The Company that Outsourced Itself to Death

A short story about bad ideas, based on 10 years and a variety of work places.

At the company that outsourced itself to death it had been time to make one of those rare but important international phone calls. It was a desk phone type of call, the kind you want to make in private, preferably in a conference room.

The problem was this, ‘telephony’ was outsourced four years ago.

The company was by then paying £25 per phone per month, yet none of those phones seemed to work. As it was near the end of that particular contract, no one could be bothered making a fuss about the service level agreement.

Did those desk phones ever work? someone asked.

dark glass is the suspcious beard of the office building

dark glass is the ‘suspicious beard’ of office building design

If they did, they were impossible to understand and no one ever learned how to use them. The lights flashed constantly with backed up voicemails no one could retrieve.

‘Hope none of those are important,’ someone always said. Others always laughed, a sort of dead-inside laugh. A laugh that said: of course some of those were important.

‘I’ll just use my own mobile,’ people always end up thinking. Except with those important international calls you don’t want to do that. So that call always got postponed.

It used to be that you could just call in on Terry in Ops. Terry and his team used to sort that stuff out, until his side of the business was outsourced. The guy that oversaw all that, Pete, saved the company thousands. Then Pete left.

Our funky windows set us apart from the rest

Our funky windows set us apart from the rest

We would have brought all this stuff with the phones up with Pete were he still with us. Every company has a Pete. Or rather, every company used to.

Now even the food is outsourced. Any army marches on its stomach, and Race-to-the-Bottom Catering certainly understand that. They have the contract for our canteen and all our vending machines.

Do you remember when it was Sally’s retirement day. Everyone loved Sally and we all wanted to bring in that cocktail making guy we’d read about. Sally certainly loves cocktails!

Only RTB Catering said it was all there in their contract that no food or drink was allowed to be made on company premises, except by them.

So we had their Argentinian Sauvignon Plonk and vacuum-packed nibbles. There were red paper tablecloths and everything. What an atmosphere!

I'm the office block equivalent of a beaten wife

I’m the office block equivalent of a beaten wife

The lack of variety, imagination, and indeed nutrition, RTB offer hits morale every lunchtime. Why did we ever go with them? staffers ask. Think it was Pete’s idea. Or that guy that came after Pete.

The company that outsourced itself to death got more bad news last week. Bottleneck Tech Ltd, the firm that covered the outsourced back end of the company website went bust! It happens.

This was something we all argued about, back in the day. ‘We should keep that stuff in-house, just in case..’ Terry in Ops warned us.

Just in case what? ‘Just in case they go bust!’ But just look at the money we could save by outsourcing it! We could fire all those dreary unwashed guys in the web dev team.

Leave your soul in reception

Leave your soul in reception

So now the company that outsourced itself to death needs to find another web company. There are plenty of them out there. Only now they’re asking ten times what we used to pay Bottleneck.

They say its because their engineers need to unravel the last five years’ worth of mysterious bolt-ons, shoddy work-arounds and borrowed code.

The new firm, Squid-Lickers (quirky name, true, but cut-throat people…beware!) said it’s such a monumental headache they’re not even sure they want the contract. So we’ve had to offer them even more.

Let’s all go to the RTB canteen, buy one of their dull, pre-packed, half-filled sandwiches and mull this over, someone suggested.

Hey! What about the Head of Comms’ idea about getting that blue chip consultancy firm in? Audit the crap out of the whole business. Get a bright, fresh perspective!

I demand your respect, this is a serious place of work.

I demand your respect, this is a serious place of work.

It was a lot of money and a big gamble, but since none of us had any faith in our own perception of things, or wanted to learn anything the hard way, we got in this firm of firebrand Alpha males called Ker-Ching! Inc.

They gave us a new company logo and a big, thick ‘style guide’ no one here can understand.

They used the word synergy in ways good grammar shouldn’t allow. They wore expensive clothes that somehow made us all anxious.

