Occam's Razor Saved my Health Care

by Ed Sawicki - June 2, 2015

William of Ockham
William of Occam

Back in 2007, I decided to seek a job in the government sector because I was getting nervous about my family's health care. I wanted to have the kind of health care that was as close as I could get to what members of Congress had. When I interviewd with a government agency for a Systems Analyst position and they asked why I wanted to work for them, I said “Health care.

They hired me specifically for my expertise in the Linux operating system and open source software. My new manager (I'll call him John) was excited about having a Linux guy in his department - at first. John's first love was a company called Novell. He was regarded as the local expert on their products. As time went on, and I recommended that we implement solutions that did not include Novell products, he became unhappy with me. It didn't help when I told him that I could spend 20 minutes implementing it with open source software or a day or more figuring out how to do it with Novell's horrible documentation.

He'd try to discredit me with anything he could in staff meetings in front of my co-workers. I was not the only one in the IT department having trouble with John. Everyone did. But everyone had a reason to keep their job. For me, I had to stay for five years to lock in my health insurance.

John wanted to install a new Novell server product. I was assigned the job because it was based on Linux. Normally a Linux installation takes about one hour for someone who has rarely done it. With experience and fast hardware, I've done it in 20 minutes. However, Novell went out of their way to make it complicated and difficult. Vendors do this to lock you in to their support contracts. They tell you to be cautious of using other Linux (the ones that cost nothing) because you won't get Novell's world-class support; support that you won't need if you used another Linux that wasn't made artificially complex by a vendor.

After days of trying, I was unable to complete the installation. The documentation was terrible. I showed John the documentation and said that I'd have to call Novell. John said that he'd call them. I was relieved.

To shorten the story a bit here, I'll jump forward a few weeks to when John reported to upper management that I wasn't doing my job. Among the reasons he cited was, “Refusal to complete Novell server project”. I was assigned a mediator to hear my side of the story. I told her that I didn't refuse, that he offered to step in and contact the vendor.

Since it was my word against a manager, I was placed on probation that was administered by John and the mediator. The mediator didn't know technology so John assigned me difficult and unnecessary tasks to perform. Someone who had gone through this before knew this tactic. They make you quit your job so they don't have to fire you.

I asked for a meeting with the agency chief and that was granted. After I told my story he said that John was a valuable asset to the agency who had done a lot to get IT up-to-speed, while I was a recent new hire. I left quite depressed. I did think about quitting.

I was sitting at my desk thinking “All other things being equal, a manager has the advantage. Is there some way to neutralize that advantage?” Then the light went on. I went to the mediator's office and said, “Occam's Razor.”

She said, “What's Occam's Razor?”

I said, “You know, the Jodie Foster movie, Contact. All other things being equal the simplest explanation is the correct one. Occam's Razor.”

She smiled and nodded. She remembered this part of the movie! I continued, “What's the more likely explanation?

a) Ed, who treasures his government-provided health insurance above all else, refused to do what his manager asked, or

b) John told Ed that he'd call the vendor but forgot.”

She looked dazed. I said, “Think about it.” then went back to work. Later that day, I was called into the chief's office along with the mediator. The mood was very different. He was now asking about other IT department-related problems that my fellow employees and I were having with John.

Later, he said softly, “Occam's Razor” and after a pause, “brilliant”.

Soon after, the IT department employees reported to another manager. John left the agency a few months later.