The Machine Fired Me

No human could do a thing about it!

It was 7am when my phone rang. Instead of an alarm, it was my recruiter disturbing me from a pleasant dream. It was too early for a phone call or to be caught off guard, so I did not answer. I went to take a shower and get ready for the day. On my way to work, I listened to the voice mail she had left.

"Oh my God, are you OK!"

In the company's directory, there are several people that shared the same first and last name as me. I was OK. So she must have dialed the wrong phone number. I assumed somewhere, an employee named Ibrahim Diallo, was in trouble. But not me.

At work, when I scanned my key card at the turnstile, it flashed red, made a grumpy beep, and refused to disengage. I tried it a few more times, it kept flashing red and grumping. I threw a glance at Jose and made sure to make eye contact. He shrugged. A moment later he laughed then pressed a button under his desk and the turnstile turned open. Jose was one of the security guards in the LA-1 skyscraper I worked in.

I immediately called the recruiter back and it went something like this:

Recruiter: Did you have a talk with your manager yesterday?
Me: Yes I did.
R: Is everything OK?
M: Yes, everything is OK. Is there a problem?
R: I'm not sure, I received an email about you this morning... I guess it must have been a mistake. Did they let you in the building?
M: I don't understand. Yes, they let me in the building. What is happening?
R: I think there is a confusion. I'll ask my manager then I will call you back.

Jose has seen me come to work everyday through those doors for more than half a year. I believe this was his idea of a joke. He must have disabled the turnstile right before I was to scan my key card. I went straight to my manager to see "If everything was OK."

Me: Hi!
Sam (manager): Hi Ibrahim, how are you?
Me: I'm fine. I received a call from my recruiter. Did you want to talk to me?
Sam: No, I don't think so. Did she tell you what the problem was?
Me: No. She said she will call me back. I'll wait for her call, I guess.

I did not receive a call from her. Nothing interesting happened on that day, just good Ol' work routine.

The next day I drove my car to the parking structure and heard the same grumpy beep when I scanned my card. There was a long line of cars forming behind me, the drivers were getting impatient and some had started to honk at me already. It's a long one way corridor where getting out of the lane was not an option. I silently panicked. A security guard appeared, gave me a look, shook his head disappointed, then used his own card to let me in. I embarrassingly drove all the way to the 8th floor.

Inside the building, my card failed again, and the loud grumpy beep made sure everyone was aware of it. Jose let me in once more.

It wasn't the first time my key card failed, I assumed it was time to replace it. As soon as I got to my floor, I went to see my manager to let her know. She promised to order me a new one right away. In the meanwhile, every morning the security guard would have to print a temporary badge for me that would expire by 7pm. Small price to pay.

I went to my desk and worked for a few hours on hardware. When I was done, I logged into my Windows machine to mark my Jira ticket as completed, that's when I noticed that I had been logged out of Jira. I tried my jira credentials multiple times and they did not work.

On my floor, there was a poster at the very entrance. An employee made a New Yorker style comic with two employees talking from across their cubicles. These were the words:

Is JIRA down?
Yes, JIRA is down!

Jira is always down. So I asked my coworker in the next cubicle if JIRA was working for him. He answered Yes. Then I asked him to look for my ticket number. He opened it. Right next to my name on this ticket, it had the word (Inactive) and my name was grayed out.

That's something the manager could sort out, but it was lunch time. I went down to the cafeteria and ordered a nice black bean burger, a healthy diet is important if your work consists off sitting down all day. I went for my usual after-lunch one mile walk, again this counters sitting down all day.

Of course, when I come back, I take the stairs up to the 11th floor. Very hard, but you know, sitting down all day is not good. The only problem was that I forgot that when I reached the 11th floor, I would have to scan my key card to leave the stairs. That card reader reminded me with the slowest, meanest, and grumpiest beep an 8 bit machine could make. I was stuck on the stairs. I sat there for 10 minutes until a fellow stair taker opened the door for me. I sneaked into the floor like a common thief.

That's when my recruiter called me in panic apologizing again and asking if everything was OK. She told me she had received an email saying I was terminated. I told my manager right away, and she was surprised because she received no such information. She couldn't understand why my JIRA was disabled but the system wouldn't allow her to enable my account. She created a JIRA ticket for the support team to re-enable my account.

Back at my desk, there was a big scary (and threatening) error message on my screen. It asked me to restart my computer immediately. I did not comply. Well, I had a few hundred windows open and multiple programming environments running. I just dismissed the box. I knew that if I restarted that computer, I wouldn't be able to log back in.

Instead, I logged into Confluence to document my work for the rest of the day.

