Culture shock: Out-placed to an outsourcer

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Culture shock: Out-placed to an outsourcer

When the assets of BHP IT were sold to CSC in May 2000, some 1,700 techies became CSC employees overnight. Nine years on, a staffer subsumed by the American giant tells iTnews of the culture shock in becoming part of an outsourcer and the early days of working in BHP computing.

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When the Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) Company set up a computing centre in 1969, the call went out to populate it.

Armed with a metallurgy degree "but looking for something different", Neil Rowsell applied.

"There was no such thing as an IT degree at the time," Rowsell recalls.

"If you had a science degree and fit the aptitude test you could get in."

Rowsell passed the test and became a systems engineer programming punch cards in FORTRAN and COBOL for BHP's then mainframe, the CDC-3300.

He progressed to spectral analysis on the Data General NOVA minicomputer which boasted 8K internal memory ("The cost of adding another 8K was more than a year's salary. We'd do anything in Assembler language to avoid buying another 8K") and then to programming in BASIC++ for the DEC PDP-11 minicomputer.

Rowsell was also involved in one of the largest computing system projects globally in the 1980s - BHP's computer system plan one - and later helped manage it through Y2K.

But 35 years in, on May 23, 2000, BHP changed.

The resources giant outsourced all IT support to CSC and transferred all of BHP IT's "assets - namely 1,700 employees and contractors - to the outsourcer.

This transfer of staff is known as being ‘outplaced'.

"It might not be such a bad thing if you're a programmer or systems expert because you're still enhancing and supporting the systems [from the old place]," Rowsell says of the experience.

"But if you're in a higher management role you're probably going to be gotten rid of very quickly and if you're in middle management you're retained but the difference in cultures can be very confusing.

"The BHP culture had been built up over many years - a very Australian culture - and then all of a sudden you're part of an American [workplace] culture.

"Middle management ends up juggling the effects of the two different cultures. They are the people most impacted [by outplacement] I believe."

The culture shock Rowsell and others experienced inevitably was passed on to the end customer - BHP.

"Customers like BHP still expect the Australian culture but you've got this ‘influence' saying you can't behave like that anymore," Rowsell says.

"It does cause some consternation."

Rowsell recalls that juggling cultures wasn't his only problem in the early days of outplacement.

BHP IT's old management systems were dismantled over the first three months of the change - but CSC's new systems weren't fully operational until about six months after that.

"It was challenging to keep track of what was going on," Rowsell says.

He remained with CSC as the applications portfolio manager for Port Kembla steelworks until 2005, when he was able to secure a consultancy role with BlueScope Steel.

"That was very enjoyable because it was like being back into the [old] culture," he says.

"I seemed to fit in very well, and I'd probably still be working there but for the impact of the economic downturn."

Making the project management transition

Rowsell got his first taste of project management in the early 1980s. His first project was managing the implementation of a Wang Computers word processing system to the typing pools at Port Kembla.

He was also part of the team that introduced the first PC into Port Kembla around the same time.

But these were dwarfed by computer system plan one - a complete transformation of production control systems based around IBM mainframe systems at the plant.

"It was one of the biggest computer system developments in the world at the time," Rowsell says.

"It involved 300 people over three years and really transformed the steelworks from being a manually operated to a computer system controlled plant. There were very few projects of that size in the world at the time."

When BHP extracted the computer system departments from across its various plants nationwide and consolidated them into the separate BHP IT in the late 1980s, Rowsell was appointed one of the managers responsible for supporting and enhancing computer system plan one applications.

"These applications were around a long while - and a lot of them still are," Rowsell says.

"That caused some problems halfway through the 1990s when we realised the applications worked with two digit dates. Having been involved in the enhancement of the system for over five years after those applications were developed, I became the project director for Y2K."

BHP committed five years and $8 million to get computer system plan one ready for the year 2000.

"The way it was done was in two phases - there was a very solid analysis upfront before we got into it and did the work," Rowsell says.

Even so, many of BHP's top brass ‘celebrated' the new millennium from the plant at Port Kembla.

"They had a NYE party at work just waiting for the clock to tick over to make sure the steelworks systems didn't fall in a heap," Rowsell says.

"Even the general manager of the steelworks was there."

At the same time, BHP IT was one of five preferred systems integrators for the Australian Department of Defence, counting them as a regular customer.

"In late 1998, DoD got money approved by the Government to upgrade their non-secure network, servers and workstations to make all the defence bases Y2K compliant," Rowsell says.

"They virtually had a year to do it, so they brought all five systems integrators into a room and divided up the 170 or so defence bases on a state-by-state basis. We were assigned 35 bases in Western Australia, South Australia and NSW."

Rowsell was project director for the upgrades, a $9 million body of work.

"Again, it was one of the biggest projects going in Australia at the time," he recalls. "Defence had ordered a lot of hardware and all their suppliers were geared up for the project."

Is there life after outsourcing? Read on to page two

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