange occurred. Managers started appearing and asking to be involved in the project. It seems the two large concurrent IT projects were in trouble and experiencing large delays and cost overruns. By comparison SCRS was looking like a massive success. Cost overruns were tracking towards 20-30%, but covered by the client business unit which was effusively praising the final product. One manager offered to write us a piece in the company magazine. Not sure why he thought we couldn’t do that ourselves? Still the project manager went from being ignored, to fielding daily requests to help out or people offering “advice”. One positive is that when it came time for the team members to find new projects they all got their preferred choice.
Soon it was time for the end. We trained the support person. I flew up to Edinburgh to help deploy and troubleshoot the final installation. Unsurprisingly there were issues at this stage as we had not been allows to test this process before. I spent my two days in Scotland sitting in a office basement getting it all working fine. I can’t have seen more than a few minutes of sunshine during the entire visit. Then back via the RBS trough, aka the Edinburgh Airport British Airways business lounge (full of RBS employees grabbing as much food and alcohol as they could manage). When I got back I had a week of just waiting by myself (and the project manager) in case there were any problems. Everyone else had moved on. In fact the project manager had arranged for me to join another project too (more about that in Part 2), to ensure I was around just in case of any problems. In the end it wasn’t required, no one was ever called back to work on the SCRS. Instead during those last days we got fan mail. Seriously, at least three relationship managers sent us emails saying how much easier SCRS had made their jobs. It was amazing.
A year later, just after leaving RBS, I met the SCRS support guy at another person’s leaving do. I asked how it was going. He told me SCRS was the easiest system he had ever supported. In the more than a year since going live there had not been a single bug reported. The SCRS work was a few minutes every week setting up new users and running a backup. A system being used for a year, meeting all its customer’s requirements, without bugs. SCRS is probably the most successful project I have ever been involved with (apart from profitability, but that is a story for a later post). So that should be the end, right? Unfortunately not, there is one sad addendum.
Just after talking to the SCRS support person, I met and spoke to the SCRS project manager at the same leaving party. It turned out that on his performance review SCRS was classed as a failed project. I was aghast. I told him about the support person saying there were no bugs. He replied that didn’t matter. The project was overtime and budget. I pointed out that the client covered the budget overrun and the extra time was due to their extra requests. He said that the customer had no input to the project assessment process. Lastly, I pointed out that no other project in the building could be considered a success either by those measures. He agreed, but then told me that the two big concurrent projects were considered successes internally despite being relatively further over time and budget. The difference being that they both had more political clout behind them. Not all projects could be marked as successful, some had to fail according to the internal review system. IT projects were assessed on a curve relative to their peers. SCRS, with no important friends, was the designated failure. I told my ex-manager that his work and support was a core reason for SCRS’s obvious success by all reasonable measures - that didn’t make him any happier. Never have I been so relieved to have left an employer.
Click here for the story of my second project in RBS corporate & retail IT: RBS (First Time) - Part 2.