The next day, I took Uber to work, I didn't want to deal with the parking again. Jose couldn't print a temporary badge for me because my name appeared in RED and flagged in the system. My manager had to come down to escort me into the building. The recruiter sent me a message telling me not to go to work. She had just received a message that my badge had been used while I had been terminated. I was already in the building. We got the Director involved.

What the Hell is happening? Am I fired or not.

The director laughed. She was a tall elegant woman with the confidence of a countess. She stretched her arm, unhooked the phone and dialed the number for support with the one same hand. With her might and title, she ordered them to immediately restore everything back to normal and hung up. She assured me that everything will be alright, to get back to work and this would be solved by the end of the day. I was still there in her office and saw her face when she got this email:

You are fired

I was successfully terminated. Case closed.

In the meanwhile, there was an emergency on the multimillion dollar tool I was working on. Hundred of thousands of records were missing and the web interface was not responding. I went to my desk only to see that my Windows machine had been automatically restarted (Damn you Microsoft) and my account had been disabled.

Thank God I had my CentOS machine. The regular tools I use for development were no longer accessible. I had to hack my way into the server to restart it, debug it, reactivate all the services, and reprocess the data.

Before I left the building I went to see the director that was still on the phone with support. She gave me the green light to come to work the next day.

The next day, I had been locked out off every single system except my Linux machine. Even the service we used to log our hours to get paid had been deactivated. I spent the first half of the day documenting my work.

After lunch, two people appeared at my desk. One was a familiar long face that seemed to avoid making direct eye contact. It was Jose and his fellow security guard. He cordially informed me that he was to escort me out of the building.

The director was furious. They had received a very threatening email to escort me out of the building and were just doing their job.

"Who the hell is sending those emails!?"

I was fired. There was nothing my manager could do about it. There was nothing the director could do about it. They stood powerless as I packed my stuff and left the building.

Over the next 3 weeks, I was CCed on the emails about my case. I watched it be escalated to bigger and more powerful titles over and over, yet no one could do anything about it. From time to time, they would attach a system email. It was soulless and written in red as it gave orders that dictated my fate. Disable this, disable that, revoke access here, revoke access there, escort out of premises, etc.

The system was out for blood and I was its very first victim.

I had worked there for more than 8 months and my work spoke for itself. I was receiving constant praises, people were fascinated by my work. I was getting along super well with every one. I like to believe that I never did anything wrong to anyone... This was a great reminder of the frailty of job security.

Eventually the problem was solved. My recruiter called me one morning and told me that I can come back to work. I had missed 3 weeks of work by that time, and pay. Once on site, I got an explanation.

Once the order for employee termination is put in, the system takes over. All the necessary orders are sent automatically and each order completion triggers another order. For example, when the order for disabling my key card is sent, there is no way of it to be re-enabled. Once it is disabled, an email is sent to security about recently dismissed employees. Scanning the key card is a red flag. The order to disable my Windows account is also sent. There is also one for my JIRA account. And on and on. There is no way to stop the multi-day long process. I had to be rehired as a new employee. Meaning I had to fill up paperwork, set up direct deposit, wait for Fedex to ship a new key card.

But at the end of the day the question is still, why was I terminated in the first place?

I was on a 3 years contract and had only worked for 8 months. Just before I was hired, this company was acquired by a much larger company and I joined during the transition. My manager at the time was from the previous administration. One morning I came to work to see that his desk had been wiped clean, as if he was disappeared. As a full time employee, he had been laid off. He was to work from home as a contractor for the duration of a transition. I imagine due to the shock and frustration, he decided not to do much work after that. Some of that work included renewing my contract in the new system.

I was very comfortable at the job. I had learned the in-and-out of all the systems I worked on. I had made friends at work. I had created a routine around the job. I became the go-to guy. I was comfortable.

When my contract expired, the machine took over and fired me.

A simple automation mistake(feature) caused everything to collapse. I was escorted out of the building like a thief, I had to explain to people why I am not at work, my coworkers became distant (except my manager who was exceptionally supportive). Despite the great opportunity it was for me to work at such a big company, I decided to take the next opportunity that presented itself.

What I called job security was only an illusion. I couldn't help but imagine what would have happened if I had actually made a mistake in this company. Automation can be an asset to a company, but there needs to be a way for humans to take over if the machine makes a mistake. I missed 3 weeks of pay because no one could stop the machine.

At least a year later, I can sit here and write about it without feeling too embarrassed. So that's the story about the machine that fired me and no human could do anything about it.


PS: I am willing to bet the recent issue with YouTube Piracy filter blocking MIT courses and the Blender Foundation are the result of The Machine being the ultimate decider. Even though YouTube's support team clearly knows that these don't violate terms and conditions, the Machine decided otherwise. And they will have to fight it to death to bring the videos back online.


