Service with a smile

December 22, 2006

A v-c finds an unexpected gift in a mysterious blip in the accounts. John Gilbey, winner of our satire competition, writes

The vice-chancellor stared bleakly out his office window. Thin grey sleet swept around the trees that lined the square - trees leafed now only with trailing carrier bags and other detritus.

Across the table, the director of corporate services was describing to the senior management team how he had cunningly combined the tasks of his department into the sparkly new, digitally enhanced service environment. Now you could lift the phone, or click a mouse, and anything from fixing a dead light bulb to making a new staff appointment could be set running and monitored to resolution by the new, thinly staffed Integrated Service Centre.

"So here we are!" beamed the director, indicating the graph on the plasma screen. "Twenty-two per cent savings across the board - 22!" Emotion brought him to a halt, and he paused significantly to polish his glasses.

"Those are people he is talking about," the vice-chancellor thought to himself. "I wonder how many of them he has talked to? How many are his friends? Does he have any friends?" This last question struck far too close to home, and he let the thread drop.

The director looked around conspiratorially. "Actually, I haven't mentioned the best part yet. One part of the service is actually making money! Making it! Can you imagine?"

After a moment's reflection, the vice-chancellor decided he could not imagine it. His eyes narrowed and centred on the director, who flushed pinkly under the scrutiny. Services can lose money, they can stagger everyone by breaking even - but if they make a profit then something is wrong. Very wrong - even, perhaps, joyously wrong.

"Sorry," declared the vice-chancellor, in tones that spelt out imminent doom, "I don't buy that. If we are making a profit, then we have sacked too many people - and if we have, then I won't be a very happy bunny." The director swallowed painfully, and the vice-chancellor struggled hard to keep a slow smile from rising to the surface.

Options ran through the vice-chancellor's battlefield of a mind. He could call in the auditors, or run an internal inquiry, or perhaps... He turned to the registrar. "Trevor, I'd like you to take a look at this for me. Nothing fancy, just do the sums and find out where we have gone adrift."

The registrar registered surprise. "Well, it's hardly my area, vice-chancellor. Perhaps Finance couldI?" His voice trailed off as he saw rising blood pressure darken the vice-chancellor's massive neck.

"Certainly, I will have an analysis for you by the end of the week."

The corridor outside the registrar's office was silent, even the cleaners had gone home. The registrar took another swig of tepid coffee and noticed that the filter jug was nearly empty. He looked in quiet desperation at the mound of spreadsheets and financial projections, aware that he was missing something - something important. Then, suddenly, a light-bulb moment - of course, it was obvious now he could see it. He sighed with relief and ran one hand over his thin hair. He no longer needed to fear his meeting with the vice-chancellor - although others, while they didn't know it yet, probably should.

He was going to need some technical help, though, there were things here he didn't understand. The registrar ran down the list of possibilities and finally, reluctantly, settled on Eric, the bearded information technologist who at this hour would be well into his third pint of real ale. Trevor sighed again, switched off his PC, slid into his coat and headed for the pub.

The vice-chancellor, full of Monday-morning grumpiness, looked unhappily at the group assembled in his office and rounded on the registrar. "I only asked a simple question, why do we need this circus?"

Trevor switched into placatory mode. "I'm sorry, Peter, but while it seems a simple question, I'm afraid the answer is rather - convoluted. I thought it best to bring all the interested parties along." The vice-chancellor laid his palms flat on the table. "I suppose that is why your report is late. Come on then, let's hear it. But I warn you - it had better be good."

The registrar took a deep breath and gently laid out the parameters and boundaries of his studies, the assumptions he had made and what he regarded as his terms of reference. Inured to this approach, the vice-chancellor fumed quietly but acquiesced. Then Trevor started on his findings: Yes, there was a profit being made by the Integrated Service Centre - a profit even larger than that boasted by the director. After much trawling, he had found that what should be a significant cost centre was actually in credit by an embarrassing margin.

"You will recall, vice-chancellor, that we were required to make the service centre available to staff working at home - to support our flexible working policy?" The vice-chancellor did remember - particularly how he fought against the idle perishers who preferred not to come to work.

"Well," Trevor continued, "at your insistence, we made the external phone lines available only at national call rate - so that we could recover the cost. Only, those lines are now making a huge amount of money."

"I had great difficulty in finding out why, then Eric here," Trevor nodded towards the heap of flesh and denim that was the information guru, "wrote some reports that analysed the raw numbers across the different systems.

The outcome was rather interesting."

Trevor placed a printed graph in front of the vice-chancellor. A bewildering array of coloured lines crawled across it in peaks and troughs.

"You will see straight away the usual high-traffic zones that we expect," noted the registrar with supreme confidence.

"First thing in the morning, after coffee and after lunch are the times when most problems get reported.

