Saturday, July 11, 2009

Multilingual Mayhem

I've never been a great student of languages. Out a hundred or so language students at my school doing O level in either German or French, I had the lowest mark of all of them, managing to get a U grade (unclassifiable - that's lower than F for fail!) in both the written and oral exams.
It's a same really as when I started out at "big" school I was really keen to learn German, but a couple of years in an the teacher switched and I lost interest.
Now however, I'm still crap at learning languages but they do fascinate me. So even after 10 or 20 years of trying to learn Greek, I can compare the grammar to Modern Greek to Old Anglo Saxon, trace pronunciation shifts of Greek alphabets from ancient to Modern, and decipher the weird and wonderful world of the effect of noun cases on articles, but am still only just capable of ordering a meal in Greek and asking for the bill afterwards.
German I haven't really spoken since those disastrous exams at school, yet I now suddenly find I'm trying to use German in anger far more than I've ever had to use Greek. I'm in Hamburg and working on my own at a customer site. Each time I arrive I have to collect a "dead-man" telephone from the Shift Manager, and return it to him when I leave. Basically if I fall over and stop moving for any length of time the phone sets off an alarm. Anyway, most of the Shift Manager's have about as much grasp of English as I have of German, so the onus is on me to make myself understood. It's come as quite a surprise how much I've been able to communicate and how much of it I haven't had to look up on BabelFish. So if Mr Clokes (or Cloakes - can't remember how it was spelt) is still alive and by chance reading this, I may have been your worst pupil ever, but it wasn't all for nothing. And by the way, sorry, I cheated in every vocab test you ever set.
The real problem I'm having is the inevitable slip from German into Greek so I'll be on the phone to "der Schiftmeister" and start the sentence in German and end with Efkharisto, the Greek for Thank You. It's as if my brain just decides that if it's not English, any other foreign language will do!

Work Travel When Credit Gets Crunchy

Once upon a time the account I worked on used to support IT all over Europe and most of the work was handled from the UK. So there used to be a lot of travelling round the world, installing systems, going to workshops, giving training etc.. In those days it seemed that, although it wasn't a case of "money is no object", as long as the account was making a healthy profit, then common sense seemed to prevail - If there was big heavy servers to install, two people were sent. If the work was at all sensitive, you extended the travel to cover being on site at the start of the following week to make sure the customer was happy even if the work finished on a Friday night. Consequently, travel used to be one of the major draws of the job, even though at times you spent more time away from home that at it. OK, lots of trips were a case of flying out, sitting in a taxi for a bit, spend a load of hours in an office basement computer room, fly home. So often you didn't exactly experience much of the country's culture, but in between there were also a lot of trips when there was free time to look about, and especially when you were with a colleague you could enjoy the time.
Mind you, back in those days (and "those days" is beginning to take on the status of myth and legend, rather than history) I worked in a team that numbered well into double figures, and the staff on the account numbered 30 or 40 just on the Wilton Site were I work. Now there are 3 of us there in total, and I am a team of "one". Fair enough, the customer has got smaller and the amount we support has shrunk too, and some of the support is now run out of India (but that topic is a whole other post - don't get me going about off-shoring here), but I wonder now about the tight control of costs.... it used to be that we travelled to the problem - sometimes it wasn't essential and the work might have been accomplished remotely, but nothing ever beats being able to see an issue up close and talk directly to the people involved. The accountants say it's not the cost effective approach, but perhaps a happier customer with a system working quickly is more likely to continue buying support from you that a pissed off one who has been dealing for days or weeks with various remote support teams to try and get a resolution to his issue.
So, I am writing now sitting in Hamburg on what is now one of the rare occasions where so much expense is risked by not getting the job done right, that all the hoops and red tape has been gone through to approve having a real person on site doing the whole job. Of course these days I'm on my own, my hotel room is the size of a postage stamp, and there's so much work crammed into the weekend that it's just sleep and back to the office, but I am experiencing some of the Hamburg culture (or at least I'm getting lost in Hamburg central station trying to find the right Metro line from Hotel to Office, and then playing human sardines in the rush hour crush).
Of course if the job were not quite as important to say some cash, the process would have more likely been one team sending an engineer to physically install the hardware locally in Germany, then the team in India trying to talk the software install through with a different local team who would provide hands and eyes on site (but with no knowledge of what they were doing) and then the Indian team finishing off whatever they could do once they could remotely connect back to the servers..... and then escalating to me once they got stuck.
Anyway, what I am really beginning to wonder about is this. The current way of running the show is often termed as "being run by accountants" and the defense often given is that in these credit crunch days it's the only way a company can survive. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did companies start running in a penny pinching way because the economy shrank and force it on them? Or was it actually the other way round? If companies had kept people with a business eye in charge, who look to the real future of there company rather than just the next quarter figures, would the economy have been in better shape to maintain itself?
I know it's not all as simple as that, but it might just be another contributing factor in this modern ethical tale on the wages of greed.