The Machine Fired me - The Book

I am writing a book! Join me in my journey.

Check out my new Startup Ottomon

Contact the owner of any car with the click of a button.


Comments(76)

Alberto :

Incredible story. The most ridiculous thing is the way they treated you. I can only imagine the way you felt, that must have been horrible.

Maybe I've missed it, but are you still working there? By the way you're a good man doing a great job, so, fortunately, I'm sure you'll be fine :)

Chris :

I certainly wouldn't return to a company that treated me in such a manner, especially after 3 weeks of being unpaid. They must be very lucky to retain you!

Also, just want to let you know there is no date on your articles/submissions.

Steve :

Reminds me of something that happened at Hewlett Packard. Carli had announced a 5% headcount reduction. This meant 5 of every 100 employees had to go across all divisions NO MATTER WHAT. HP out-sourced the analysis of who got the axe to a third-party firm whose name escapes me. Took several months. Needless to say, morale and productivity really suffered during those months. We had open offices. My partition was on the backside of the General Manager for Inkjet media (a very profitable division). One day I was working past 5pm, and the GM was on the phone with HP HR and the 3rd party firm. Somehow his top performing sales manager had been included in the forced reduction. It appeared no one knew how this happened. The GM was saying things like, "You cannot fire this guy. He accounts for [some huge percentage] of sales and profits." I could not hear the other end of the conference call, but it was clear that nothing could be done. The paperwork had been processed. Likely HP could not have any exceptions to the process for legal reasons. The GM was perplexed, irate, incredulous. The die had been cast - the head was on the block and the blade was in motion. The top performer was fired. I knew him. Being a top sales guy, he took it in stride. Top performing sales guys never stay unemployed for long. The loss was totally felt only by HP.

Jason :

If you wrote a novel, I would buy it. And read it. Please write a novel!

datapimp :

Just thought that I would make a suggestion for you to grow your blog etc.

change to a .io domain. idiallo.io Looks pretty clean and clever.

Pace Summers :

I am willing to bet the recent issue with YouTube Piracy filter blocking MIT courses and the Blender Foundation

Ignorant people shouldn't bet. They always lose due to their lack of knowledge on the subject matter. It wasn't "The Machine" LOL. It never was.

j :

I went for my usual after-lunch one mile walk, again this counters sitting down all day.

No it doesn't, you need to do a lot more than that. I am surprised the computer didn't tell you that!

Thomas R. Koll :

Didn't the company have to pay for those three weeks? After all it was a mistake at their side and you had a standing contract.

Ibrahim :

@Alberto Thank you so much for the kind words. I actually left a few months after. I wasn't in a position where I could just quit at the time so I waited for the next opportunity, which happened to be a lunch of my startup at Techcrunch last year.

Thanks @Chris. The dates are displayed when the article is over a year old. (something I am trying.)

Top performing sales guys never stay unemployed for long.

@Steve Cool story.

Thanks @Jason. I would totally write a book... one day.

@J actually I went on more then one mile throughout the day. I was kindly reminded by my smart watch, A Machine.

@Thomas I was on a W2 with the staffing agency, this company, that shall not be named on this post (but is name in a different post ;) ), did not pay the staffing agency. So I had to do an appeal, and go through a long process that I did not care much to go through. I had a mind in quitting after all.

Rishabh :

What an incredible account! They are very lucky to have you back.

BTW, Did they still retain the system after this spectacle? I can see the system has too much power on other connected systems, or does it simply raises service requests with respective departments to just close and follow. If it is completely automated and integrated, an attacker may simply target it and shut down the whole company (locking out people, disabling key card access, in worst case enabling key access for the malicious candidate).

On a side note, you write very well.

Joerg :

What a great story, sounds like it came straight from the dystopian future! I hope something like this will never happen to you again. Really dissapointing that the company hadn't covered pay for those 3 weeks.

Ibrahim :

@Rishabh Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately, when a company has over 254,000 employees, one person doesn't cause the whole system to change. But at least I could change my place of employment.

Rahul :

This should be made into an episode on Black Mirror

Daniel :

I thought I was reading fiction...

Xplorer :

That's the managerial-driven society at work. If you were in Europe you'll get big money for that because it's not a fault, it's illicit.

That's also why all things goes from bad to worst in our society, few, very few people want to rule the world and they know any dictatorship does not end well for the dictator in the history so they hope to substitute people, especially army and other "critical stuff", with machines and they push people, from the school end beyond to be Ford-model workers instead of citizen.

