claims of diversity, but no evidence at board level

All the big Canadian banks proclaim diversity as a core value. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and I’ve crunched the numbers so that you don’t have to.

I’ve taken the latest list of board members from Reuters for TD, RBC, Scotiabank, BMO and CIBC and, by the power of Google, assigned sex, country of birth and ethnicity to each of them. The raw data is here if you’d like to double check it and point out any mistakes I may have made.

The results make for some interesting reading. Here’s a few highlights:

  • 70% of board members in total are men.
  • 65% of board members in total are white men.
  • 48% of board members are white Canadian born men. On the face of it, that might sound a bit better but add back in American and British born men and you’re back to nearly 65% again.
  • 92% of all board members are white.
  • 0% of all board members are black.

These results need to be considered in light of where these organisations are headquartered. 50% of Toronto residents were born somewhere other than Canada and 47% of them self-report as belonging to a visible minority. I could go on but it’s too depressing.

When a Canadian bank tells you it values diversity, it’s lying, end of story.

microwaved fish

Down here in the dungeon at Big Bank, we have very few amenities beyond those mandated by law and, even then, I suspect we may be missing a few of those. What we do have is a microwave oven in a small alcove opening straight onto the main working area. I used to think that this was a minor concession to our stagnating wages – allow the staff to have a hot meal for lunch without having to buy it from the food court in the PATH – but I now realise it was cruel joke played on us IT goblins by the HR Masters of Light (i.e. the people who get to decide who gets to work above ground).

If you’ve ever microwaved a fish, particularly a smoked one, you’ll know that the result is a foggy miasma with a stench reminicent of rancid cat food. You’ve probably done it once, realised the error of your ways, opened the window and then waited for the smell to clear. When you’re underground with no windows and no control over the ventilation that option does not exist. Once or twice a week without fail, someone will, never-the-less, re-heat something fishy in our tiny kitchen thus inflicting a vile pong on the rest of us for the whole day. Lest you think I’m over-reacting, my wife can reliably detect such events by the smell on my clothes in the evening. I’m even fairly sure that Tiddles, The Beast Family’s adopted stray moggy, is more interested in me on such days.

Coming back to the Masters of Light: I think I smell a metaphorical fish here as well as a the literal one. Said super-beings have been trying to coerce us goblins to move out of our dungeon and, instead, commute to a hotel desking barn in Scarberia for the last while. They’ve got as far as they can by fair means so I now speculate they’re trying the foul (and stinky) route. Yesterday, we reached a malodorous low: someone, we don’t know who, microwaved a fish curry, on full power, for ten minutes and left the scorched remains in the oven. I’m still feeling slightly nauseous at the memory of it, and I’m contemplating buying an army surplus gas-mask for the next time it happens, but, I think I know who did it, and it wasn’t a goblin!

programming in the Toronto bank underworld

if you’re not a programmer yourself, you might be surprised to hear that coding is first and foremost a creative endeavour. It’s no coincidence that many of us have sidelines in the creative arts in general and particularly in music. There’s also some interesting objective evidence that program code, which is a close relative of the mathematical formulae discussed in the article, can be beautiful in its own right.

Now that you know that, and assuming you wanted to get the best productivity, what kind of office environment do you think would best suit these creative types? Let me make some suggestions:

Firstly, it needs to be noisy – really, really noisy. Large open plan floors with thoroughfares through the serried ranks of desks are a good start. Ideally developers will also be strategically placed near people who spend a large proportion of their day on the telephone.

Secondly, it needs to be dark, as creative people hate natural light. If you can’t arrange for your programmers to work below ground then, at the very least, you should put them in the centre of whatever space you have available making sure to build offices for managers around the outside so as to block off as much natural light as possible.

Thirdly, they must have the oldest, lowest specified desktop PCs that you can find along with the smallest screen that still works. All developers thrive on the challenge of extracting the maximum performance from the minimum amount of hardware and, in any case, they want the certainty of knowing that the software they write will not run into resource constraints when it’s deployed to the higher specification machines used by everyone else in the organisation.

Finally, the desk density should be the highest allowed by law. Programmers are naturally gregarious people and the closer they are to their workmates the happier they feel. Under no circumstances should there be any breakout spaces since it’s also a scientific fact that talent at programming inevitably leads to agoraphobia.

Oh, I see, I got that the wrong way around! The problem is, so has every bank in Toronto.

the hunt for a cubicle (of both kinds)

Today I’m back on the washroom theme. This time, rather than the unhygienic nature of the facilities here in the underworld, my gripe is with how few of the damn things there are.