As we suspected, it turned out we’d been doing everything wrong. Ker-Ching! Inc. told us sticking to their style guide would ensure the world saw us differently.

Unfortunately half the Marketing guys resigned over Ker-Ching! Inc.’s assertion that our approach to ‘paid media’ belonged in the same bin as the shake’n’vac ad. They accused our guys of ‘channeling the ghost of Victor Kiam.’

Help me, I am so empty and forlorn.

Help me, I am so empty and forlorn.

Ker-Ching! Inc. are going to find us a company to do all our social media. Bad news for the team that used to do that. And the thing is, staff turnover is already pretty high, especially now we sold off and moved out of our quirky old red-brick Victorian building and into this shared, rented glass tower built on reclaimed toxic brown-belt.

It’s not that people don’t like the space, it’s just the outsourced car parking company has us by the collective wrinkly sack. Ker-Ching! Inc. and Purple Pants (creators of heat-seeking Social Media!) always make excuses when we invite them over.

It’s almost like they can smell death.

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Adendum to 6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester

Following my earlier post, which explored the idea of Manchester having some civic-minded awnings about the place, I did a little (very little) research and found images of awnings in the Chorlton area of Manchester (on a fantastic site called Chorlton History).

This is proof that in 1913 at least someone was magnanimous enough to offer pedestrians and window-shoppers some cover. Civilised that is.

Chorlton in 1913 (from Chorlton History / Andrew Simpson)

Chorlton in 1913 (from Chorlton History / Andrew Simpson)

Now fast-forward 100 years. The totally re-built Manchester centre had a chance to be this considerate, to learn from these historic examples, but chose instead to offer no sort of cover to people on foot at all. If it rains the city invites you to hide in a coffee shop.

And check out this for mean spirited…

What’s left of those Chorlton awnings seems to miss the point entirely. You can’t wander freely from one shopfront to the next here. These awnings are for patrons only!

Mean spirited awnings

Mean-spirited awnings in Chorlton

Several Reasons to Like (the Idea of) the Driverless Car

When I first read about driverless cars I dismissed the idea as just another gimmick from the hard-up, planet-wrecking, machismo-fueled, turbo-charged turd-makers we call the motor industry.

A driverless car, not hopelessly lost

A driverless car, not hopelessly lost

Another hunk of metal sold to us as a lifestyle choice and an extension of our personalities, I thought. Another way to crush the humans. An exciting new range of grey, blue and black people containers that force everyone to cede power to a computer, which then couriers you along the rush hour motorway at 6 mph, saving you the bother raising your weary head.

They don’t even want you to hold on to the wheel and pretend. They want to remove what small vestiges of joy are left to someone travelling on four wheels.

And anyway, we already have driverless cars. They are called trains.

So I thought.

Later, however, I was persuaded by one or two people who’d thought quite deeply about this technology to not be so glib.

If your instant reaction to this whole concept was but I rather like driving, well that was mine too. Except I don’t.

Driving is a joyless, anxious chore. When I drive I don’t feel like James Bond, I feel like an idiot participating in a terrible conspiracy, often at very low speed.

My dream car, the machine I admired from childhood, I now look at as a sort of abomination. Driving is a 70s dream. We have to let it go.

My motoring dream from childhood.

My motoring dream from childhood.

Driving can be a joy, but so can a playing computer game. A year or two from now you might get to decide which you would rather be doing as you commute down the M11.

-O—O-~

Think about how our mostly rubbish towns and cities became so utterly tiresome and rubbish. It’s almost entirely because we gave cars top priority.

Cars need access, cars need options, cars need car parks and ring roads and one-way systems and traffic lights and signage and more lanes and more barriers.

The Cones of Despair welcome you to Crap Town Anywhere

Behold the Orange Cones of Despair / welcome to Crap Town Anywhere

Knock this down and modernise was the mantra, build another bypass. Inner and outer ring roads became like fortress walls and moats, blocking people from their public spaces.