My sole point is when people start to react. In Europe we have a history of revolt against dictatorship but also a history of disasters, in the rest of the world it's even worse.

Sorry for my bad English and thanks for sharing your history.

Alin :

Maybe it's time to sell your story to Hollywood. I would love to see Tom Hanks again, as in "The Terminal".

The YouTube's filter is just some ML indirection, like RFC 1925 Law 11 & 11a.

Ibrahim :

@Alin in our days, I would sell it to Netflix! Someone earlier proposed it as a black mirror episode.

Film career, here I come!

ed :

That's quite amazing. Who plans a workflow like that?

But what caught me most is that your coworkers became distant.. wtf?? why? that's the opposite of what I'd expect. Can you explain?

Matthias :

you all might want to read "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daemon-daniel-suarez/1100310971?ean=9780451228734#/

It's fiction, but reminds me strongly of this tale

Fry :

Can't believe you lost 3 weeks of pay.

You say you had a contract and you certainly complied with your part of it. So how can the company end up not paying you for 3 weeks. Get an attorney...

Ibrahim :

As many are wondering why I haven't fought to get the money that was due. To tell you the truth, I had started the process.

But facing two of the largest companies in the US (work and staffing agency) was very intimidating. So when I saw traction at the start up I co-founded, I simply gave my 2 weeks notice.

kshade :

Sounds more like the support staff sucks, being unable to tame their own system. Were they external?

dgw :

The first rule of automation should be, "There must be a Big Red Button that, when pressed, aborts the entire sequence of events."

The second rule of automation should be, "When aborted, prior to completion, the sequence must be able to roll back all actions taken."

This reads like a techno-thriller and I want more.

Hans Sprungfeld :

"The Tower", anyone?

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108371/

Alex :

Brilliant read :D

You should really consider do writing for a living. Better written and more fun to read than the most books i recently read.

Vivek :

This is an incredible story. May be you can change your job into writing field instead :D

Niel :

Sounds terrible. But you keep talking about job security... there is no job security as a contractor. Your contract could have been terminated without cause at any time.

Marijn :

Sounds awfull :(

How were you able to write something in confluence when your Jira account was disabled though? That stuff is usually linked to the same account?

bot :

wonder what if this happens to one's bank account or ability to board a train or bus with an electronic ID. makes me think of bitcoin and other trustless and decentralised techs are important.

Akeem Spencer :

The keyword I highlighted in this SS is being comfortable. I'm sure your work on automation during that contract created a "bug". Is Artificial Intelligence really "intelligence" if a human can simply rationalize the mistake in the aspect of HR, but the system you were working in "didn't".

I think in macro-level POV, there should be some classical level of override authorship granted to security, HR, and executives from your mysterious company to grant you access to certain applications/access points.

And for the sole employee, this is why documenting everything you do in work is really important. I remember my father always told me, "you never know when a company can send you packing". Physical/Electronic memos of work you completed could have prevented this. So at least when the security guard or HR manager sees a flaw, the system can do a self-check to adjust itself for permissions. You just fell victim to "comfort".

John :

This is an amazing (and well written) story. It's so unbelievable that I thought I was reading a fictional short story until the last few paragraphs.

Christin :

I was in the same situation, only difference was I got full pay during the time, and it happened just two weeks before my contract would have ended anyway. So no negative consequences except the fact that I had to reactive my accounts everyday again and again. The cause is unknown however.

Cpt Picard :

We had a very similar thing happening in our firm - maybe we bought the same HR / IT software ?

Somebody in HR wrongly set her termination date one month early, and though we understood the problem 1h after the first signs appeared (Outlook throwing random errors), we could not stop the 3-day account-killing avalanche.

In contrast to your case, though a) Of course she continued to get paid by her consultancy firm, and we paid the consultancy firm - our mistake, our loss.

b) Because "Jira is always down" everywhere (= IT systems are less reliable as one wants), we always have a bare-bones, Scotty, no clever-system involved solution available (dust the typewriter).

c) Because of a) and b), she continued to work with us, and we had a couple of drinks and a good laugh together.

I think one fundamental problem is the not-explicit responsibility shift when introducing such an automatic system. Before the last judge and executioner were sys-admin and the manager. Afterwards, it is the guy coding this system, HR and the Security guard - sometimes without them getting briefed, trained or getting the power to veto the system.