"But over here, we see something wholly unexpected..."

The vice-chancellor looked at the right-hand end of the graph. Calls tailed off completely when the service closed at 9pm - only to rocket upwards a few minutes later and remain that way well into the early hours of the morning.

"As you will understand, Peter, this caused me some perplexity - until I came across this yesterday morning in the coffee shop."

The registrar placed a small piece of card on the table. It was a garish concoction of fluorescent orange and black. Across it, in quasi-military stencilling, was printed: "NEED A HOT DATE? CALL THE HOTLINE AND SELECT OPTION 9 - EVERY NIGHT AFTER 9!" The phone number below was that of the Integrated Service Centre.

"It seems that some of the students working at the service centre - who we employed to keep the costs down remember - have developed a significant element of private enterprise," Trevor said. "They are managing quite a complex operation providing, shall we say, introduction and partnering services..."

In the ensuing silence, a small bead of sweat broke free from the vice-chancellor's forehead and plopped on to the table. He strove for some moments to compose himself, then spoke as if pleading to a higher power.

"So, what you are trying to tell me is that after 30 years' academic work, I'm the manager of a dating agency? We're dead! You do understand that, don't you?"

"Not necessarily," said Trevor in his best tones of appeasement, "but, as I said, the picture is quite complicated."

He went on to explain, with technical interjections from Eric, how the new enterprise had been made to work. The open-source software that ran the call-centre system had been extended in a bold and significant way. After 9pm, an extra option was added to the menu on the voicemail system so that potential customers could select a companion for the evening, based on a set of parameters including gender, eye colour, height, area of study, taste in music, whether they had tattoos or a beard - all drawn from existing databases. When a choice was made, the system sent a text message to the selected companion to check availability - and a tryst was negotiated.

"Hang on a minute!" stormed the vice-chancellor, "surely we don't have databases with all that lot in!" Eric, warming to his theme, took up the story.

"It really is a very good piece of work - what is technically known as a 'mash-up', that's when you use web services to trawl data from a lot of different sources. The students have to register first and provide a lot of detail to fill some hidden tables - pictures, too - then our student records system is used as the search engine. I believe they had a stall at the freshers' fair..."

The vice-chancellor buried his face in his hands and shook his head in despair. But Eric was on a roll. "The exciting thing is the rate of development that these kids have managed to achieve - they have a major software release about every two weeks, and each one adds big extra features. Last week they added support for smartphones, video clips, encrypted credit-card payment and global positioning."

The vice-chancellor loosened his tie slightly to relieve the pounding of blood in his ears. He turned to the director of human resources.

"Fiona, please tell me that we can deal with this easily? I mean, we can just shoot them or burn them at the stake or whatever it is that university ordinances empower us to do? We can deny all knowledge, can't we?"

Fiona managed a weak smile. "Perhaps we could," she admitted, "if it wasn't for this. It seems that one of the culprits has been rather clever." She slid a heavily bound book across the table. The vice-chancellor studied the cover with suspicion.

" Value-Added Client Services in an Academic Environment - A Technical Study Using Agile Web Development ," he read. Looking down, he saw a familiar crest and motto, along with the legend "Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science - University of Rural England".

Colour drained from his face, and the room seemed to spin slightly.

"There must be something we can do?" he floundered.

"Well," pondered Eric, "we could start by looking closely at the commercial position. I estimate that the system could be worth millions if we licensed the technology."

"We can't sell dating management software! We're a university!"

Fiona raised a calming hand. "It really isn't all bad news. They have taken a very responsible approach. No one can use the service unless they register, and they have to provide detailed information about themselves that the system checks automatically. All bookings are logged in detail, the prices are pegged and the new smartphone software feeds the GPS location back into the system - if you push a panic button on the phone, Security get an e-mail to say where you are and that you need help. Our students have been selling their company this way ever since grants were scrapped - and we can't pretend we don't know that. At least this way we have addressed the duty of care. I think most colleges will want to buy a copy."

She drew a single sheet of paper from her laptop case. "There is just the matter of moral turpitude. As I said, all the - um - 'transactions' are logged, and here is the list of members of faculty who have used the service in the past few weeks."

The vice-chancellor ran a fat trembling finger down the list of names - noting times, dates and frequencies. His look of pain and anguish turned to one of joyous disbelief. The list matched almost perfectly the one he kept locked in the top right-hand drawer of his desk - the list of those who must be dispatched if an opportunity could ever be engineered.

He turned to Fiona and delivered his first authentic smile for many weeks.

"Thank you," he said quietly, "that is the best Christmas present I have ever had. Now if you will all excuse me, I have a number of phone calls to make."

John Gilbey is a computer science lecturer. He is keen to point out that this is a work of fiction and that he writes in a private capacity.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs