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Oh, no, you’re FAR too old for IT – true tales from an ex-IT support man Episode 16

So, picking up from where I left off in the last episode, during the three months I was under notice of redundancy, I was allowed to look around for another job. I remember that the first job fair to which I was directed was at the Intercontinental Hotel, Mayfair, and all the then major players in corporate IT were there. Banks, consultancies, computer manufacturers – they were all there pitching for candidates to join their ranks. This was just before my 31st birthday, the significance of which will become evident. I armed myself with several copies of my CV, updated to the hilt, and trudged around the exhibition plying myself to anyone who I thought might be a good fit for my skillset.

At the time, there were a few BIG consultancies, the foremost of which was Arthur Andersen (AA for short) – they were one of the companies responsible for convincing the government to develop the IR35 law.  Thanks for that, you bastards.

Anyway, I arrived at the AA table and was greeted by what I can only described as a snot-nosed, wet-behind-the-ears, Aryan graduate who introduced himself to me as a junior associate partner of the company. You know the type: knows everything and with a sense of conviction that precluded anything but his opinion as being correct. He gave me a business card and I handed him my CV and sat down in front of the table. He looked at the CV for a few seconds and then eyed me up and down. He then said “Oh, no, you’re FAR too old for IT.”

“I’m not even 31 yet”, I protested.

“Exactly,” he said. “It’s a young man’s game.  Sorry, but we can’t help you.”

This oik was no more than 25 years old – probably younger. I have to admit, I was taken aback at this and it almost caused me to find something else to do but, as I knew I was good
and IT, I persevered in the industry and decided that perhaps some formal coding skills might enhance my skills. I embarked on a course, paid for by HM Government – I can’t even remember what software I was being schooled in, but it was some sort of database management course. About three weeks into the course, I received a message from one of the agents I had registered with that there was a position with a construction management company, based in Green Park, and I was to attend an interview there.

On the appointed day, I rolled up to the company offices.  Very swish, mahogany, oak and blue suede everywhere. The receptionist asked me to wait and a few minutes later I was greeted by the MD’s secretary who ushered me into see him. As I walked through the door, he immediately rose from his deeply upholstered, leather executive chair and walked around the large desk towards me, extended his hand and warmly shook mine, and then invited me to take a seat on the leather Chesterfield to have a chat. A quarter of an hour later, I was asked “When can you start?”. Turned out that the company had just won the contract to be the contractor management company for building Canary Wharf.  Basically, Olympia and York, who were the development company, had contracted the company I had just been hired by, to spend O&Y’s money and build the whole complex, and that my role would be Computer Operations Manager for the London operation – they were a New York-based company which was started by two guys over a kitchen table, one of whom was a cross between Telly Savalas (Kojak) and Tom Selleck (Magnum PI) – larger than life and never without a large cigar in his hand.

I digress. I was told by the MD that I’d be based in the Wardour Street offices for a few months but that one major job would be to move the offices from Wardour Street to a newly acquired suite of offices in Harbour Exchange Square, just opposite the Canary Wharf building site. After agreeing to join, having had the scope fully explained to me, I was told to start the following Monday (this was the Wednesday) and that they looked forward to working with me. This all felt very surreal, but it was a challenge I was eager to grasp and rise to. I walked out of the MD’s office and the secretary, a very elegant and attractive woman, was standing there, beaming at me – seems the interview was just a formality as I had already got the job.  I still have no idea who spoke up on my behalf, but I wasn’t going to complain. I was about to leave when she asked me for my full name so she could order the business cards and she asked how many I wanted.

“What’s the normal amount?”, I asked.

“Two boxes of 250, usually, but if you want more it would be fine,” she said.

“I’ll take three boxes, if that’s ok?” – she agreed, and I left to let my wife know the good news.

The Monday morning, I arrived at the admin offices in Wardour street and was shown to my office, and then introduced to the (mainly) American staff members, although the IT people were mostly locals. When I returned to my office, there, on the desk, were three boxes of business cards with my name and title embossed thereon. Very stylish – I still have a couple of them in my card book. I asked for a jiffy bag and then addressed it to the snot-nosed AA junior associate who’d tried to knock me down a few weeks earlier, popped one of the boxes of cards into the envelope along with a compliment slip on which I wrote “Too old for IT, eh? You’ll obviously last a long time with Andersen.” And then I posted it to him. I’d love to know what he did when he opened the envelope to discover that, from the business card quality and the job title, I was probably earning twice his salary for being “far too old”. Juvenile, but satisfying.