In common with most techonology organisations, the ratio of men to women in Big Bank’s IT department is around 80:20. To be fair to the company – not something I’m often willing to be – that’s a greater percentage of female employees than female applicants. Anyway, whoever designed the sanitary facilities was clearly working off a 50:50 ratio. The result is a permanent line up to relieve yourself. There’s all sorts of bad things that come from this. Aside from the general annoyance of having to wait, there’s the pressure of knowing that, once you’ve arrived at the great white telephone, there’s a whole line of people behind you sending psychic waves of frustration in your general direction. Ever have a problem, er, getting going in a public convenience? Well, just try it with 20 people, bloated and twitching with gallons of early morning coffee, staring at your back. A watched kettle never boils!
Now onto the other kind of cubicle. Big Bank has been gradually moving its back office staff to ‘hotel desking’. This is a system whereby no-one below a certain level of seniority – usually the level exactly below the executive making the decision – has a permanent desk. Instead, they get to participate in a weekly, daily or sometimes even hourly game of musical chairs but without the party sized sausages on a stick or, indeed, music. Those that get in early enough get a desk for a while, those that don’t make the cut have to either camp out in a meeting room or, on a really bad day, go and work from a nearby coffee shop, assuming there’s one with WiFi somewhere close.

It’s hard to know where to start with pulling apart this stupidity, but I’ll make a couple of points that most programmers will identify with. Firstly, this means that any desktop based development work has to be done on a laptop (an underpowered one running 32 bit Windows XP in our case) and, secondly, it means that you have to close down your development environment every evening and start it up again from scratch in the morning. This is beyond annoying! There’s all sorts of things I could say about having to carry your meagre belongings around with you in a box like a modern-day Oliver Twist, the knowledge that if you were squished by a truck on your way to work no-one would ever even notice that you hadn’t turned up, or that any savings in terms of office space costs are totally negated by the reduction in productivity and worker loyalty, but anyone with half a brain could figure that out for themselves. Couldn’t they?

graduate programmer jobs in Canadian banks

…or lambs to the slaughter as it should be correctly known.

All of the Big 5 have graduate recruitment schemes for technologists. Every year they send out teams of recruiters along with a selection of staff who’ve drunk sufficient quantities of the corporate cool-aid to campuses in Southern Ontario in an attempt to trick a few of the less savvy computer science and related final year students into coming to work for them. The pitches are slick, often delivered by a tame bank big-wig (or maybe middle-wig) and often come with some free corporate merchandise of the type that no actual employee of the bank below VP level will ever get without buying it with their own money.

What happens to a developer that applies to one of these schemes and is successful then? It all starts reasonably with a good initial salary – for someone with no experience that is – and, quite likely, the chance to work in a few different areas before settling on a permanent home. This is where the problems begin…

The first issue is that chance of working on anything remotely technically up to date are slim to zero.

The best outcome to be hoped for is to work on something written in a reasonably recent version of Java or, if you like that sort of thing, C# .net. Note that the majority of Toronto bank applications are for internal use and, if they’re modern enough to have a web interface (and that’s a huge if) it’ll be written for the single approved web browser, most likely IE 6 or IE 7.

The worst outcome is that you’ll end up hacking around the edges of some hideous 3rd party piece of software long deprecated by the vendor and seemingly glued into place by a troop of baboons.

Next, and even more of a problem, is that you will likely never get a pay rise beyond a couple of percent a year unless you move job within the bank or manage to get promoted into a supervisory position. All the banks have annual pay reviews but have no formal policy for reviewing the compensation of graduate hires who, by their very nature, become rapidly more valuable as they gain experience. The reality is that most either leave the industry after a couple of years or join the procession of programmers working their way around the Big 5 merry-go-round in order to keep their compensation at somewhere near to their market value. I’ve interviewed people who have worked at all 5 over a 10-15 year period and are then quite happily starting on a second circumnavigation.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest issue and which underlies the others, what you do is wrongly seen as not ‘the business’ of the bank. Banks consider building software as equivalent to piling bank notes into a heap and then burning them and you can be certain that anyone you interact with that doesn’t work for the IT organization will let you know this at every available opportunity.

If you don’t know why these are not good things then, go ahead, send your application in, you’ll fit in just fine!

psychos as far as the eye can see

Why are so many of the people who work for banks in positions of responsibility such absolutely vile individuals? Other industries are not immune to this of course but neither do they seem to have the sheer concentration of psychopaths, narcissists and plain old nasty bastards that you will find inside of Canada’s Big 5.

The simplest explanation, or at least the one I’ve heard most often, is that great concentrations of cash available to be pillaged will naturally attract the sort of people who care first and foremost about enriching themselves and last and least about who they abuse to do it. This probably is a part of it but I have a secondary hypothesis which is this:

Banks rely on software. However, the people that run them hate to admit this even to themselves – hence the almost complete lack of software professionals anywhere near the top of their respective corporate totem-poles – but they do know that, in order to make their latest ploy to part you from your money work, they have to get ‘projects’ done.

The problem is that these projects are 90% about software, with the odd bit of hardware and some business process change thrown in, and, as any damn fool will tell you, software projects are extraordinarily hard to get right.

