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Episode 17: Retraining

I'm getting worried about Colin. He's getting fidgety. He keeps mumbling to himself. I suspect he's looking for another job. There's a clue in the proxy server web logs - they show that he's spending hours each day trawling job sites. That and the fact that he left fifteen copies of his CV in the printer.

I like Colin. Sure he's a deeply troubled man with a history of substance abuse (chocolate mainly), but he's a veteran with more than twenty years of IT experience. In his time he's worked on some great projects. For a while he was a project lead at IBM working on 'unbreakable computing' - until he was sacked for making it crash all the time. He's good at breaking things, is Colin. Computer hardware, software, marriages, limbs and promises, Colin has broken them all at some point or other. Before joining us he worked at one of the electricity supply companies for six months, which ended when he blacked-out half of the South-East. It lead to a government board of inquiry, where Colin did a star turn and explained that he was only trying to eject a back-up tape from his machine when he brought half the country to its knees.

Still, Colin's an essential part of my team. He's the only one of us who can talk to the Mainframe people. He understands COBOL, Rexx, JCL and DB2 address spaces. It's scary stuff. If I need anything doing on the Mainframe I just need to mention that Colin will be writing some code and I get instant results. They can still remember the last time he was allowed to write code on one of their boxes.

It's time to be doing my team leadering. I give him a shout and we retire to one of the small meeting rooms for a chat.

'You left these in the printer,' is my opening gambit. I hand over a thick wodge of CVs.

'Thanks,' he mumbles. 'The other lot got printed onto PowerPoint slides by mistake,' he adds.


'Yeah. They were presented at the monthly finance meeting by mistake.'

'That's a relief,' I assure him.

'Is it?'

'Nobody takes a blind bit of notice of what's presented there,' I say, trying to look on the bright side.

He shakes his head sadly. 'Somebody did. Pam from HR rang me up to tell me that there was a spelling mistake on the first page. It was only my name I got wrong, but still, it's got me worried.'

'Listen, Colin, what's this all about? Really?'

He breathes in deeply. 'I'm feeling like I'm going nowhere. Here I am writing having to write stuff in COBOL when everybody else is doing exciting stuff with Java and .NET and Python and stuff. I don't even get a chance to write Web pages or anything like that. My skills are rusty.'

'COBOL's not cutting edge,' I tell him, 'but we'd be sunk without you. You know that.'

'But I need to feel like I can still grow and get some new skills.'

'Have you looked around to see what you'd like to learn?'

'There's so much. Java would be good. And XML. And maybe some C#. With some subclassing thrown in as well.'


'I like the sound of it,' he admits. 'No idea what it means but I heard Alison and Kev arguing about it yesterday. And design patterns and regular expressions. Oh, and some web development. Possibly with some more on subclassing.'

'That's a big shopping list.'

He nods. 'Come on, Joe, give me a week.'

'A week for all that? Look, Colin, let me see what I can give you, OK? You won't get everything on the list, but I'll find something useful that you can do and that'll update that skill set. OK?'

He grins as he walks out of the room. I moan inwardly. What the hell do I find to give him that keeps him out of trouble and yet gives him a chance to do something new?

A week later and Colin's walking on air. He looks like he's lost five years. He's smiling. The mumbling is barely audible and there are no more CVs appearing at random printers throughout the building. I've given him the perfect project. Some of our intranet pages need updating. It means he can learn about CSS, HTML and JavaScript and if he screws up the only people affected are the rest of my team. For him it's an introduction to web design and internet technologies and a whole bunch of stuff that's new.

'I've just published my first set of pages,' Colin calls to me across the office.

I fire up my browser and navigate to the our home page. He's spruced things up a bit. The page looks good until I scroll down to the bottom. There in a big bold font it says 'No animals have been harmed in the production of this web page.' I skip along through half a dozen pages and they're all the same.

My phone rings half a minute later. It's the Boss. 'Joe, our machines have been hacked!' he announces in a voice verging on the hysterical.


'Take a look at the company home page,' he urges.

I go to the corporate front page and there, at the bottom of the glossy photos and carefully designed text it says 'No animals have been harmed in the production of this web page.' Shit.

'I'll call you back,' I tell him and put the phone down.

It rings again. It's Pam from HR. 'Joe,' she says breathlessly, 'public relations are on to me. They want us to make a statement. Now.'

'A statement about what?'

'We've got animal liberationists threatening to attack the company because we've been harming animals in the production of our web pages…'

'But that's not what it says…'

'No. Half the pages say no animals were harmed, the rest of the pages make no mention, therefore people are assuming that we are harming animals…'


'Joe,' she whispers, 'what are you people doing down there? Tell me the truth, have you been keeping animals down there?'

I put the phone down as a beaming Colin wanders over to me.

'This web development lark is a doddle,' he smiles. 'Now, about some subclassing…'

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