On a different note, the rage of the machine can, of course, be much more disastrous: https://www.propublica.org/article/fbi-checked-wrong-box-rahinah-ibrahim-terrorism-watch-list

Stephen :

This sort of "up is down" sort of issue is strange to a programmer because of the unreal expectation of control and order created in part by the position they occupy in the hierarchy. A lowly administrator or callcentre rep etc finds this sort of incongruent reality challenging debacle par for the course.

sla5h :

you know, i thought your first name flagged some over zealous al-qaida hunting AI :) and when the smart card beeped didnt you feel additionally embarassed that you dont belong because you are a person of color and an alien and your name sounds muslim? i'd have liked your naipaulesque writing to have shined a light on that.

Hashtag :

I worked in "Identity Management" for a big corp for too long and have to absolutely agree with your story. We were transitioning to a new ID-system including asset-management and stuff and - guess what - it brought the whole company to a halt for several times and several occasions.

At least we were able to suspend and stop workflows like a termination with reasonable consequences, when some task went running amok like yours did.

Ibrahim :

@Alex @Vivek and @John thanks, I am glad you enjoyed it. I once heard that in order to become a writer, well you just have to write. So let's pretend I am a writer ;)

@sla5h i'd have liked your naipaulesque writing to have shined a light on that.

I don't think my name would have triggered such thing, a very large number of employees had these flaggable names. But I'm afraid you just boosted my ego by 1000x by calling my writing Naipaulesque :D

@ToAll I really appreciate all your comments and sympathy.

Also it looks like I may have been write about the YouTube Blender problem.

Alex :

I am shocked that you had to take unpaid leave for a problem which clearly the company caused. Sounds highly illeagal to me.

I know that large corperations tend to act slowly in those aspects but that is just ridiculous.

Ron Hyatt :

Bob Porter: I looked into it more deeply and I found that apparently what happened is that he was laid off five years ago and no one ever told him, but through some kind of glitch in the payroll department, he still gets a paycheck.

Bob Slydell: So we just went ahead and fixed the glitch.

Bill Lumbergh: Great.

Dom Portwood: So um, Milton has been let go?

Bob Slydell: Well just a second there, professor. We uh, we fixed the glitch. So he won’t be receiving a paycheck anymore, so it will just work itself out naturally.

Bob Porter: We always like to avoid confrontation, whenever possible. Problem solved from your end.

Luddite :

Thank you for sharing your story. I agree that over-reliance on automation is bad and your story is a great example. I also see that the automated system had a huge design flaw in that it never notified you, the contractor beforehand.

You should have been notified at least 2 weeks, if not 30 days prior to your "termination date" that action needed to be taken to renew your contract and who was the current approver(s). If that had been the case you would have been able to follow-up before the system took action.

mwb :

This is a new twist on the age old problem of bureaucracies.

Thanks for the write up!

Alen :

I've worked for a company where all contractor/consultant accounts were set up with expiration dates and they had to be re-certified by managers every 6-12 months. The reason being was that managers never notified IT of consultants leaving and it created a big security hole and auditors notice these things.

Once you do this in Active Directory, it's not a big deal to write some powershell/SQL or other code to propagate the changes to other systems.

And this is exactly why this stuff is done. The first line manager will blame IT or anyone else for a security issue when it was their fault for not notifying anyone that someone left or re-certifying a consultant. I've actually heard of people start working in a company with their manager not notifying HR or payroll or anyone else.

If your department is being audited and you show them logs of people who don't work there anymore accessing company resources via VPN and whatever then it's very bad. In some situations it's a potential lawsuit.

Lorian Bartle :

We all knew this day was coming. It's scary enough that this happened to you for stupid, preventable reasons but it will be scarier when a system fires someone because it works exactly as intended.

Ben :

Sounds like a usual day at IBM...

Marc :

Love the story. My company is still using fax and real printed mail for most of the business, so im probably safe for some time. Sometimes i would love more digital processes. But after reading your story not so much.

But again great Story would buy the book or watch the movie.

Greetings

Gordon Bennett :

Sounds like the system worked as exactly as it was supposed to. The problem is not having a way to reverse the process.

I'm also a little confused - you say the former manager didn't renew your contract in the new system, but why would it have to be renewed after only three months? You mean he forgot to put it in the new system? Or does the system require people to be "renewed" every few months?

So... basically your story is that there was a human error and the system initiated a security protocol?

Daniel N. :

It is pretty clear that it was human fault (the laid of manager) that resulted in it, and "machine" was perfect, and doing exactly what it should. Seems like amazing system to be honest.

Mike :

Gordon Bennett: No, the story is that there was a human error, and without a human being notified a security protocol was initiated that nobody could interrupt.

Having said that: I suspect that it could have been interrupted but that it was too expensive, difficult, embarrassing, or time-consuming to do so for the sake of someone whose loss wouldn't cost the company a lot of money. What if the CEO had given the order to get it sorted out? What if your loss would have cost them big money?

