Character building is seldom much fun.
It's usually a difficult and uncomfortable experience, at best. If you're unlucky, it's likely also to involve a lesson in humility -- and those lessons are never enjoyable.
But it's good for you. It makes a better human being of you, in the end -- assuming you survive the process, of course.
Civilizations, too, face tests of character, just as do individuals, like you and I. And so, for that matter, do organizations, like yours.
And like Penton Media, Boardwatch's corporate parent.
As a people, we face challenges worthy of the new millenium we have just entered -- lots of them -- and each of them has at its heart a test of our character as a species. Already, we possess the capability to destroy our civilization and ecosystem -- and how we cope with the power of the atom is only the first such trial to appear.
Ever since human society evolved sufficiently to permit the existence of a leisure class, the physical evolution of the species itself has stopped. We keep our culls -- the deaf and blind, the carriers of genetic diseases, the halt and lame, the deformed and the retarded -- instead of letting Nature take its course with them.
(And I, for one, am damned glad of it, too. Otherwise, yours truly would long since have become sabertooth kibble.)
Once we develop the ability casually to remake our own species' DNA, we will inevitably use that power for both noble and trivial purposes. We won't be able to help ourselves -- our anthropoid curiousity will force us to find out what happens. And evolution -- self-directed evolution, this time, rather than the genetic lottery that first brought Mankind into being -- will thereby restart.
But, even before we have to reconsider the question of what it means to be human, our industry -- yours and mine -- faces some pretty fundamental challenges of its own. How will we strike a balance between security and privacy; provide equal access to high bandwidth for all; manage an increasingly-complex address space; find a path through the proliferating thicket of new standards and somehow still turn a profit in a crowded commodity market? Our answers to those and other such questions will, in turn, play a key part in determinig the shape of human society over the next couple of decades.
You build character by making tough decisions and dealing with their consequences. We're going to make a lot of those in the coming years -- whether we're prepared for them or not -- so it would behoove us to start the effort now, lest their arrival take us by surprise.
So Long and Thanks for All the Fish
Penton Media -- whose paymasters sign our checks -- started the new millenium by pulling the plug on our sister publication, CLEC Magazine.
Of course their executives hemmed and hawed about it for a few months before biting that particular bullet, but as far as I can tell, that's the principle function of most American execs, so it's nothing to get exercised about. And, in the end, they made the right decision.
I'll lose a second outlet for my work and a column I was just starting to actually like as a result of that decision, but the numbers are inexorable. In fact, I'm kind of surprised it took them as long as it did to read the handwriting on that wall, since it was written in Day-Glo letters twenty feet high.
You see, I never thought that the competitive local telephone business was big enough to support a whole trade publication of its own in the first place. And, with Penton doing the same sterling job of keeping CLEC Magazine's existence a closely-guarded secret that they've essayed with this publication, it didn't take Alan Greenspan to see the flood of red ink coming.
But, hey, the glass is still half-full.
Not only have most of my fellow CLEC columnists moved over here to Boardwatch, the surviving mag will publish four extra issues this year. Since CLEC was on a bi-monthly schedule, that means I'll lose only two actual opportunities to inflict my big, fat opinion on those of the dead publication's subscribers who accept Boardwatch as a substitute -- a pretty good trade, IMnsHO -- and I gain four additional shots at you native Boardwatchers in exchange.
Sure, I'll lose a couple of paychecks, but the Boardwatch staff is always after me to write more feature articles, anyway -- and that stuff pays better than this does, too. So, while it may have been a traumatic experience for the Penton folks, it barely affects yours truly.
Not that I'm exempt from character-building exercises myself. Far from it. In fact, I've got some heavy construction to do over the next decade -- and some of it has to happen here and now.
The Lessons of History
Since I began this column in the pages of LAN Times six years ago, every January I've used it to make predictions about what the future would hold -- and to review my forecast from the previous January.
Last year, I made predictions -- from the perspective of early November, since my deadline is 60 days ahead of publication -- about what would happen in the much-anticipated Y2K rollover. As has often happened, I was right about some things and wildly wrong about others.
It doesn't bother me that I was wrong about how the stock market would react. There was ample evidence already at hand that I'm no authority on Wall Street. And I'm not even really upset that I was wrong about the Social Security Administration. Being wrong sometimes is the price of admission to the prediction game.
No, what I'm ashamed of is why I was wrong about the SSA.
What I said was this:
"For one thing, the SSA declared itself Y2K-compliant in 1998 by the simple expedient of shifting responsibility for solving its Millennium Bug problems upstairs to the Commerce Department. In my book, ducking a problem doesn't count as a solution to that problem."
And that was dead, flat wrong. Wrong from so many perspectives that it's hard to know where to begin the list: wrong factually, wrong ethically, wrong professionally. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
John McGing, who said he had worked on the Social Security Administration's Y2K compliance program for the head of systems at the SSA, set me straight in an email message he sent on July 11, 2000:
"SSA never declared itself Y2K compliant in March 1998. In March 1998 we began using, in production, software we believed to be Y2K compliant so we could have almost 2 years with it running in production. But a staff of 2500 professionals have been working since 1988 making software at SSA Y2K compliant simply as part of the way we did business.
"The idea that we shifted responsibility to the Department of Commerce is a new one on me, we certainly were responsible for what we did and, because of our high public profile, we were held to very high standards for backing up the claims made."
I had publicly taken McGing and his fellow professionals to task in these pages for sins they did not commit, based on nothing more than a hazy memorgy of an old TV news story. I had done nothing in the way of corroborating my faulty memory before I shot my big mouth off and managed, thereby, to damage both my own credibility and that of this magazine.
It was the worst, most egregious sin a journalist can commit and I have no excuse to offer for it.
The responsibility for that transgression was mine alone. The editors of Boardwatch have always trusted me to do my own fact-checking and, in this case, I betrayed that trust. Just as surely, I betrayed yours.
I humbly apologize to you all.
To John McGing, personally, and to the other programmers who worked on the SSA's Y2K readiness: I greatly regret having so casually and so wrongly impugned your professionalism.
To the editors of Boardwatch: I cannot adequately convey my shame at my own lack of professionalism and the dishonor it has cast on your reputation.
To you, the readers of this column: I am sorry to have misled you. You have the right to expect better of me -- and I am mortified to have fallen so far short of your expectations.
It's been a humbling experience -- and a painful one.
The worst of the misery is not the embarrassment of having to admit and apologize in public for my offense -- although that's pretty uncomfortable. No, what really hurts is the damage I've done to my own image of myself: of who I am inside.
I don't want to be the kind of person the evidence shows I am. That guy's a jerk.
This confession doesn't make what I did all right. It doesn't even make it a whole lot better -- but it's at least something: a modest atonement, a small step in the right direction.
And -- just perhaps -- it's something to build on.
(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)