Computers & Politics in Mensa:
Who Jeopardized AML's Membership Records ?

Comment on David Remine's Column of November '96

By Sander Rubin

[Letter submitted to The Mensa Bulletin 6 Nov 96]

   The AMC Chairman's column (The Mensa Bulletin Nov. '96, p. 1) appropriately deals both with Mensa's computer problems and with Mensa's politics, but it fails to make a connection between these subjects. The column outlines the jeopardy in which AML's operation has been placed and then states, "After everything is working properly, the AMC will determine how we got into the fix and who, if anyone, is to blame or is at fault." The priorities are correct -- fix the problem first -- but the promise is deceptive; the blame will be placed, if at all, at the door of some underling or outsider who will be in no position to defend him/herself. That is not where the responsibility belongs.

   There is a history to this computer fiasco, history connected to Mensa's degraded politics. I know because I've been there. I also know more than a little about managing computer projects having been, at one time, VP for software development for a major stock quotation provider. I have also been a close observer of and (when permitted) participant in Mensa's management and politics.

   Around 1988, I recognized the obsolescence of Mensa's HP computer system and the critical importance of that system to the operation of American Mensa. I had, also, had a major role in establishing Mensa's first computer-based membership records back in the 1960s, the predecessor of the then-current system. I noted that the data being delivered by the system was unreliable or inconsistent in some respects. Projecting Mensa's needs against the probable course of development of computers, I concluded that it was time to begin shifting Mensa's data processing to a group of PCs (so-called IBM-compatible personal computers). Through my then-RVC I made a proposal that the operation of the Brooklyn headquarters be examined with the object of beginning to shift data processing tasks, incrementally, to PCs and planning a comprehensive improvement of the whole information system. The word came back, "They won't let you." Later, I was to hear our present Chairman quoted, "If Sander's for it, I'm against it," without regard for the merits of "it." Meanwhile, the system steadily moved from obsolescent to obsolete.

   The source of the Mensa's computer problems isn't the failure of some vendor to meet a contract deadline; it's the failure of members of AMC, collectively, to understand the nature of information-system development and the relationship to the enterprise. They consistently covered their ignorance with politically-motivated decisions, avoiding their responsibilities, as trustees, to make rational, fact-based determinations. Instead of acting timely, they squandered time and money making ill-informed judgments about people they avoided knowing and engaging in a predictably unproducive advertising and public relations campaign. The heart of the modern information system is not in the hardware, which is astonishingly inexpensive, but the software. And software is not static. Software needs to be modified and maintained. This means that one establishes a continuing internal software function within the enterprise, not issuing RFPs as though for delivery of a mechanical product. One rejects out of hand any proposal that claims to offer a conversion over a holiday weekend or promises a cutover on a short schedule; it's unrealistic. One plans from the start to run the new system in parallel with the old for a period of several months.

   Writing carefully-drawn contracts, penalty clauses, and buying insurance may be businesslike, but these activities are unproductive. They do not produce new, better, more functional systems. AMC deceived itself (and a lot of members) by ignoring the objective of actually delivering the goods while going through the motions. The result of this behavior is now a matter of record.

   AMC will not "determine how we got into the fix and who, if anyone, is to blame or is at fault" because the fault reflects on AMC itself. For far too many years, successive AMCs have placed personal aggrandizement, mutual back-scratching, and trading gossip well ahead of trusteeship. We have all become losers, and it is up to us together to set things right. Good politics instead of bad makes a real difference.

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Sander Rubin

Created: 08 Nov 96
Revised: 24 Jul 98