Ego Ist :

Interesting story. A similar short story about the frightening/promising future of AI can be found here:

http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

Stephanie :

An important story! I wish I could share - more people need to think about this when they think about automatic processes.

If you would let me share, please let me know. In any case, I will remember it and thank you for writing it.

Richard :

There was nothing wrong with the process here. The system just would have an automatic list of tasks that take place when someone ceases to be employed, and carried them out.

There is no "AI" involved here either. The computer didn't 'decide' to do anything. It would have just followed a simple list of instructions - if employee is no longer employed, do x, y & z.

The problem is the incompetence of the managers and HR department in not knowing how to re-hire.

Javier :

Frightening story ... finally, it was an human mistake (caused by the former manager ) ... but in some ways, we trust in software more than on ourselves ... being software a human creation ... i would sell this story to Netflix for a Black Mirror chapter ( i'm not joking )

Lawrence :

Well-written! Just wanted to let you know that your story in BBC has been reshared in Linkedin.

Ibrahim :

Thanks @Lawrence. The number of reshares on this post has overwhelmed me!

Alex Carter :

And people actually wonder why skilled coders become "black hat hackers" ...

Harry :

This is lazy HR at it's finest

Companies suck so much these days. 40 years experience in the computer industry, we have failed people miserably, spent unfathomable amounts of money on wasted projects that never saw the light of day, coupled with people that don't want to work or be responsible anymore.

I am associated with a project right now that isn't being tested enough. Found a failure on a certain type of password reset. They have 9 days to fix it. I bet it doesn't get fixed.

Irshad :

A very similar thing happened with me when I was in Cisco. I was working from a consulting company payroll. I had some fight with Cisco Manager. Although I have moved to different project. They haven't extended my terms.

Although in my case humans were extremely supportive. I got another ID in the system (changed from ichohan to irchohan).

George :

Yours situation is an emerging phenomenon that must be addressed quickly.

It involves the dignity of human beings and their "diminishing value" as we approach the confluence of efficiencies gained from the increasing implementation of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Your story is clear. Your destiny is to lead.

What is our next step?

Bethany :

In response to those who are indignant over the accusations of “The Machine” being less than perfect, you are correct to point out that the issue was caused by human error. However, EVERY issue is caused by human error.

A person or group of persons should not seek to build a perfect “Machine” because there can be no such thing. People are flawed and as such there should always be built in stopping points where the “Machine” needs permission to continue or can cancel the request or process. People would like to bypass adding this step because it can lead to delays or perceived inefficiency but all it takes is one screw up and someone’s life could, at the minimum, be inconvenienced and at the worst, be ruined.

Richard Braakman :

Your story reminds me of the story "Manna" by Marshall Brain. It's about such automated management systems taking over more and more tasks in corporations.

http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

koCiz :

Don't worry, AI is the big next things to go. You can already get a glimpse of the future with autonomous driving cars...

TheBobinator :

I used to work at one of the largest energy companies in the US. They have 10 levels of management, 1 through literally 10, and anyone I believe a Level 6 or above can initiate an internal process whereby someone is fired in the manner you described here.

The way they do it is with a facilities ban; the exec manager fills out a form starting why someone should not be allowed on the premises. It can be anything from petty theft, to making a threat, et-cetera, but once they fill out that form, your head gets axed. The key give-away is only the guy who filled out the form knows. It's their responsibility to inform other managers, but they don't, because they don't want the political blow-back. Direct managers and everyone up and down the chain from them don't know because this goes on between them and the upper-echelon of HR. All they know is their employee can't get on-site and HR can't get them paid.

This same company began in-sourcing after using a large outsourcing outfit to get caught up, and after embarrassing themselves on a conference call for 2 hours with about 250 people, talking to their staff in absolute business-speak gibberish with one of the secretaries literally fawning over an exec manager, they ended up telling everyone "we really don't know what we're doing and nobody is guaranteed a job, but we might shoulder-tap a few of you".

They lost 2 people off of their firewall team, and ended up with 25,000+ end users having no internet for 2 days. They ended up not being able to recover data from backups for staff. Suffice to say, the upper crust of the skill set within the corp felt they had better opportunities elsewhere left for greener pastures, and once that message got out to recruiters it was a feeding frenzy.

The lesson here is, any long-term contract work for any corp is not long-term contract work, it's permatemp work, and no matter how good paying or how long they state the contract will last, do not view this as any kind of long-term employment solution. While on one of these contracts you should be looking to cherry pick a job. You should put in bare minimum mediocre work, apply for jobs within the company you feel suit you, and save your energy for job searching on the side for something better or sharpening your skills for something better.

dick :

Thanks for the story! From my understand of the your old boss who got fired after you had joined the company and the merger, but he was rehire as an contractor also just like you whom mostly was powerless in re-newing your contract even if he had known it was about to expire right? Also correct me if I'm wrong, but would that large company merge be AT&T? And Good luck with Renly!

