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November 21, 2009

Hessians and Whores, Consultants and Contractors

I was not a very good student of history when I was young, and history is a lot like religion- if the last time you studied it you were in the 5th grade, then you probably are left with a 5th grader's perspective.

I first read about Hessians in 3rd grade, and here is what I remember: George Washington attacked the Hessians on Christmas morning while they were sleeping in their barracks after drinking on Christmas Eve. The Hessians were mercenaries, and the teacher explained that mercenaries were people who fought for pay; they didn't care about the issues, they just wanted to get paid. I remember thinking, stupid Hessians to get surprised like that.

When I was in 5th grade I heard about whores. I was hanging out on the corner and the older guys were referring to a whore, which their Brooklyn accent pronounced as "who-ahh". The next morning I asked my Dad, "what's a who-ahh"? He asked why I was interested, I explained, and then he said, "It's a lady who's not very nice. Leave it at that".

Sunday we went to my Aunt's house for a great big dinner - lots of relatives and kids, all in the big finished basement. I've always had a visceral dislike of screamers, and there were quite a few present. I was reflecting on how unpleasant this arrangement was, and there was an uncharacteristic silence in the roar. My Aunt started in with her shrill voice and I saw fit to announce, "Aunt ----, you are such a who-ahh."

This caused quite a commotion. I knew I needed to get out and started for the stairs, but my Dad got to me first and gave me some kinetic energy. I raced him to the front door but I had to stop to work the two locks, and he caught me and he was an instant from back-handing me when I said, "But you said..."

I am, to this day, amazed at his restraint. He put his hand down and said, "tell me exactly what you mean". And I replied, "You said whores are not-very-nice ladies, and you can hit me again but your sister is not a very nice lady!" He quietly told me to go wait in the car, and in a few minutes my family came out of the house and we went home. That night my Dad explained to me that there was more to it than he'd explained. His sister was, of course, a nice lady and a good Mom, maybe a bit loud. I thought I'd mention the story while we're on the topic.

Hessians and Whores are people that we pay to do ... essential tasks which we would normally induce others to do willingly. Relying on Hessians and Whores generally indicates that you're in a compromised, weak position, unable or unwilling to find support among your own people, so you're left to hiring mercenaries.

The Mercenary's Tale

Are mercenaries as reliable as having your own people willingly do these chores? Generally not. The role of the mercenary is not new, and neither are questions about their effectiveness and reliability. Niccolo Machiavelli dealt with mercenaries in The Prince, Chapter 12:
I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of (mercenaries). The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them because they always aspire to their own greatness; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way.

And if you say that people will act in the same way, whether mercenary or not, I reply that when arms have to be resorted to then the prince ought to go and perform himself as the captain, and the republic has to send its own citizens. Experience has shown that princes and their people make the greatest progress, and mercenaries do nothing except damage; and it is more difficult to bring down a republic armed with its own people, than it is to bring down one armed with mercenaries. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switzers are completely armed and quite free.

And now I would discuss Italy, which has been ruled for many years by mercenaries. The first to use mercenaries was Alberigo da Conio. From the school of this man came Braccio and Sforza. After these came all the other captains who have directed the arms of Italy; and the result of all their valour has been that Italy has been overrun by Charles, robbed by Louis, ravaged by Ferdinand, and insulted by the Switzers.

The principle that has guided them has been, first, to lower the credit of infantry so that they might increase their own. They were unable to support many soldiers, so they were led to employ cavalry. Affairs were brought to such a pass that, in an army of twenty thousand soldiers, there were not to be found two thousand foot soldiers.

They did not attack towns at night, nor did the town garrisons attack encampments at night; neither would they campaign in the winter. All these things were permitted and devised by them to avoid both fatigue and dangers; thus they have brought Italy to slavery and contempt.

Mercenaries are not going to put themselves at risk for the client; their priority is (first) to look out for themselves and (second) to keep their good thing going. The only people who'll give their all for an organization (country or company) are people who have married their futures to the organization (ie, citizens, career employees).

Modernity: Consultants and Contractors

In the modern world, of course, we never use mercenaries (except for in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we use Blackwater and Halliburton). Today, rather than Hessians, organizations use Consultants and Contractors to do the things that they should rely on their own people to do.


Consultants are generally hired by management to do something they don't understand or can't deal with. Often, the consultant is a hired gun brought in from the outside to reduce headcount, or replace the company's people with other mercenaries. The consultant's highest priority when they get inside the business is to identify their next consulting opportunity. They have completely different priorities than management, and yet often management hands over the reins to them.

Of course, when I talk about consultants I don't mean the people on consulting teams - the one or two grey-beards who understand the business, or the half-dozen fresh young graduates who make and mouth the powerpoints - I mean the corporations who pretend to be honest brokers but who are really there for the money, and for next year's money, too. If the consultant's idea doesn't work, they do a study (billable hours, of course) and discover: the fault is elsewhere! The organization is resistant to change!


