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Back to newsletter 073 contents | All Javva's articles

Diary of a Hutt: The Bean Counter

Employee 78 was brought onboard at SmallStartupCo by the VCs to put a semblance of control into spending. Up until then the process was to wait until Big Cheese or Grand Fromage were either really busy, or mildy tipsy, or extremely euphoric or, best all, all three (which happened more often than you'd expect unless you yourself tend to be really busy, mildy tipsy, and extremely euphoric on a regular basis). Then you'd get one of them to initial your expenses/request/budget enhancement - basically whatever expenditure you wanted. Unless it was really outlandish or expensive, you got that initial ("No, you CANNOT purchase a Ferrari for company marketing jinks" is a reply that pops up from my memory).

So it was not at all surprising when Employee 78 was installed. And it wasn't particularly surprising that things started disappearing pretty quickly from the office - the free drinks vending machine with all the branded products was replaced with the free drinks vending machine holding a severely reduced selection of unbranded drinks. The table tennis table went, as did the pool table, and numerous other items that had gradually been acquired.

Then the crackdown started. You know those stupid forms that you have to fill out to requisition things or claim back expenses? The ones that are invariably written by a reject from the Kafka School of Bureaucracy? Well, I always used to think that it was just done that way because the people didn't have a clue how annoying and difficult they were to fill in. But it became crystal clear to me at SmallStartupCo that these forms are deliberately designed to be almost impossible to fill out. Because that way you give up trying to, and hey presto, company outgoings are reduced.

"This form MUST be completed correctly with ALL fields filled in for submission to be accepted" was the line that greeted you as you opened the expense form. The first question eliminated 99% of submissions: "Expense code (for type of expense being reclaimed)". Employee 78 had brought an expense code list from a previous job. From time he'd spent seconded to another organization. A government bureau. A Japanese government bureau. You had to fill in the correct expense code relating to your subsequent description of the claim. There were over 6,000 expense codes. After the fifth or sixth time you had your form returned (after a week's delay in response time) with the message "incorrect expense code for stated description" and no indication at all what might be the correct code, you gave up.

Well, most people gave up. LongFace was made of sterner stuff. LongFace got Employee 78 to give him a daily turnaround on the forms he filled. This was achieved by the simple expediency of blocking in Employee 78's car on any day that he didn't get a response. LongFace had an in with the parking security - rumours had it that they were cousins, though this was never confirmed. Together with his determination to go through every possible related expense code, LongFace mad a breakthrough a few months after Employee 78's new regime, and achieved an expense payback. The news spread like wildfire. One other enterprising employee offered LongFace 10% of the payback if he could get his through, and pretty soon we were all doing it. LongFace had dozens of expense claims on the go at once. Then he extended his repertoire to the other expenditure forms.

Six months after Employee 78 had started, it seems that company expenditure was above what it was prior to his arrival. All requests were being channelled through LongFace, who was clearly overwhelming Employee 78, who in turn was succeeding only in delaying requests by a few weeks. The two of them were essentially producing nothing at all for SmallStartupCo except for a delay in the expenditure procedure - plus the additional overhead of two full time employees. 20th century Kafkaesque bureacracy meets 21st century geek obsessiveness. Dot com! Don't you just love it.

Javva The Hutt.

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