What happened to our beautiful river front? Mr 70s decided it should be a dual carriageway.

Crap Signage

Crap Signage

Petrol Heads everywhere seem to hate the idea of Driverless Cars. And I think it’s because the average suburban Clarksonoid is so incensed that I decided to listen a little closer to this argument.

About 2000 people a year are killed on our (UK) roads. It used to be a lot higher. Those deaths are almost never due to mechanical failure. It’s almost always human error.

I imagine if that dropped to say 20 a year because there was no human error.

Imagine ‘the city’ being able to talk to every car and every car being able to talk to the city. Imagine how the city could guide the flow of traffic to maximum effect, avoiding the local annual silly hat parade or the route of a charity three-fifths marathon (they have those, right?).

The city and your car would know exactly where the nearest available parking space was, then let someone else know the minute you had vacated it. (How much of your life have you spent prowling for a space?)

Imagine all the electric vans making silent deliveries while the city sleeps, so that they are not part of the rush-hour dash.

Imagine the white-van-man has nothing to do on his way to work but stare out of the cab window…well no, don’t imagine that.

White van man

‘Show us your traffic cones, gorgeous!’ – the White Van Man

Imagine the city knows you and your car, where you commonly go, what time, and how long you tend to stay there before returning. Tap into that info and it sounds like you have the perfect basis for a car-pooling app, or a hitch-hiking revival.

But perhaps hitch-hiking with an eBay-style ratings system…

Megadeath1998 is 100% a nice passenger and needs a lift to Ashby de la Zouch… …You go there now and then. Can you take him along? He will chip in £5 for petrol via paypal. Don’t forget to leave positive feedback.

Imagine children allowed to play in the street again.

Imagine approaching the multi-storey car park, except now you get to climb out at the entrance to the cinema while your car goes up those 11 tedious floors.

Imagine driving to the pub but being driven home.

Imagine all the signage and clutter they could remove from your town or city because driverless cars obey the rules and know where they are going.

This might all seem a long way off right now and a little far fetched, but technologies like this have a habit of starting life as impractical, too costly and inferior to the current system. But as we’ve seen so often they can quickly overtaking everything.

Digital Cameras were once too expensive and not good enough. So were mobile phones. Then suddenly they overtook, like some angry silicon-based Clarkson on his way to sale at Halfords.

Things that might be consigned to history? Electronic motorway signage.

Things that might be consigned to history?

Technologies like this also have a habit of dismantling  a lot of old familiar infrastructure, and permanently. Look at this picture and image what that might mean. And the Government is already preparing the way.

6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester

Manchester getting a bit exuberant

No jokes about dropping the atom bomb. We don’t want the fallout here in Cheshire.

We do want Manchester to be better though, but our nearest big City doesn’t have much pull. We need to confront a truth that we aren’t very good at cities these days.  No British city ever gets in those lists of the most livable. We don’t even get one in at the bottom.

To me that’s like never getting even a bronze in the whole history of the Olympics. We have poor air quality, expensive and unreliable public transport, clogged roads, characterless chain-stored-to-death centres (and then same again on the edge of town), uber car-centric infrastructure, and nowhere to hang out where you don’t feel some pressure to spend money.

1. Get Your Portici On.  

Awnings – they are perfect for a city with rain issues. Mancunians are sick of being reminded, especially by Londoners, that this city gets a lot of weather. This city seems to live in denial about being the first place Atlantic cloud systems dump their loads.

Manchester is such a [relatively] young city. You’d have thought the vast cotton industry wealth would have been ample to cover (literally) some city centre innovations to keep people dry and central when the sky is weeping.

A typical street in Bologna with porticoes.

A typical street in Bologna with porticoes.

There are examples to look at all over Europe, but check out Bologna. The whole city centre is lined with streets like these (24 miles-worth in fact), where people can walk under the cover of porticoes.

They can do business, hang out, shop etc. while staying out of either the scorching sun or the rain. And a bonus for city-dwellers is everyone living on the first floor and upwards gets an extra 15×20 feet of living space.

