Tuesday, November 21, 2006

 

Movie Notes: The Prestige

Warning! Complete and total plot spoilers below.

Just imagine the pitch.

B: - Jim! I've got a great idea for a movie!
J: - Really Bob? What is it?
B: - Well, it's set in 19th century London, and it's about a pair of magicians competing with each other.
J: - That sounds exciting! Lots of extravagant special effects for the magic, I assume?
B: - Well, it's actually going to take a fairly cynical attitude towards magic. In fact, there isn't really much. But we'll have loads of gorgeous period costumes!
J: - Excellent. So how does the story develop?
B: - Well, one magician is responsible for the death of the other's wife, so they enter into a lifelong quarrel seeking revenge upon each other, with the stakes constantly being raised.
J: - It sounds great! But what about the female lead?
B: - Er, well, there is a fairly small role. I thought maybe we could embellish it and have Scarlet Johansson.
J: - Is it really big enough for her?
B: - Not really. But then we could say that our movie has Scarlet Johansson in it!
J: - Good thinking! So how does the plot go?
B: - It gets steadily more intense as the competition between the magicians increases and as it builds up to a gripping conclusion that unravels all the puzzles and mysteries.
J: - And how do they unravel?
B: - Well, one of the magicians finds a way to clone himself for his tricks, but then he ends up having to kill his clones repeatedly. And then it turns out that the dodgy sidekick of the other magician is actually his identical twin brother. And then they all die.
*pause*
J: - Right. Um. Is that an allegory?
B: - Yeah. Something like that.
*another pause*
J: - Sounds great! Count me in!

Hmmmm.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

 

Some Quotes (Migrating from Facebook)

Well, it had to happen someday: the limitless space for quotes on my Facebook profile turns out to have run out, so I'm moving them all onto here to make space for some new ones. Enjoy.

"The united power of free nations must put a stop to aggression. And the world must be given peace. Shall we and any other free people refuse to accept this great duty? Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" - Woodrow Wilson before the Senate, 1919. Few politicians have been quite as inspiring - in rhetoric and in deed - as Wilson.

"Dear God, this parachute is a knapsack!" - Laurent. He took it from somewhere else, but I don't really mind.

"No hugs, dear, I'm British - we only show affection to dogs and horses." - What a Girl Wants (a fine, fine movie, if ever there was one).

My favourite Homestar Runner quotes:
"Corn chips are no place for a mighty warrior!" - Strong Bad
"You say 'tomater', I say 'termatermorts'." - Coach Z
"Also, I did not eat your laptop computer." - The KoT

"Bicuspid! We meet again!" - Stewie Griffin's Incisor, Family Guy.

"It is an undeniable privelege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right." - George F. Kennan, on Stalin.

"Many of the historical anecdotes [Reagan] was so fond of recounting had no basis in fact, as facts are generally understood." - Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was famously misinterpreted as making fun of Reagan when he was actually making a rather clever point about why it was that such a 'stupid' man was so damnably popular.

"I thought you liked London?"
"I do, but I like it just where it is, I don't bloody well want to go there." - The Quiet American (film).

Some early quotes from the world of work:
"Why would anyone set a go-live date on January 1st?"
"The roads are quieter over Christmas. You can get to work earlier."
(This deadpan - and sarcastic - gem arose from a question asked of a senior person who shall not be named.)

"You know what they do in Iceland? They catch a shark, then they put it in a hole in the ground, and then they pee on it. And then they dig it up and eat it. And they call it 'Pee Shark'." - Petra, the Swedish darling on our table in Core Analyst School in Illinois.

"I think in this case you are not being stupid, even though you are English." - Alexandra, a wonderfully sardonic French girl, playing (as I did) to the stereotypes of Anglo-French rivalry.

"Nat, I think that your problem with this bit is that you're trying to think about it, and that's just WRONG." - Kate, sharing her insight into how to succeed at SAP.

"If your first name was 'Hat' instead of 'Nat', then your intials would be HK. That's the abbreviation for Hong Kong." - Kate again.

End of the work quotes. Back to Stalin.

"Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union." - Josef Stalin.

