Meet Paul

Those of you who have attended one of my talks on BI probably know this story. I get asked about it a lot so wanted to share this more permanently. For me this story sums up the chance we have with Microsoft BI to fix one of the biggest issues in the corporate world.

Some time ago I worked as a BI Consultant on a data warehouse project at a major customer. All floors in the 20 floor office were like the ones you see in movies, all mindless, endless rows of cubicles. My cubicle was one in what they called ‘the front row’, which I think meant ‘at the central aisle’, which ran from the door to the manager’s offices in the back.

One day the door opened and someone that looked a bit like Charlie Chaplin walked out onto the floor. He was dressed like an old school English gentleman; complete with hat, newspaper and umbrella. He wore a yellowish dress shirt, blue suspenders and a brown tie with little blue bears on it. I estimated him to be about 70 years old. I am not that good at guessing ages, he might have been 75. Anyway, it was clear that he was well beyond retirement age. He looked around a bit and waited. In the back of the floor his arrival was noticed and someone hurried over to him and guided him to one of those identical cubicles a little further from where I was. Since I felt this was going to be interesting I went to get some coffee and made sure I passed along that cubicle on my way. ‘Charlie’ sat at an old computer (remember those CRT monitors?) and I saw him do something that grabbed my attention. He started Microsoft Excel version 5.0. When I got back from the coffee machine I stopped at this cubicle again and I saw him busily typing away. Some moments later a matrix printer which also stood there sprang into action and started spitting out some papers. He started to collect his stuff, took a quick glance and the papers and handed them over to guy who greeted him at the door and left.

I had the chance to peek at what was on those papers and I am no expert but to me it seemed a lot like a profit and loss statement. That got me puzzled even more, so instead of returning to my cubicle I walked over to the office of the BI manager, who was also my project lead. I described what I saw (‘older man came in, sat in a cubicle, pushed some buttons, printed some pages and left’). The BI manager looked at me and nodded: ‘You just met Paul’.

He continued: ‘Paul used to work for us and retired about five years ago. In this long employment here he made a big Excel spreadsheet that enables us to generate a profit and loss statement. We hire Paul twice a year just to come in here, push some buttons and get us that statement. We pay him handsomely for that service because we need that statement for the financial authorities here. If we do not provide the statement one time twice a year we might lose our license’.

Stunned, I looked at him and said: ‘I am going to ask you a tough question.’ He replied: ‘I know what you are going to ask so go ahead’. I said: ‘Let’s imagine that, heaven forbid, Paul dies tomorrow.’. He froze, looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘We would go bankrupt or lose our license.’

Although this might seem a little over done, this is a true story. Think about it for a moment what this could mean for you and your company. Do you think you have a Paul in your company? I am sure you have; every customer I talk to recognizes this story in some share or form. Do you have any idea what he has built and how dependent the company is on it?

It is time to find Paul, talk to him and make sure you understand what he built. If you can, migrate his stuff over to a more corporate solution. In any case, we need to get this under control. This is not a tiny little company I am describing here, this is a multi-million dollar business and the P&L statement comes from a black box Excel 5.0 sheet that Paul built and only Paul knows how to run.