In Bologna that might be used for an extra long family dinner table and a shrine to Padre Pio. In Manchester that could mean room for an even bigger telly and a little indoor pot farm.

2. Canals as Cycle Routes.

Cycling by them, not in them. Again, hardly a secret in Europe as all canals lead to Rome, or the city centre. Except the ones in Manchester which weirdly get less cycle-able the nearer you get to the middle. It’s almost as if they want to keep cyclists out.

Bridgewater Canal

Bridgewater Canal

Take a canal ride from Sale to Stretford, for example, and you get a ten foot wide surfaced path, with honking geese, joggers, spring flowers and cheery old folk on longboats living off camping-stove bacon and tinned beer.

Continue on past Trafford Park and the same stretch of canal (see above) suddenly turns into a foot-wide strip of mud, with occasional moody-looking dopers to weave around.

The final stretch into the city centre is often simply blocked.

Bridgewater Canal for cyclists

Bridgewater Canal for cyclists

Manchester’s canals could combine the poetry of a gritty Northern heritage with a little Dutch-style romance, if only these routes were spruced up, optimised, made a feature of and embraced as a green and free way to commute.

3. The City Square. Piccadilly Gardens.

I can’t think of a worse city square that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. It’s the only square in the world that would actually be cheered up by the arrival of a column of Chinese tanks.

Piccadilly Gardens: The Beating Heart of Manchester

Piccadilly Gardens: The Beating Heart of Manchester

Not that its the job of architecture to be perpetually cheery, but it is the job of a city square to not be depressing. The job of the square is that of communal meeting space; it should be agreeable, it should require you to spend no money.

Trying to find something positive to say about Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion, I suppose you could stage a convincing open air production of George Orwell’s 1984 here. I’m sure it was meant to be slightly arty but mostly something that blocked views of the bus station. [A better idea might have been to build a an attractive looking bus station, like Preston.]

concrete pavilion by Tadao Ando

Concrete Pavilion by Tadao Ando and a plastic toilet

Tadao himself more or less admitted his concrete wall was all wrong for this space, but it’s not his fault it’s there. He didn’t commission it.

The trick with ‘doing a Brutalism’ – if you’re determined to have some – is to be utterly defiant and bold. The main problem with the pavilion is it’s the most small and timid example Brutalism you could possibly find, outside of a Lego convention.

The encroachment of One Piccadilly Gardens onto the square I can not fathom. It’s an office block. 25% of the UK’s office space is empty. So why build more? On a city square?

I suspect Britain’s massively corrupt construction industry combined with Britain’s massively corruptible city councils came together here in a towering show of what’s possible with the right level of dim-witted, spineless opportunism, bent and secretive procurement processes and some shameless land-grabbing greed.

One Piccadilly Gardens

One Piccadilly Gardens

A lot of cities would love a big open space like this. Put some plinths up. Dozens of them. Take the cue from Trafalgar Square and run with it. Get rid of the grim grey wall. Put up a big glass awning.

4. A Greater Manchester Travel Card.

A one-day travel card, designed to let you explore your region, from Ramsbottom to Macclesfield, Wilmslow to Saddleworth. Why on earth not? The Toronto TTC day pass is a good example to follow. They actively encourage you to give the ticket to someone else when your done with it. Friendly Canadians.

5. Goodbye to Balconies.

Since the mid Blair-years, Britain has gone utterly bonkers spec-building ‘Luxury Apartments’. Nowhere more so than central Manchester. These are tiny one and two bed flats, smaller than the legally allowed smallness of last century’s Glasgow tenements.

Most of them were so flimsily-built you could, of an evening, sit down and listen to your neighbours blinking. These flats could accommodate  two people, they could accommodate the stuff two people might own, but they could not  accommodate  both.

The rusting balconies of Manchester

The rusting balconies of Manchester

What sold everyone on the idea of the balcony? I believe the clever spec-builders had twigged that the British – after decades of Spanish package holidays, presumably – equated a balcony with summer sun, good times and luxury.