"Other media let you see inside other people's imaginations; videogames let you explore." - Edge magazine. Few magazines are quite as lyrical or intelligent in their treatment of interactive entertainment, though Edge does have a way to go in attaining genuine profundity.

"And now you're three minutes older and four questions wiser, so you can go away!" - Creaky Monkey, in one of Tamar's wonderful children books.

Now, onto the music.
Jack's Mannequin ("Everything in Transit"):
"Miss Delaney, whatcha sad for?" - Miss Delaney. (It sounds so much better in motion. 'Oh, Miss Delaney [doo DOO doo doo], whatcha sad [pause] ffffooorrrrrr?')
"We met for a movie- every scene was a sign, we made out through their meaning" - La La Lie.
"Oh, just say you'll miss me - one last time, and I'll be strong" - Rescued
"I talked so much I'm sure I didn't realise I'd gone crazy" - MFEO
"From the corner by the studio, the gold soaked afternoon comes slow" - Into the Airwaves

Fountains of Wayne ("Welcome Interstate Managers") have a great many touchingly precious lines, but the best by far is "It may be the whiskey talking, but the whiskey says I miss you" (from "No Better Place", I believe).

"I love God. He's so deliciously evil." - Stewie again. Nothing sums up my attitude to Christianity better. There are far too many excellent Family Guy quotes to ever be encapsulated in anything other than a dedicated website, of which there are many.

"Yes to dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea..." - Dylan, naturally.

 

"So, what do you do?"

Something that I often get asked - as most people probably are - is what, precisely, it is that I do. Anyone doing a non-obvious job undoubtedly has issues when it comes to answering this question, but most jobs do seem to be fairly easy to explain. If you do a job that everyone knows - chef, journalist, teacher - then no further explanation is needed. On the other hand, if you're part of a profession - lawyer, accountant - people might not understand precisely what it is that you do, but everyone's heard of the profession and few follow-up questions are asked. Consultancy, however, is one of those job areas which no-one really seems to understand unless they've come into contact with consultants themselves, and IT consultancy - let alone "Business Systems Integration Consulting" - is even worse, because people will automatically assume that you do something that you don't.

For example, most conversations about what my job involves will go one of two ways. If I say, "I'm an IT consultant," the standard response is "Ah, so you fix computers?". I do not fix computers - that's an IT technician. On the other hand, if I say "I'm a management consultant," then they may click that it's a City-type job - but only because I've lied to them. Management consultants deal mostly in business strategy, and although there is a strategy group within Accenture, that's not what I do. If I go with the pared down "I'm a consultant", on the other hand, strangers are liable to think I'm a doctor. The difference between insiders and outsiders here is amazing; if someone within the firm asks me what I do, the answer that they're going to get is going to be along the lines of "I'm a BSI consultant in the Products OG in the UK&I geo, specialising in the SCM CG."

So what, precisely, does all of that actually mean? To answer, it's probably a good idea to start with what it is that Accenture actually does. Again, this is fairly non-obvious in quite a remarkable way. Accenture advertises in the Economist, in Time, in Newsweek, at airports; it (if I remember correctly) has the 51st most valuable brand in the world despite having acquired its new name only in 2001; it had revenues of over $16.5 billion last year and is targeting significant growth. Yet anyone challenged to explain its operations is hard-pressed.

To explain, then, let's go back to the beginning. Accenture used to be a part of Arthur Andersen, the venerable Big Five accountancy firm made famous for collapsing spectacularly in the wake of Enron (whose accounts it was auditing). Back in the 50s, Andersen set up a consultancy practice that focused on technology processes as well as business processes (more on this later). This grew fairly spectacularly, and was spun off first into a separate operating department (as Andersen Consulting) and then into a separate company altogether. In the 1990s, Arthur Andersen decided that it wanted to keep its name for itself, and arbitration between Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting led to the latter agreeing to renounce the name; the firm was rebranded as Accenture in 2001; mere months later, Arthur Andersen imploded.

