Operator

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The Devil’s Advocate
Dead man walking.jpg

In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

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Operator /ˈɒpəreɪtə/ (n.)

A dead man walking. A condemned prisoner chained like a butterfly on a wheel, who, at some point in the unknowable future, will eventually take the rap for some avoidable calamity though we cannot know how, when or through whose agency this undoing misfortune will be visited on her.

The operator is the poor sod who management inevitably blames when system errors make themselves known. We see an unfolding example in the horrifying case of Citigroup v Brigade Capital Management, wherein a right-shored, outsourced operations center in India — staffed of course, with the proverbial School-leavers from Bucharest, or Hyderabad at any rate — erroneously sent out nearly a yard of cash to some lenders to a distressed cosmetics firm who weren’t expecting it, but then, figuring it was the best offer they were ever going to get, refused to give it back. Litigation is ongoing.

Now Revlon had a number of related loans of different seniorities, different lenders, paying different amounts on different days, and it was quite the exercise in mental yoga for Citi’s team in India just to sort out who was owed what. But that was nothing compared to the cognitive trapeze artistry required to trick Citi’s antiquated system pay the right people the right amounts: something it did not seem capable of doing straightforwardly. This extract from the judgment rings horribly true of IT installations the JC has encountered in his unglamorous career:

On Flexcube, the easiest (or perhaps only) way to execute the transaction to pay the [other] Lenders their share of the principal and interim interest owed as of August 11, 2020, and then to reconstitute the 2016 Term Loan with the remaining Lenders — was to enter it in the system as if paying off the loan in its entirety, thereby triggering accrued interest payments to all Lenders, but to direct the principal portion of the payment to a “wash account”—“an internal Citibank account that shows journal entries ... used for certain Flexcube transactions to account for internal cashless fund entries and ... to help ensure that money does not leave the bank.”

Did you catch that? To pay interest, you had to tell the machine to pay all the principal, too, but then remember to route the principal to an internal wash account to stop it from going out the door. This, we humbly submit, was an accident waiting to happen. Not because of poor or substandard operators, but because of manifestly inadequate software.

You can be sure a concatenation of people up the reporting line from the poor fellow who pushed the buttons to — well, the Chief Risk Officer and ultimately Citi’s CEO — were handed their pink slips, but we ask — given the absurd kit the poor fellow was expected to operate, was the error really, in a meaningful way, the individual’s?

By the way, we learn here that “wash accounts” are still a thing: they’ve been causing trouble since Nick Leeson’s time. The JC is formulating another of his nascent hypotheses:

If you need an error account as part of your business as usual operational setup, you are doing it wrong.

See also