One of Manchester's crap balconies (temporarily dry)

One of Manchester’s crap balconies (temporarily dry)

Manchester has gone balcony-building mad. They seemed to think building them would force the sun to come out. It didn’t. Nowadays we see leaking luxury apartments and balconies covered in rust.

6. Not so Central Park.

Manchester really needs to wrestle Pomona Docks away from Peel Holdings. Peel have been allowed to rule this part of the world for too long. They are not democratic. They don’t care about community. They are tax-dodging money grubbers who are happy to push elected leaders around. They want to turn this important bit of green space into (guess what?) yet more (yawn) luxury flats.

Pomona Docks, closest thing Manchester has to a city park

Pomona Docks, closest thing Manchester has to a city park

Manchester needs to keep this land as a water-fronted park and a place of natural wonders. But not a park as city councillors, town hall accountants and other assorted dullards think of parks. We don’t need formal rose beds and a statue of the King.

Push the boundaries of what a park can be. Keep it rough and wild, maybe. Look at what Paris did with Parc de la Villette in the 80s. What would an avant-garde Mancunian park-designer do in 2014?

[The above picture is one of a series and comes from an excellent study of the Pomona Docks area by Skyliner. Every thinking Mancunian and urban explorer should take a look at it.]

Boris Johnson, King of the Cornflake People, Mayor of your City

The Tories don’t like nuance. For a start it’s too nuanced. They like to put a finger in the air and then let you have their certain conclusions. The mild mannered expert, the academic, emailing a hefty, nuanced report is just a wishy-washy bothersome waste of time.

And we know what time is.

It’s obvious to say, but the Tories do like money. They trust things that make money. Just as they are confused by and distrustful of things that don’t.

The NHS, old people, the unemployed, art galleries, forests, foreigners, spare bedrooms, academics writing hefty reports or trying to preserving wildlife, or cyclists – to people like Boris Johnson, these things are all deeply suspicious.

When Boris talked openly about lovely old greed, and the natural order, and the Good Samaritan being necessarily a wealthy man (ergo even Jesus Christ likes greed), and the tax-avoiding true-Brit Margret Thatcher  being an inspiration, and people with high IQ’s being the natural engine behind economic success in London, it’s difficult to know which of his dim-witted delusions to think about first.

Just equating money-making with high a IQ, brainy equals rich, is profoundly simplistic. As is equating people to cornflakes that rise or fall in the packet.

Boris overlooked all those clever cornflakes, the people with high IQs who are not interested in money or self aggrandisement. There are far more High IQ Cornflakes who object to greed and an idea of a happiness index linked to the economy, just as there are plenty of low IQ Conflakes who make piles of money. You only have to look at Michael O’Leary or Simon Cowell to know that.

Johnson’s ideas about people and cornflakes and IQ’s and greed are hopelessly deluded, and on so many levels, but the most unforgivable thing is that as the Mayor of a major city, he hasn’t looked at the plentiful and nuanced data readily available on how cities work best.

Cities that at least chase an idea of equality (rents, road usage, planning permission, shared spaces, sports and arts venues) are happiest.

The happiest cities in the world (they publish lists every year) are the ones that work well for all citizens. Not just the ones with high IQs or lots of money.

No British city ever get’s onto these lists, by the way. Not even at the bottom. If you think of these lists as a sort of ‘rich list’ (just to help the Tories grasp this concept) then London, and every other British city, is miserably poor.

Again, you see Boris’s confusion about things that don’t (at a glance) make money in his attitude to those terribly bothersome dead cyclists.

When a handful of cyclists are killed each month in his city, under his watch, it’s most commonly a lorry or construction vehicle that’s done the squashing.

Boris looks at this situation and thinks this: lorries are important, they are the machines of industry, busy making money. Cyclist should respect that and be more careful to make way.

The nuance any mayor could and should have picked up on by now is that cycling makes money for the city.

