Shadow Systems or Working Under the Radar

Originally Posted 10/28/2010 

The term Shadow System recalls to my mind James Bond movies' SPECTRE organization. The truth is much more trivial. Shadow systems are those fantastic gothic cathedrals built with Excel which keep so many businesses running. The IT would happily use a flamethrower on them but they would make the worst mistake possible.

Uncovering a shadow system and bringing it to light is an incredible luck, both for IT and the business. I tell you why.

When Alessandro, an old friend of mine, was first promoted to lead the minuscule private label division of the clothing company he used to work for, he faced a hard task. The small division has been operating at loss for more than a year, with a part time manager who had issues far more critical to the company to be tackled. Alessandro dove nose deep to the task and identified the root cause of the problem. That kind of business could become interesting for the customers only with some services attached. For example, a famous motor company had a sophisticated sport dress side business, but did not want to deal with distribution, business expansion, show rooms etc. Luckily, this was exactly Alessandro's specialty. So he contacted the fashion retailers and persuaded them, placed the items on display in every motor related event he could find and sales soared. Customers begun to flock and Alessandro designed appropriate services for all of them.
While doing all of this, he soon realized that his company was totally unprepared to cope with this specific business. It's main customers were large generalist retailers for the lower quality segment so, basically, what they could do was take large orders, produce them and ship containers laden with uninspiring panties across Europe.
Alessandro required to manage small orders, initial orders and replenishment orders; he had a more sophisticated pricing and had to keep track of all the promotional and business expansion initiatives to price the services correctly.
He was doing a modern commercial job with tools focused on the industrial aspect of the business.

At that point he reverted to me to help him fill the gaps, someway. My first instinct was to tell him to ask for money for new systems, but the entrepreneur liked that the division was taking off but did not have any budget for such a funny thing like computer software. Alessandro made clear that we had to go in stealth mode and work with what we already had or could get for free.
No use to say, we fired up Excel, downloaded the free SQL server edition, and started designing the system. I'm not going into details here but it wasn't terribly difficult. In few months, working at weekends and, sometimes, moonlighting, we had something that could be interfaced (with some manual work) with the "official" systems and met perfectly Alessandro's requirements. To tell it with Alessandro's words, it laid perfectly onto the business. His control requirements were entirely met.

This was the typical shadow system, that worked perfectly for a couple of years or so till when the IT migrated from XP to Vista. When they discovered on a secretary's desktop the MSDE installation they went mad. The CIO harshly criticized Alessandro for making use of an unauthorized software, wiped the installation, hunted for database backups and macro enabled sheets on the other boxes and deleted all those too to make sure that nobody could recover the fiendish shadow system. People were also demoted from PC administrators to worthless users. Alessandro scaled the issue to the entrepreneur; after all, he got results and fulfilled his requirements for free (he was a friend who needed help and the only compensation I had was a gigantic, truffle based, dinner, which he paid himself) and the CIO obsessive-compulsive behavior had no justification whatsoever. Actually, the CIO had better walking the (short) extra mile and doing the few improvements required to fully integrate the shadow system with the rest of the IT structure. After all, I built a corporate grade system, far better designed than a user incrementally created castle; they needed only to open the hatch and have a walk under the deck to realize it. The entrepreneur's reply was that Alessandro was unable to keep up with the rules, that he could not understand his obsession for computers, and, anyway, he did not like to have him travelling to sell someone else's clothes; he had better staying at the office and taking care of production.

No use to say, Alessandro left in few months, taking the bulk of the customers with him. What's the ultimate lesson of this story? You can get a perfectly functioning controlling system for a dish of truffles, but you can't have a CIO swallow it. 


# 1

excellent story Gus!...seems like a global phenomenon to be sure!

From  greg kramer