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What Was Your Biggest Technology Blunder?

Five different business people chronicle the mistakes they made while using technology in their companies.
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To err is human. To save, divine. Here with a chronicle of mistakes made by others -- to keep you from making your own

It's midnight, and you've just entered the final piece of information into your new computer database. No more manila envelopes stuffed with receipts, no more financial projections scrawled on legal pads, and no more important phone numbers on Post-It Notes strewn across your desk. You're totally automated, a technological hipster, an information god. You jump out of your seat to do a celebratory dance in honor of your accomplishment and -- oops -- kick the computer plug out of the wall. "Did I save that?" you shriek.

We all make mistakes. And face it -- we all like to hear about other people's blunders. It makes us feel more powerful, more competent, more accepting of our own misjudgments. Given the excess of technology available today, the possibilities for techno-bloopers abound. Something as fundamental as hiring the wrong systems "expert" can cost you months of work and make even the most hard-edged businessperson cry.

We asked a number of small-business owners and other people to tell us about their biggest technology blunders. They regaled us with stories of disastrous hiring decisions, viral infections, and hours of lost work. Whether you're technologically gifted or digitally dyslexic, you may want to heed their tales. There's a lot to learn from their mistakes.

* * *

Linda Lewis

CEO of Plantworks, a $2-million interior-plantscape-design company in Las Vegas

The mistake I've paid the most for is not having either virus-scanning software or insurance to cover computer malfunctions.

In 1992, while I was in Bophuthatswana in South Africa to do the plant-scaping for the Lost City at Sun City, a huge casino project, the Michelangelo computer virus swept across the United States. My company was one of a few in Las Vegas that it hit.

Our entire computer system crashed. Not only was I out of town, but I was also unreachable because there were initially no phones on the Sun City job. My office manager, who handled the computer system, didn't know where any of the back-up information was kept, nor did she know where to find the original program disks.

Finally, about a week after the virus struck, I gained access to a phone in a construction trailer and found out what had happened. I'd heard of the Michelangelo virus by then because it had made the papers in South Africa. But I didn't realize how much damage it could do. When my office manager told me we'd lost information, I thought she meant we'd lost a couple of days' worth. But we had nothing -- nothing -- left.

The office manager had called our insurance company to see if it would cover the cost of getting the system back up and running. That kind of coverage is available, but we didn't have it.

You don't want to know how much it cost us to fix things. I probably lost an additional $6,000 in the person-hours we spent reloading all the programs and rekeying all the data. And we spent hundreds more for the computer consultant we hired to help us -- and for new software, including Lotus 1-2-3 and a virus-scanning program.

Now I have insurance that covers computer malfunctions. I mean, come on. For $50 a year, it's worth it.

* * *

Samuel Metters

CEO of Metters Industries Inc., a 14-year-old engineering firm in McLean, Va.

In the early years of running my company, I was so fixated on the wonders of technology that I took the people dimension for granted. In graduate school I'd studied a management philosophy deeply rooted in C. West Churchman's so-called systems approach to management, a theory popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s that suggests you look at your company's activities and operations as systems or subsystems, with little regard for the interpersonal component. Because of that, and because of my engineering background, I was convinced that a systematic approach to management was the best approach, and no one could tell me otherwise.

When the technology craze began, I was intimidated by machines, so I hired people based on their computer skills alone. If a candidate was not computer literate and did not know at least two or three software programs inside out, I saw no place in the company for that person. I looked for computer nerds and software techies, and loved anyone who could sit in a corner and play on a computer all day.

My employees knew the technical aspects of the business, but they couldn't deal with people, so we started losing a lot of follow-up contracts. I remember presenting a proposal to a government agency and watching my employees ram our ideas down the representative's throat. If the government had to decide between Metters Industries and a company with equal technical resources, the decision makers would choose the other company because we didn't understand how to treat people.

I knew things had to change; Metters was turning into a company of robots. Now I look for candidates who have that intangible element -- a warm side to their personality. I just hired a man whose ratio of social skills to technical skills is about 70 to 30. We're finally beginning to win those follow-up contracts.

* * *

Leib Ostrow

CEO of Music for Little People, a 30-employee record label for children, in Redway, Calif., with $4 million in sales

I paid dearly for not saving my work on the computer when I was using solar power to run my Macintosh. Little People was originally a catalog company, and I worked out of my home, which sat on 120 acres of land in the middle of a redwood forest. In the idealism of my youth, I was committed to using alternative energy -- specifically, solar and water-turbine power -- to run my house. I installed an inverter on my Macintosh to convert solar energy to electrical power. I did all my word processing, catalog layout, and invoicing on the Mac. Because I've never been good at remembering to save, every time a cloud went by or someone turned on an appliance that used a lot of electricity -- blam. The computer would shut down, and I'd have to redo everything.