The upshot of this is that the people who get promoted inside of banks are the ones thought by those above and around them to get shit done. These are the ones who appear to be able to ram what no-one wants to admit are software projects through against all the odds. And how do they do that? Well, I can tell you that they don’t use their critical faculties, technical knowledge and common sense! What they generally do is a combination of abuse people and lie. The abuse does, briefly, scare people into getting things done no matter what the consequence to themselves and the organisation. The longer term consequence is that all Canadian banks have enormous technical debts and almost no staff loyalty within their IT departments. The lying part is more subtle. I am yet, for example, to see a large project in a Canadian bank actually do what the business sponsors reported that it did once complete. I’ll wrote more on this one in another post.

These things are toxic in any environment but particularly bad when it comes to something creative like software. The long term result, as CIO Insight describes is lowered productivity, not least from staff attrition. In the short term though, it makes the abusers look good and allows them to progress on up the organisation. The poor technical schmucks, on the other hand are left burned out and no further forward with their careers than when they started.

built like the space shuttle

The software here at Big Bank is built like the space shuttle. That is to say, it has a million moving parts, including several every bit as likely to explode as fifty tonnes of rocket fuel, all fabricated by the lowest bidder.

If you work for one of the Big 5, that statement won’t surprise you. If you don’t, you might – or certainly should – be shocked that some of the world’s most profitable and prestigious corporations have internal systems that would be an embarrassment to a corner convenience store let alone the place that you trust to look after your hard earned cash.

To give an example that anyone who’s ever used a PC will understand, the vast majority of our desktop computers still run Windows XP. That’s an operating system that first appeared back in 2001, was replaced by Windows Vista in 2007 and is now not supported at all by Microsoft without the payment of ever increasing penalty fees. We do have a bank-wide project in progress to upgrade us all to a new operating system but, get this, it’s been running for two years without visible progress and the chosen target is Windows 7. That’s right, we’re trying to upgrade to an operating system that was itself replaced by a newer one in 2012! Extend this to pretty much every piece of software both purchased and built in-house and you get the general idea.

So why is it like this, why is the software used inside of the Big 5 so goddam execrable? There are many parts to this answer – which I’ll come back to later – but I think the single biggest cause is, and this may sound silly at first reading, because it can be. The Big 5 have an effective oligopoly in the Canadian banking market. If you live in Canada and don’t have an account with one of them then all the things you take for granted – e.g. taking money out of an ATM without being scalped for 2% – become a big problem.

Why worry about a system for paying employee travel expenses that consumes a whole morning’s effort to enter the details for a single 3 day business trip, when you have a captive audience of consumers whose only choice is to swap your crappy overpriced service for an equivalently crappy overpriced service from another bank that differs only in the colour of its corporate logo? Obviously you don’t!

Still, I shouldn’t complain too much, all this lack of competition is paying my salary and going towards closing the deficit in Big Bank’s defined benefit pension plan – that being the only reason I’m still here.

footprints on the seat

There’s footprints on the toilet seat again. This is a regular occurrence on the subterranean 4th basement level of Big Bank’s Bay Street headquarters. I should be grateful I suppose, the alternative to spending my days working in Stygian gloom and worrying about what I might catch from going to the wash room is a commute to an above ground ‘hotel desk’ in Scarberia. Much as I’d like to see the daylight from time to time, I’ll take perpetual darkness over another hour’s travel followed by a desperate hunt for an empty desk, pathetic cardboard box of belongings in hand, every day of what’s left of my working life.

Back to the footprints. You may have followed the media outrage that followed when RBC got caught with its corporate trousers down whilst outsourcing technology jobs at its Investor Services division. If you didn’t, here’s the CBC coverage. It was followed by a mea-culpa of sorts from RBC’s CEO Gord Nixon and a promise, of the cross-my-heart-hope-to-die kind, not to do it again. Similar statements were made by senior executives from other banks, although more privately, including by the head-honcho here at Big Bank. Well, in the words of Mandy Rice Davies, they would say that wouldn’t they?

The reality is somewhat different. Outsourcing has continued apace, although there’s a few more forms to filled in – there’s nothing the Big 5 like more than forms and processes to provide plausible deniability – and there’s a regular flow of rookie technologists of one sort or another arriving from India to pound away at bank keyboards around the GTA. Now, when I describe the staff from our outsourcing partners as rookies, I mean that in two ways… There’s the obvious one – that the majority of them have, at most, one to two years work experience post-university – and then the less obvious point which is, how can I put this delicately, the less than fully developed cultural sensitivity amongst a small minority as to the correct way to use the standard style of Canadian toilet.

We used to have disposable toilet seat cover dispensers back in the days when technology was considered important enough to merit space on a floor without a ‘B’ in front of it. Those disappeared at the same time as the coffee cups (bring your own cup and washing materials) and the sunlight, so now I have to make do with a wad of toilet paper. Having cleaned the muddy prints away, I sit down to do my business and comfort myself with the thought that I only have five years to go and that, if I string it out for a while, I’m about to be paid $15, including the value of benefits, to take a crap.

Welcome to another day in Toronto banking technology heaven!

Spreading misanthropy from the heart of the Canadian beast since, oh, last Thursday.