Nyx :

They definitely should've paid you. It was an oversight in their company/company's software that made them unable to fix/override the system for three weeks, why should you suffer?

Ibrahim :

@dick thank you for reading. You are onto something ;)

DE Navarro :

And remember it is man who made the machines and man who gives himself over to the machines and these are "dumb" machines (so far). Imagine when we cut loose AI that learns for itself and makes its own decisions.

Yes, stories like this remind me that mankind is stupid.

Luis Santos :

The most scaring part of your story is that you have not be payed for three weeks, due a fault made by someone else and the soviet company's systems.

Here, in Brazil, you could easily sue the company. You could not only get your full payment for three weeks but also a large ammount of money for compensation.

How this work (or not work) in USA?

Fevzi :

Wow, so interesting story. "The machine's day" that we all fear, is coming.

Ken :

Is this scifi?

Drake :

Sue them! for your 3 weeks of salary! And you really should reveal the company's name, tell everyone to not work for them!

Thomas :

Reminds me a little of "Computers Don't Argue."

You're lucky to be alive.

Ibrahim :

That was a fun read. Thanks for sharing @Thomas!

Thomas :

@Ibrahim

Fun! It's horrifying! ;)

Lain Robertson :

Hi Ibrahim,

For the TL;DR crowd: this isn't a good example of a societal problem with automation as the underpinning issue is that someone failed to update the contract termination date. Everything from that point on wasn't a "decision" but simply a result of this one human oversight/error.

In detail...

What transpired was truly unfortunate, however, the system didn't "decide" anything. It "actioned", and that's an important difference. It's no more at fault than the two security guards that came to escort you out (I know how that feels even when it's known to be standard company policy for senior/sensitive appointments) insofar as it was simply doing what it was told by virtue of a person not updating your new contract end date (whether that was your former manager or someone else is not particularly relevant). This is a straight-up administrative error by a person. Questioning the system's actions makes as much sense as questioning the security guards'.

The word "algorithm" is bandied about far too much these days and I sat through another display of it yesterday (and a repeat of it this morning) on a national (Australian) radio program we have called ABC Radio National, specifically the Law Report (episode link) where your story featured along with commentary from Darren Gardner, a legal consultant, which led me to the blog.

While sympathising with the outcome you endured, the issue I take with your representation and Darren's occasionally innaccurate representation of technology's functional role is the obscuring of the simplicity of the real issue: being that your contract termination date hadn't been updated. That's hardly worth obscuring under the term "algorithm", which the lay person typically thinks is profoundly cryptic. This isn't detracting from the fact that algorithms are indeed responsible, but the whole episode and your story made this sound far more sinister and complex through not exercising enough emphasis on the atomic cause of the issue (the invalid date).

As for your "big, giant red button that says stop" - which I'm assuming this was an example of comedic exaggeration so that the common audience could understand your focal point: no. Just no. There's so much more to automation that neither any guest nor the show's host explored but the key point I'll focus on here relates to governance and in particular the topics of security, auditing and compliance (in no particular order of importance).

As a quick but very common example I've had to deal with over the years, I'll walk into a organisation that doesn't have something called an identity management system (and this sounds far more like what your employer was using that any kind of machine learning/AI system). In such places - and I'm going to pick a randomly representative number here as some places are more diligent than others, but it's not unfair to say they've had so many accounts (focusing on Active Directory as that's far more representative of the organisation's staff count) for departed staff still enabled that it's not uncommon to see figures of 15 per cent of active staff accounts should actually be disabled. In large environments, that's a lot of people and that translates directly into a lot of risk and even a lot of breaches of policy and possibly even regulation.

That's what can and does happen when you rely on people. And that translates directly into risk, which in turn can be broken down into dollars and cents lost for a given timeframe (though things like reputational damage are still hard to meaningfully quantify).

If you have a means for "stopping" the automation system then all you're doing is introducing the capacity to reintroduce exactly the same issues (though quite likely on nowhere near the same scale). You're also introducing new operational and governance complexities around who is authorised to make the stoppages, how that is audited, who's going to maintain the workflow, etc. - all of which has a cost, which in turn would have to be weighed up against the benfit to the company.

To finish up on this particular subtopic, I took away three things from the ABC discussion and your story:

  1. The deprovisioning process should have been a whole lot faster. As an aside - not necessarily related to your story, deprovisioning should never result in the destruction of data (which includes accounts). It should only enable/disable, as this leads to point 2.