Anyway, I started work on the Canary Wharf project, and first thing was to absorb the systems and processes that they were using.

I invite you, dear reader, to imagine how many plans they might have had for a development as big as Canary Wharf. Now, imagine how those plans would be catalogued, along with version controls. Thousands upon thousands of changes that needed documenting and reporting on. And they were using the system that they were using in New York – Paradox, a database system that, in principle, was a good idea but which was just awful. It was slow and cumbersome, to the point that when we made a single change in the Paradox system, I could literally (and I mean actually) go and make a cup of tea, drink it while reading a few pages of the newspaper, and then return to my desk before that single change had been accepted by the system. So, you can see this wasn’t exactly an efficient way to record thousands upon thousands of changes.

I voiced an observation that perhaps something else might be appropriate for the job, but I was told it was corporate policy, so I said I’d need some training to see if there were any technical efficiency savings that I could tailor for Canary Wharf. I was then told that the only training they did was in New York, and would I like to go there for a week or so to speak with the developers? Shortly thereafter, bookings were made and the following week I was flown (British Airways Business Class) to JFK, New York, picked up by limousine (a stretch Lincoln Town Car) and taken to my hotel on W.57th Street, just down the street from Carnegie Hall.

The weekend I arrived, it was the hottest that New York had seen for a long while: 99° heat on the same weekend that the hypodermic syringes washed up on Amityville beach. The next morning, I was to make my way to the offices in Park Avenue South. The hotel doorman hailed me a taxi, I climbed in and then set off for work. The thing is, I must have taken the only taxi in New York without working air conditioning, so all the windows were wound down. I thought I was grateful for this, as the weather was extremely sultry.  However, I soon regretted being so grateful, because driving through the mid-town tunnel was like driving through a hair drier. When we got to the offices, I was dripping with sweat and as I entered the building I was then hit by a blast of Arctic air, which couldn’t have been healthy for me. Nevertheless, after registering with reception I was collected by one of the Paradox technicians and for the next few days I was schooled in the workings of Paradox and the changes system that I would be running in London.

Before I returned to the UK, I managed to take in a concert at Carnegie Hall with Victor Borge; went on the New York City harbour lights boat tour; had a meal at the Carnegie Diner; and almost got mugged (maybe I was just paranoid, but I had to take some evasive action to get me from a deserted 6th Avenue on a Sunday to a more crowded Central Park area to lose my erstwhile assailants).

The flight back was uneventful other than the chap sitting next to me appeared to be very nervous.  Turned out he was an arms dealer, but he’d never been outside the USA before. In fact, he’d never flown before. He sat there, almost catatonic with fear, gripping the seat as if possessed. The air hostess (as they were then called – back off, wokerati) came round offering pre-flight drinks and I asked for a glass of champagne as it would have been rude not to, wouldn’t it? She placed the glass down on the tray between myself and my new companion, who was still tightly gripping the seat, and the hostess then asked him what he’d like to drink. No reaction, She again asked him, to which she again received no response, so she gently touched his shoulder to get his attention. He was so wound up that this caused him to throw his hand, previously gripping the seat, upwards, hitting the tray on its upward trajectory and depositing the contents of the glass squarely into my lap. Galvanised into action, with my companion profusely apologising, the hostess took off her scarf and proceeded to dab my lap to try and soak up the champagne. Very pleasurable. She then asked if she could get me something else, at which point I suggested she could pour another glass of champagne onto my lap. We both laughed, but I received great service the rest of the flight. I would have been arrested if I’d said that, today…

The day after I flew back to the UK, I took the tube back up to Tottenham Court Road station but, as I exited the train, the plastic carrier bag with all my expense receipts snagged on the doors and split, sending a cloud of receipts down the platform and into the tunnel, sucked in by the slipstream of the train as it sped away. I arrived at the office, explained what had happened and was soundly dressed down by the guy in charge, who couldn’t understand how I’d managed to spend all of the cash they’d given me for the trip, especially as I’d lost the receipts. He all but called me a thief, and that sort of coloured the relationship between us for the next year or so. However, I survived the talking to and went back to my office. I then fired up the PC, called up Lotus 1-2-3 and rewrote the entire Paradox system in Lotus. One change in Lotus took a couple of seconds. I think I may have pissed off a few people doing that, but the MD was delighted.

That’s enough for this one – it gets funnier in the next one.  Honest.