Essentially, Accenture is a mix of a consultancy and a technology services company. The two markets have traditionally been fairly separate. If you're a company that wants to improve its profitability, reduce costs, or simply improve efficiency, you call in management consultancies (such as Boston Consulting Group, Bain or McKinsey) to look at how your company runs and to improve your business processes. If, on the other hand, you want a new IT system for your company to enable you to take advantage of new or up-to-date technology, you call in a big IT company (like IBM, HP, EDS or CDC) to install it.

Accenture's business model is based on a simple insight: one of the best ways for companies to improve their performance is through the implementation of new IT systems. Bain might be able to straighten out business processes, but if they see an opportunity for added value through the introduction of new technology all that they can do is recommend that their client get someone else to install it, and specify what functionality it should have. On the other hand, if IBM is contracted in to install a new IT system, they will be working from technical requirements rather than business functionality requirements, and their technical people may not be fully cognizant of the business rationale behind the new systems.

Accenture, then, is like Bain and IBM rolled into one: no other large company really approaches the bridging of the divide in the same way as Accenture. At one end, Accenture's strategy practice competes with the management consultancies, aiming to rival them in their grasp of management theory and proprietary research (hence the new "We Know What It Takes To Be A Tiger" ad tagline, if anyone's noticed it - the new Accenture Research department is doing research into what it takes to be a "High Performance Business", presumably in order to rival the legendary management theory contributions of management consultancies like BCG). At the other end, Accenture's technology departments put together new programs and hardware devices - at O'Hare, en route back from Chicago two weeks ago, we were bemused to notice a giant, wall-size Accenture touchscreen playing video on demand (news, weather, all about Tiger Woods, etc). Accenture employs enough technical experts to be able to do custom programming for system integration projects, and even helps to develop key software from major suppliers like Microsoft and SAP via joint ventures. Its outsourcing departments enable it to actually take over various non-core aspects of client businesses, such as their HR departments or certain IT systems (like a website).

As a result, Accenture strategy consultants don't simply advise their clients on what they should do, and then disappear. Instead, they say "this is what you should do, this is how to do it, this is how long it will take, and this is how much it will cost. We can start next week". By using its vast database of methodologies and its reservoir of experience, the company aims to be able to make sure that technical people never forget the business requirements, and that business people are always aware of the technical limitations.

Ultimately, then the one-line explanation of what Accenture does is that it adds value through combining an understanding of business processes and an understanding of technology to ensure that its clients end up getting the maximum benefit from its change programs.

The majority of its consultants, then - and this is where I fit in - aren't pure strategy or pure IT (although there are plenty of both): they are "Business System Integration" consultants, working on projects at clients that involve the implementation of a new IT system (often on a huge scale) in a way that reflects the client's business needs. IT systems underpin everything that companies do nowadays, so this type of work is often core to what businesses do. Giant programs like SAP or Oracle provide platforms for all of the financial, HR, supply chain, sales, purchasing (etc) functions that companies do. But since each company is different, and many are absolutely huge, installing such software and configuring it to do precisely what the company needs it to - while converting all of the necessary data from the pre-existing ("legacy") systems into the new one, and training all of the (often change-resistant) employees who'll be using the software so as to make use of the new functionality enabled by the new technology - is a huge job. A typical Accenture project would be an SAP implementation affecting five or six different core activities of a major multinational company, across all of its various geographic locations. Such a project would start with some of the strategy people identifying what the benefits would be from such a change and presenting the client with all of the various options, coming up with a plan for what sorts of business process changes will accompany the technology that's to be installed. Then BSI people will come in to identify the precise business requirements for the new software and come up with a concrete, specific design for what they're going to build. The technology people will then actually build the thing, with BSI consultants managing the change within the client, making sure that the system meets requirements and testing it to make sure that it's working properly. Even after the implementation is complete, Accenture may still be involved in running various parts of the new system through its outsourcing divisions. Projects like this can take several years to go from inception to completion, involving hundreds of people from Accenture and other contractors as well as dedicated teams within the client - with the projects often being run at the highest levels by C-level executives at the client. At some particularly large clients, many different Accenture projects may be running at once, in parallel.

I'm not particularly sure if that's really made things clearer, so here's the summary: I'm basically a problem solver, working with computers to help companies run themselves better.

So there you go.


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