Contractors are mercenaries who are brought in to do parts of the work that the population used to do - in the work environment, they replace a portion of the workforce. Contractors will say that this allows the Company to "focus on their value-adding core competencies", but the employees that remain will tell you that it's a headcount game that replaces a full colleague with a limited contractor, who has their own priorities and expectations.

Please do not confuse what I'm saying with an ad hominem attack on individuals who work as contractors. Pursuing my "whore-metaphor", the John is the organization who has a need they cannot satisfy, and the Whore is the Contractor (the corporation) that offers to do certain things for certain prices, knowing that there's an upsell and a re-sell (and maybe a cross-sell) in the near future. The John suspends his own disbelief to convince himself that this is going to be the real thing, and becomes invested in the "good or better" narrative. The Contractor is going to take the agreed price and discover more and more needs which all must be filled, and maybe find some jewelry in the process.

I'd like to revisit Machiavelli: you're never going to get mercenaries to give you the same performance as your own self-motivated people.

Here's this week's example, all from the national news outlets: The Story Behind the Flight-Plan System Crash. At one time, the air traffic system relied on a robust, redundant series of dedicated phone lines that had backup power supplies, backup routers, etc. This 24x7, bullet-proof system was a crown jewel, and it was not inexpensive.

A Consultant suggested Uncle Sam could save money using Contractors and off-the-shelf systems. In 2001, the Bush Administration gave a Contractor (Harris) a $2.4 Billion dollar contract to run the Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI), and they're responsible for keeping the system working.

When the system went down on Nov.19th, it took hours for Harris' technician to drive out and replace the network card that caused the failure. If it hadn't been an outsourced system, it would have been fixed in minutes.

Of course, the contractors aren't taking any blame. The press releases blame the outage on old equipment, but the real blame should fall on the decision to outsource maintenance of a critical system.

If this was an in-house system, accountable people would have gotten the system back online within minutes, and there would not have been a national impact. As an outsourced system, the Contractor has a cost motivation to keep staffing trimmed, and is committed to the contract more than to the organization's mission.

Most of the nation's airline system was delayed because of a Consultant's idea and a Contractor's priorities. Neither will be held accountable. Let's pay attention before the whole business goes over to the Hessians and Whores.


Don Brown said...

Loved it. As usual.

Don Brown

Anonymous said...

"Most of the nation's airline system was delayed because of a Consultant's idea and a Contractor's priorities."

I would suggest that the problem is with the folks who decided to implement a non redundant system run by contractors.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with Anon above.....and who were those people again? Those who removed the designation of "inherently governmental" from the description of air traffic control? oh, yeah -- the Bush administration. Run it like a business and you run the risk of failure.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis.

ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

P.S. Third from last word before Dilbert: "reins"

Anonymous said...

As a member of the team responsible for the design, implementation and operation of the afore-mentioned "crown jewel", these stories cause great rending of hair and gnashing of teeth. Granted, that system was not inexpensive, but I venture to say that MORE has been spent on this cobbbled-together nightmare with obviously less functionality. One more thing -- the "crown jewel" was, in fact, a product of a contractor -- perhaps the difference between an escort and a street-walker, but there are dedicated, competent and principled groups out there.

Anonymous said...

Exactly on target.

FTI- Hessians and whores.

you hit the nail on the head.

By the way- you know why it took four hours to fix? Because the Hessian had the key to the spare parts locker in his pocket, and he doesn't come in to work until 8.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. I was lead here, as so often happens, by Don Brown

I worked 20 plus years in government communications/computer infrastructure with systems that parallelled and often integrated with FAA systems (exmaple, the NORAD Air defense sectors).

I retired in 2003, not becuase of age, I was healthy and happy in my work, but becuase the USAF made the same sort of moves that the FAA did with many critical defense systems ... contract _everything_, even the operatonal control of the system(s) into the hands of contactors who often had no concept of what the task they had been awarded entailed.

In my view, it is not only sickening, as a patriot and tax payer, but in many cases the contracting priocess has made a mockery of the Federal Proucrement regulations and likely other laws.

Sad but true. Keep spreading the word.

Roger D. Parish said...

Just to keep this in perspective: the Manhattan Project was all contractors. They aren't necessarily ALL evil.

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations. Change a few of the words under the CONTRACTOR section and you have described the outsourcing of Flight Service. The only exception is that Lockheed is actually rewarded for providing poorer service, in that the fewer calls they receive, the more $$ they make. At last count (2008) they had run off 2/3 of the customers (since 2005), but still made the same amount of money while promising equal or better service. Is there anyone out there who thinks this is equal or better?.....other than Blakey and Boyer of course.

Another round of closings announced just last week and it always goes something like this....."Due to further increases in the price of avgas and less GA traffic, our metrics indicate that in order to provide better service, we will consolidate from the original twenty stations down to five, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH." They never mention that their product is somewhat "diseased" if you will, and most sane pilots will avoid a diseased "who-ahh". Both the pimp and the "who-ahh" come out smelling like a "rose".

For the taxpayers, the pilots and the 2000 Air Traffic Control Specialists that lost all or part of their already paid for pensions, you can change "rose" to any four letter word you think appropriate.

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