  2. The deprovisioning system should have the capacity to reinstate a deprovisioned account promptly. While "promptly" is subjective, I tend to aim for the two hour mark, and while this can be impacted by the scale and design of the identity management system (i.e. pushing changes in parallel from the IDM or in serial from one system to the next), I haven't worked at a place where it couldn't be realised within a single work day.

  3. Based on the the description, it sounds like the provisioning/deprovisioning process at that place is heavily dependent on workflows, which served to protract the deprovisioning timeframe. These really should be reviewed as if role-based provisioning is used (and it should be) then there's little to no need for manual approval workflows and their resulting lengthy delays (i.e. the approver is on leave, etc.)

This would allow the company to avoid risk (I'll discuss that in a minute) while benefiting from operational cost savings and increased responsiveness (I've commonly seen the example of a new employee not having been set up until a couple of days after they've started - it's even happened to me as a new manager). It would also facilitate the "quick" (again, subjective, but I'll take the position of less than a day) remediation of debacles such as the one you found yourself in.

Moving on...

In short, to fully flesh out the role of technology, we need to balance the one-sided societal impact discussion the radio broadcast presented with the needs of business both to satisfy their internal and external (think regulation like your HIPPA and SOX in the States) requirements and the impact of not doing so.

While I've been fortunate enough not to have endured a significant event such as a major data breach (which is a currently hot topic in Australia), identity theft, etc. where I work, it's not hard to imagine how the financial impact of such events could result in material financial impact (particularly smaller enterprises) which could in turn bubble through to reduncancies in the company or even their vendors who might be ostracised post incident (I can think of a few ICT services companies that have laid off people through losing a major client). And the capacity (not a comment on likelihood) for such a breach increases where you're not disabling accounts in a timely manner - particularly if the parting was acrimonious.

So, should your one rather rare (in my opinion, given how many people are likely hired and fired on any given day across the Internet-conected, blog-reading parts of the world) and insufficiently representational issue (this isn't intended to belittle the impact it had on you, just that the impacts of automation are so much broader) with automation outweigh the impact of what your "giant red button" can have? My clear position on that is, no. A well-implemented system wouldn't have subjected you to the horrible experience you went through, but your story isn't motivation enough to say the concept being striven for (to improve cost, compliance and minimise risk, etc.) needs to be hamstrung by contradictory manual checks and balances, just that the design of the system needs to be reviewed so that all relevant scenarios - such as re-instating returning employees, is implemented in a sound manner.

Cheers,

Lain

Ibrahim :

Hi Lain

Thank you for adding your perspective. Although we may disagree on a point or two, I think having your commentary and an alternative take here is valuable.

As far as the red button, yes it's metaphorical. In another interview that hasn't been broadcasted yet, I gave more details. On my day to day job, I use automation to deploy a very large website. We press "deploy" and hundreds of tasks are triggered. Sometimes, we have to cancel the process and all it takes is pressing one button, and we can rewind the entire changes, including database changes. So this is not an unreasonable demand.

On the particular radio show you refer to, I do mention the way algorithm or AI gets brandied a little too quickly. Automated script is more appropriate here. But I can only control my own words and my blog, not what others decide to publish.

Another thing that goes overlooked, is that even though everyone knew that it was a human error that triggered it, and that it was purely a mistake, they chose to follow the emails. It's like putting a "smoking allowed" sign in the hospital and people respect the sign instead of using common sense.

You gave the estimations of "single work day" or "two hour mark" and a "couple days" to get you setup. The onboarding in this company is 3 weeks. Just the mailing of your keycards can take 5 to 7 business days. After all, the company has 250,000 employees.

Still, I appreciate your comment and the points you raised. Of course, a 30 minutes radio show cannot cover the complexity of the issue. Even the original recording session was over an hour long and had been condensed.

Virginia :

This recently happened to me. I'm in a desperate position because I'm completely out of unemployment and running out of savings. So I was horrified when I was told that I wasn't supposed to be working anymore after five weeks at my new temp contract. I knew it was wrong because I'd been attending trainings for new urgent projects. I was amazed though that my logical appeal worked. My systems at work remained disabled even though I'd been told my name was 'on the wrong list' and so I had to work using other people's logins and a home email address until my account could be restored. It wasn't ever restored though - I ended up getting a new account with a misspelling of my last name. It was such an unfair rollercoaster ride of tears and misery coming to work everyday and wondering if this was the last time I'd be there, knowing there was no more money at home for my family to rely on. It's still a temp job with zero security.

Let's hear your thoughts

For my eyes only