by Gary Bronson

What It’s Like…Be The Last Man Standing

Dec 15, 20044 mins
IT Leadership

I sat in my hotel room, hundreds of miles from home, wondering what would happen next. My boss, Washington Group International CIO Brian Bertlin, had just phoned to tell me he’d been fired and that the CFO would be calling me in the morning.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. I prayed. I sifted the Internet for jobs. I started updating my resume. It was 3 a.m. by the time I fell asleep. I woke up tired, and when the CFO’s call came through at about 8 a.m., fatigue and a static-filled line made me doubt what I was hearing. I called back, but a clearer connection only made the bad news more plain: My company had decided to outsource to Perot Systems, a deal that—over the course of a year—would put most of my staff out of work.

I wasn’t really surprised. Twelve months prior to the announcement, Brian had orchestrated a vulnerability assessment through a consulting firm without applying any scope or control to their efforts—and without letting his management team know what was happening. When the date for the onsite assessment arrived, he put me and my team on a plane to a leadership conference. The consultants walked in and initiated an internal disaster that attempted to hit every system in our network. When my plane landed, I had a flood of phone calls from complaining staff and remote users.

I called Brian to let him know. That’s when he told me what he’d done—and that he’d already given senior management some early feedback from the consultants. For the first time since I’d known Brian, I just uncorked on him. I told him he’d just put a knife in the back of the IT organization.

The unfiltered details gave the impression that our company was susceptible to just about every catastrophe imaginable. Understandably, it scared the senior execs to death. Given time, they would have seen that many of the problems could be (and would be) cleared up within hours or days. But no time was given. I later found out that the discussions with Perot began shortly thereafter.

When the deal was announced, bailing right away crossed my mind. But I had a group of 90 people; I had an obligation to help them. After the CFO’s call, I got on a plane and went straight to the data center to begin preparing my team for what they needed to do to get ready for whatever came next in their lives.

It was hard. When I started with the company in 2000, I had a corner office in the data center. Then, they moved me to headquarters. During the outsourcing transition, I moved back to the data center, back to a smaller office, closer to my reports.

January, February, March…for half a year, I laid people off the last day of every month. Some people got angry; others cried.

I issued weekly communications to let people know what was happening. We got everyone a copy of Spencer Johnson’s book, Who Moved My Cheese?, which describes ways of dealing positively with change, and we addressed issues from the book at every meeting.

My last day was July 30, 2004. Perot had offered me a job, but I didn’t want to move my family to Texas. So I was out of work. On my last day, I went to the corporate office to sign papers and receive my HR package. They also handed me a gracious letter from the CEO, thanking me for my service to the company during a difficult time. It made me feel good.

That was it. I walked out the door and went to the data center one last time. I turned my badge over to a former employee who now worked for Perot. She was upset and had to turn and walk away. There wasn’t anyone else for me to see.

After months of helping everyone else through the transition, I was drained. I took August off, fished, spent time with my kids. I could have done with another month off, but an offer to head IT operations for Albertsons was too good to pass up, so that’s where I am today.

Written down, I suppose it looks like: “Well, you just got fired.” But I don’t feel that way. The company’s decision to outsource wasn’t malicious; the executives were just doing the best they could with the information they had. They needed to execute a strategy; it’s just too bad they didn’t give us a shot to get it done.

—As told to Christopher Lindquist