I was a creative type and completely focused on my work, so thinking about something as mundane as saving was not at the forefront of my brain -- though it should have been. The computer would shut off so often, I'd lose a lot of work and find myself playing catch-up. Once I was in such a hurry that I printed the wrong 800 number on the back of a catalog. I don't know how much we lost in sales because of that. I've pretty much blocked the episode out of my mind.

We moved the business five times in the first few years -- at one point we were even in a trailer -- because we kept outgrowing our space. Eventually, we set up shop in town and "went on the grid," meaning we started using traditional forms of energy. It was one of those sellouts -- though I still use only alternative energy in my home. Now, after losing so many hours of work, saving has become second nature to me.

* * *

Reid Litwack

President of $34-million Action Steel Supply, a steel distributor in Indianapolis

My biggest blunder was putting cellular phones in all our delivery vehicles. We bought the phones so our truck drivers could keep in touch with the home office without having to pull off the road to make a call. I set things up so the drivers could call only the company and no one else. Suddenly one driver's bills jumped from the company average of $30 a month to $100 a month. I started making inquiries and found out that he was dating our receptionist. Everyone seemed to know about the relationship but me. I had to confront him. At first he hemmed and hawed, telling me that he just happened to have made a lot more calls to the office than most of the drivers. I told him that from then on he'd have to pay for any amount billed to his phone over the average $30 a month. Surprise. The next month his bill fell right in line with the $30 average. There have been other romances in the company, but they didn't cost me any money.

Judith Jacobsen

CEO of Madison Park Greetings, a $3-million greeting-card company in Seattle

When my employees and I first decided we needed to automate, we hired a woman full-time to help us with our new system and to train us. We particularly needed her to work with our software package, which we'd purchased to do tasks like order taking and invoicing. The woman said she was an expert. I checked her references, and her previous employer told me she was a good worker. She turned out to be the first person I've ever had to fire.

That "expert" practically ruined our computer system. She mixed order entries with inventory information and with financials. All the information in our database ended up as one big jumbled mess. She worked on the system for about three months, telling me that she was making it easier to use and more versatile. Because I don't know anything about computers, I left her to her own devices, while I concentrated on aspects of the business that I know better, like marketing.

I first realized that something was wrong when a person I had hired to do invoicing told me that the files seemed mixed up and that reports he was running weren't making sense. I hired Dexter & Chaney Inc., a software-development company in Seattle, to help us figure out the problem. The representative took a look and immediately said, "This system has been sabotaged." I was shocked. I knew that things hadn't been working right, but I had no idea they were so bad. It took Dexter & Chaney a week and a half to put the system in order.

I don't think the woman ruined our system on purpose. I think she was just incompetent. I learned that thoroughly checking a candidate's background is crucial. I should have asked her previous employer how good she was with computers instead of what kind of a person she was. When I talked to that employer later and mentioned my trouble with her, he said, "Well, she gave the impression that she knew a lot, but now that I think about it, she was a disaster."

To which I replied, "Thanks a lot."


SAD, SAD, SORROW, SORROW

Technologically speaking, Billy West -- the voice of Nickelodeon's Ren and Stimpy and other cartoon characters -- was caught with his pants down

I made one of my biggest mistakes in the early 1980s when I worked at WBCN radio station, in Boston. I got caught Xeroxing my rear end. You know how you think that you're really funny and you're the first person to do that ever, and then you find out that every person at every drunken office party across the United States has done it? Well, two people walked in on me, and it took quite a bit of maneuvering to get my underwear back on.

In these more modern times, I worry about cellular and cordless phones. Most people forget that scanners are available that allow people to eavesdrop on cordless- and cellular-phone conversations. A good example is Forrest Gump. I came up with the idea for that movie and told a friend of mine about it over a cordless phone. The next day the movie got produced by someone else. I'm glad, though, because the movie lost tons of money.

But seriously, getting caught talking about private information could be a major blunder, though I don't think it's happened to me. It's part of the human condition to wonder what goes on in the world. A friend of mine had a scanner, and I heard enough during all the time I spent listening to other people's conversations to write a book. I heard dating negotiations, deals going down, fights, and worse. The material would be great for writing scripts. What's better than real life? I stopped using the scanner because I felt so low listening in on people, and it really was just the thrill of the month for me.

Last updated: Sep 15, 1995




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