The White Witch
The story is true, only names and details have been changed
to protect the guilty and confuse the innocent.
It started off as a fairly normal contract. The site was larger than most, about 30 minutes walk on the internal roads from Human Resources to the set of low buildings where I was to work, or 40 minutes if you took the “shortcut” through the woods.
So I wasn’t surprised to be offered a lift by the project leader. She seemed a nice enough lass, perhaps a bit younger than I expected, but nothing to ring any alarm bells as we chatted casually.
Then she said, “I’m a White Witch, you know.”
It’s not the normal opening line, so I said “Oh really.”
She explained it in detail as she drove. She was a member of a coven which met on propitious nights to spread good influence around the locality.
I said, “Oh really,” again.
She parked the car, we got out and got shown round the project, and I got to work.
It was a Y2K job. looking for places where somebody had stored a date with only two digits for the year, so 1997 got stored as 97, 1998 got stored as 98 and 1999 got stored as 99. The catch came next year when 2000 would be stored as 00, which could mean 1900 or 2000, and it’s a well-known law of nature that given two possible interpretations of any item a computer will pick the wrong one.
I was the hired hand whose job it was to dig through the data, to search the output for places where dates got output by the system, then check the software to see if there was a problem.
The real experts were the team of three women who knew about this software. They were all from Halifax, and they were very good mates, what the Americans might call a “Sorority” or Sisterhood. They were in charge, they were there to help me if I got stuck and to check my results.
Fair enough. It was my first time on IBM, I should expect to be the office junior. I wasn’t too sure about the Sisters though. The two best bosses I’ve ever worked for were both women, but these three weren’t quite in that mould. But a contract is a contract, and you do your best and keep out of office politics.
Now I didn’t (and don’t) know IBM, but the system as it was presented to me seemed odd. What I was given was an output listing about 2 inches thick. I was told to check it for dates.
I asked one of the Sisters what sort of utilities and software tools there were, and was there still a digital copy of the output on the IBM system that I could work on. I got a baffled look.
“You check the listing,” she said and flipped it open to show the columns of output.
I opened my mouth to say something, then thought better of it. There was something about the way she said it. After all if the project leader was a White Witch, maybe the other sort were here as well.
So I got on with the job. It wasn’t that bad. I found enough dates to keep me occupied and the software when I actually got to look at it was easy enough to follow and to modify.
But I couldn’t help but feel bugged about searching this huge listing by hand. It seemed such a stupid way to do it. These are computers! Every other system I’ve worked on had utilities to do things like this. It’s not about laziness, it’s about efficiency and the risk that I might miss a date in all the columns of output.
And that’s where I made the mistake. I said something to a Sister. I was critical of the system. I should have known better.
A few days later I got called in by the White Witch. She seemed really ill at ease, then she came to the point. They’d had a complaint about me. He “just doesn’t cut the mustard”.
I’ve never been too sure what that phrase meant. It wasn’t one that got banded round in the playground at Alma Park Primary, but I got the idea.
I sat trying to think. She sat twisting her fingers as she didn’t know what to do either.
Two things were clear.
Firstly I’d not got a hope of fighting the accusation. This was damage limitation time.
Secondly she had not the faintest idea what to do, or how to run the meeting. Any peace and harmony magic was definitely not working.
I decided someone ought to be in control of the meeting, and I was the only other candidate available.
“In that case,” I said, “there’s only one thing I can honourably do. Offer to terminate the contract with immediate effect. Do you mind if I inform the agent before I clear my desk?”
She panicked. Apparently she’d been fearing a scene, now she had a member of the team walking out.
“Not yet, please.” she asked. So I agreed and went back to my desk while she contacted her boss, and maybe cast a few spells as well.
I got called back a few minutes later and offered a compromise.
“Would you stay and complete the other projects we had lined up for you? They shouldn’t take more than a month or so?”
I agreed with the proviso that I didn’t work with the Sisters, because it wouldn’t be fair on them. She agreed.
Bingo! I’d attained every objective I could.
- I had stood open to being terminated for incompetence. That would have been very bad on my record. Now I was being asked to stay a bit longer. My record was clean, you don’t ask an incompetent to stay on.
- I’d escaped the Sisterhood, what’s more I’d probably seriously annoyed them. If I wanted I could even rub it in by apologising and being offensively nice to them (I didn’t in the end, even I am not that nasty).
- Just a few weeks more and I would be out of a contract I really didn’t believe in any more.
I did go for one more brownie point. I thanked her for the professional and courteous way she had handled the whole issue.
The tension went out of her like the clouds clearing after thunder.
“Thank you,” she said, “I didn’t know how to handle the situation.”
“Glad to help,” I replied.
I got on really well with her after that, though I never did get the courage to ask her about her White Magic. The Sisters never spoke to me again, and I finished the project in a happy and productive atmosphere.
Best of all, I get to look back on the time I effectively ran the enquiry into my own alleged incompetence.
©Malcolm Cowen 2016