The Intrepid Brotherhood: Public Power, Corruption, and Whistleblowing in the Pacific Northwest
In Search of Aristotle Publishing (2021)
Reviewed by Lee Barckmann for Reader Views (08/2022)
“The Intrepid Brotherhood” is a memoir of a long running bureaucratic knife fight between the author, an IT systems manager, and his organization’s CEO, who was trying to demote and eventually fire him. As Gordon Graham notes in his epilogue, the story has larger implications, and perhaps will be studied by historians who try to make sense out of the changes that the computer revolution wrought for society.
In the 1990s, a quiet but massive tsunami rolled through organizations, big and small, that very few noticed, and even fewer understood. It was the Information Technology or Computer Revolution, and it had a seismic effect on the US and the world. For those “techies” who helped usher it in and were involved in the day-to-day “implementation” of installing systems, it was a hectic era that required constant learning on the job. Moore’s Law, stated by one of the founders of Intel in 1965, predicted correctly that computing power (or the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit) doubled about every two years. This was really the underlying cause for the constant disruptive churning in the industry, but few people really grasped that at the time. But that axiom meant that the technology went through a hyper-cycle of exponential growth, innovation and obsolescence. It meant that to stay relevant, an IT ‘expert’ had to stay on top of the constant change, and every two or three years, discover new ways of approaching the job. This cycle made it almost impossible to predict and manage how transformative the IT revolution actually became.
“Intrepid Brotherhood” begins with a history of PUDs (Public Utility Districts) in the Pacific Northwest. It is a proud history, where civic minded, farsighted leaders in the region financed and built hydroelectric dams and distribution systems to ensure the abundant power from the Columbia River system provided cheap energy for the people of the region. They fought off greedy money from the East to keep ownership local and public and set a high standard for service and professionalism in running the operations. Gordon Graham saw himself as an heir to that tradition. As an IT manager in the 1990s, Gordon approached his job in a holistic manner, seeing relationships built across his organizations as the key to success and growth. His primary customers were his colleagues, and he saw his primary function to help the employees at the Chelan County PUD do their jobs more efficiently.
The story describes the daily outrages of petty corporate snipping and duplicitous undermining that the CEO and his minions committed against Gordon and his colleagues on his IT team. At first, Gordon refused to be pulled into the political games. But gradually, sadly, he became ensnared, and it became a battle for survival. He stayed on and fought the Weasel. Gordon described him as “a man who created chaos to slake his thirst for control and left a prodigious body count in his wake.”
Gordon wistfully discusses how homegrown talent used to be nurtured and promoted based on merit, expertise, and character. But as Gordon tells it, this man, the Weasel, who became his boss’s boss, had little to no empathy, and teemed with manic paranoia. Gordon was constantly surprised when he encountered this behavior, almost to the point of naivete. But in fact, these psychopathic characteristics are a feature, not a bug in many modern business warriors, and are traits required to climb up the corporate ladder. This CEO (Weasel) believed in stressing out and remorselessly shaking out “dead wood” in the organization to increase profitability. The Weasel preferred outside experts because they were easier to control.
From the careful, understated way he writes, one can surmise that Gordon has a mild-mannered personality. He was undoubtedly seen by the CEO and his buddies as an example of this “dead wood”. Gordon thought his professionalism and adherence to data driven results were enough, but he didn’t seem to understand the “locker room” mentality he was up against. Gordon Graham, in spite of his deep study of the management books by Peter Drucker, of Sunzi’s “Art of War” and the works of Aristotle, he was not able to parry and deal with the dishonest mania of his nemesis. Gordon would end up getting fired after a long, drawn out battle.
Still in fairness to the Weasel, it must be said that a case can be made that, in general, IT systems were becoming too intricate, and too intertwined with outside systems to continue to be managed with old school “learn on the job” techniques. Finance was no longer only just keeping track of debts and credits, but managing money in the worldwide currency marketplace. IT was being commoditized in order to replace the homegrown systems created by the local tech wizards. In the 90s, Information Technology (IT) was voodoo and witch doctors, who were often from other disciplines and self-taught, had too much fun introducing new technology to care about the boardroom politics. For a while, they could bamboozle the ‘suits’ and keep them off balance by introducing new capabilities before the managers could understand the larger implications. But alas, IT witch doctors were and are difficult to find and recruit. And since most IT “witch doctors” had neither the patience nor the corporate backroom maneuvering skill, they usually just moved on to greener pastures when management tried to tie them down. But Gordon decided to stay.
The larger story of “Intrepid Brotherhood” was played out again and again in organizations big and small across the world. “The Board of Commissioners” (or whatever the high level officers were called), the political high level entities who saw IT budgets begin to grow, decided to “get control” of their organizations. They hired “management experts”, and consultants to rein in the techies, who were often smart-alecs who ignored dress codes and had questionable personal hygiene. But in this case, (and many others known to this reviewer) the bringing in of hired guns only made things worse. At Gordon’s PUD, those “experts’ and the “off-the-shelf” big ticket software they recommended were massively overpriced and still ran over budget, and the actual software installations contracted for were never completed. The finger pointing was frantic. It got very personal, and eventually the lawyers were called in.
In the end, Gordon left the PUD for a similar job, east of the northern Cascade Mountains, and found some satisfaction, legal and otherwise. Gordon stayed in the area he called home, while his tormentor, the Weasel, went on to fail miserably in Southern California, which for Pacific Northwesters, is another way of saying he ended up in hell. So, in spite of the long dry corporate battle described in “Intrepid Brotherhood”, it did have a happy ending.