Besides all the benefits to health, and the consequent effect of individual productivity, there’s the huge reduction in wear and tear on city infrastructure. Cleverer Mayors than Boris (there are many) have engaged with this idea. Their cities are on that list I mentioned above.

When a lorry kills a cyclist, let’s say a doctor or a news reader, this is confusing to Boris too. Despite being a cyclist himself, he see’s cyclists mainly as poor people who can’t afford the train.

But lorries are no respecter of income. Doctors and News Readers and nice bright high IQ Cornflakes get squashed by lorries just as often as people in other social classes.

In the nuanced scheme of things, a smart mayor might have concluded that it might be more cost effective for the Lorry – let’s imagine it was off to deliver sugar sachets to a tax-avoiding coffee shop chain – to stay off the road and let the Doctor arrive safely at work to help keep hundreds of Londoners healthy.

Of course the biggest delusion of all that Boris is helping to perpetuate is this idea of clever people being rich, and vice versa.

fish

Let’s paint a picture. There’s a man living in a shack by the sea. He catches a fish each day and eats it while watching the sun go down. He’s fictional so we can describe him as being happy with his life. Far more content than say multimillionaire George Osborne.

His life may be simple but he’s not interested handouts. He’s against a ‘something for nothing’ culture. Not like people who inherit millions from their Dads. No, but he is interested in carefully judging the least amount of work-related stress he can put in for an acceptable, livable return.

For return, read life. He’s doing the intelligent thing of putting in just enough effort to be happy and free.

The Tory view of the world is that the poor and lower-middle income earners are all proto-rich. They could all be wealthy, they just haven’t applied themselves yet. If these people just pulled their fingers out and worked much, much harder, they’d have Air Miles and Range Rovers and be a huge help to the economy.

It’s hard to see the world through someone else’s eyes, but most of us – let’s stick a Tory-like finger in the air and say categorically it’s 60% of us – have no desire to spend a single moment working any harder than we absolutely have to in order to be happy.

And it’s not because we’re feckless. It’s not because we hate the idea of owning a yacht. It’s because we want to have a good life.

We want time with friends and family. We want to sleep in. We want simple things that take time, like reading books, redecorating the spare bedroom, listening to music, walking in nature, kicking a ball around the park and unhurriedly eating a bowl of cornflakes.

Where would you rather live?

Was amused to see this advert (below) while passing through Salford’s MediaCityUK the other day. I snapped a photo on my phone in order to show you what £135,000 gets you these days.

Underneath the Salford flat image is a picture of what a Swedish prison cell looks like, just for comparison. Is it just me or do you get a lot more square feet in jail?

I would imagine you get superior laundry facilities when banged up in Sweden too and, without doubt, the food will be better.

Flat of Prison Cell sdf

Video

Jan Gehl – What happens when an architect marries a psychologist?

Jan Gerl thinks about urban living quite a lot. He has transformed Copenhagen into one of the most livable cities in the world.

No British city ever gets placed on one of those ‘livable’ lists. Seems like it’s not in the British psyche to believe in anything better than adequate.

(side factoid: Denmark is about as densely populated as the UK, yet a house in Denmark has about 2/3 more floor space than an average house in the UK.)

Other bits of the world are catching up with Jan Gehl’s ideas.

If you’ve seen a congested,cluttered junction transformed into a tranquil, bike-and-pedestrian-friendly meeting place, with all signposts and barriers removed, then some of Jan’s ideas were probably being adopted.

His big idea is this: cities should work for everyone, not just those behind the wheel of a car.

Another idea is that the success of an urban centre isn’t purely about how good the shopping is. That’s how we tend to judge a town centre in the UK,  but Jan thinks it should be judged on how appealing it is to people who have no intention of spending money.

Imagine if the success of UK towns and cities was measured in happiness, or the number of outdoor chess games going on, the number of people sat reading, and not purely the number of profitable retail units.

Think on Mary Portas.