From rick Thu Dec 19 00:39:33 2002
Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 00:39:33 -0800
Subject: X-Mailer hide-and-seek
User-Agent: Mutt/1.4i
X-Mas: Bah humbug.

So, $FIRM was one of many firms launched specifically to commercially further Linux and open source. But it had a wee PR problem: Despite the technical staff's goodwill and friendly assistance in getting them acclimated, almost all of the sales staff and executive team refused to use anything but MS-Outlook and MS-Outlook Express for all e-mail.

Now, you'd think that the "PR problem" was the likelihood of embarrassing security incidents, such as $CEO repeatedly picking up the MS-Windows VBS trojan du jour and automailing it back out to a large number of outside parties, including technology journalists. But no. That wasn't it. That horrific embarrassment, bad as it was, didn't even rate.

No, the PR problem was the fact that the public could see that practically all of the firm's publicly visible representatives were using MS-Windows and Outlook, rather than any of the 120-odd ( e-mail clients for Linux, many of them excellent. This is what executive staff decided was the problem.

I happened to be head of the system administration department at the time: My department wasn't consulted on the matter. Instead, the first we heard of it was an order from $FOUNDER (who I think was technically VP-in-charge-of-looking-decisive at that moment): We were directed to reconfigure the outgoing mail server to strip the genuine X-Mailer headers and substitute fake ones claiming such mails were created by Linux software. No discussion. Ex cathedra. Fait accompli. "Just go do it, because I said so."

Now, before I finish the story, here is what I hope is an apposite observation about our favourite topic: being a technical employee in a politicised corporate environment.

Point #1: One reason techies get ignored is that they tend to bitch and protest just in order to feel good, because they think it's important to say exactly how Bad and Wrong is the corporate folly under discussion, in order to enlighten listeners for next time — even when this has no effect whatsoever. Executives know this, and compensate by granting the techies bitch time, to get it out of their systems. The executives aren't looking to get enlightened; they're following an organisational dynamic that the techie isn't even trying to understand. The irony is that while the techie thinks the exec Doesn't Get It, the exec thinks exactly the same about the techie, but (more to the point) knows he or she is in charge.

Point #2: A cautious technical employee's interests are best served by giving executives appropriate ammunition to help them — even if boardroom logic remains mostly beyond his/her ken. That means the right language, on the right issues, pitched the right way — to help the exec advocate the techie's recommendations to the exec's fellows, instead of letting technical recommendations be steamrolled by morons, by default.

When I heard the aforementioned order, I raised an eyebrow but then said "OK, fine. We'll come up with something." (I never use allocated bitch time; it's strictly a sucker's favour.[1]) And then I mulled over the matter for a few days.

Not over how to munge the X-Mailer header; that's not difficult. No, I contemplated what sorts of discussions and clash of interests among the Board members and executive staff must have gone into producing that order. And then I considered carefully what might motivate the executive staff to reverse it.

Soon thereafter, I happened to wander across the street to lunch with $FOUNDER. "We're going to put in that filter to 'sanitise' outgoing X-Mailer headers, this weekend. That shouldn't be a problem. But something occurred to me, and I just wanted to mention it, just in case it hadn't been considered: Granting that it's been deemed desirable to forge headers to conceal Outlook use, what happens if anyone who knows we're doing it leaves our firm and tells the press? Suppose a reporter visits, sees NT and Outlook being used all over Sales and the Executive offices, but then consistently sees nothing but 'X-Mailer: Ximian Evolution blah blah' and such on all mail received from those people? Is it worse to be seen using Outlook, or worse to be seen using Outlook and then be caught lying about it?"

His eyes opened wide, and said "Now, that's a really good point", and shook his head. I was smart enough to drop the subject — and pretend as if the order had never been issued. And, as I predicted, the matter never came up again.

[1] When executives have decided to force down everyone's throats a decision that's likely to be unpopular, it's common — or was, before the 2000-2001 economic collapse — for them to schedule time for people to discuss the matter and air their views. This is portrayed as "feedback", whereby the employees' views will be taken into account, but in reality is nothing of the kind: It's actually time allocated for ritual venting, which is known to make subsequent employee resistance less likely — and also lets potential troublemakers be spotted early.

It's therefore never a good idea to take proffered opportunities to "vent" about management faits accompli. Instead, either go with the unpopular position and accept it as part of what they pay you for, or silently subvert it without sending the Powers That Be a telegram that you might do so.

Cheers,              "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us
Rick Moen            in trouble.  It's the things we know that ain't so."             -- Artemus Ward (1834-67), U.S. journalist