I’ve solved the airline overbooking problem. Yes, this does apply to IT in the enterprise. Be patient.

Unless you were completely off the grid last week, you know about the contest between United Airlines and Dr. David Dao. Dr. Dao had purchased a ticket, boarded an overbooked United flight, was randomly selected to give up his seat because United had overbooked the flight, once it counted its own flight crew that also had to get Louisville. Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat.

The result: United enlisted the help of three airport police. One concussion, two missing front teeth, and a forehead gash later, they dragged the 69-year-old Dr. Dao from the airplane.

(Sidebar: If you’re certain United had the right to remove Dr. Dao from the flight and the entire argument is about technique, or, if you’re certain it didn’t, please read PolitiFact’s Analysis. Short version: Citing Embry Riddle Aeronautical University aviation law professor Stephen Dedmon, PolitiFact concluded: “The specifics of Dao’s case can currently be debated but not resolved without knowing all the specifics or legal interpretations. It would take a court ruling to decide UA’s provisions were appropriate and properly applied.”)

The airlines inform us that they have to overbook, because some passengers who buy tickets don’t show up, resulting in empty seats on the flight. They overbook to compensate in order to maintain profitability. Occasionally, due to the laws of statistics, this results in a few more passengers than seats.

I have a better solution. It does require an advanced degree in statistics but is otherwise quite workable. In layman’s terms, it works like this: Don’t overbook!

Here’s how it would work: A passenger books a ticket for a flight. That means the airline has the passenger’s credit card information. Change the rules so the airline can charge passengers for their seats whether or not they show up. Empty seat or full, the airlines don’t lose money, and in fact they gain a bit, because the plane weighs less and uses less fuel.

We can sweeten the airlines’ pot even further: Five minutes before flight time they can sell any remaining empty seats to travelers flying standby.

This isn’t even hard. But what’s it have to do with enterprise IT?

Enterprise IT has its own passenger no-show problem. It works like this: Through the magic (okay, bureaucratic nightmare) of the IT governance process, a business manager … or, if you’re Agile, product owner … gets a project request approved.

No matter what methodology you use, if the business folks don’t show up for interviews, walkthroughs, workshops, and such … if you have empty seats, that is … your project can’t move forward.

To solve this, some IT shops emulate the major air carriers. No, they don’t send in the local police to remove business stakeholders from wherever they are and drag them to where the project’s business analyst is waiting for them, amusing as that might be.

What IT shops do is to overbook, although what they call it is multitasking: Developers and business analysts are assigned to enough different concurrent projects that there’s always something productive to work on for at least twelve of them.

This is a terrible idea (see “The end of multitasking as you know it,” from my old InfoWorld “Advice Line” blog). One of the most important factors in achieving reliable project success rates is the flip side of this coin — to only launch fully staffed projects, with “fully staffed” defined as “never waits on the availability of a project team member.”

Instead, IT should rely on a solution roughly analogous to what I suggested for empty seats. Only instead of selling the unused interview time to a different project’s business stakeholder, the EPMO (enterprise program management office), IT Steering Committee, or whoever or whatever else is responsible for IT project governance establishes a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule: If business stakeholders fail to show up for interviews, demos, daily stand-ups, or what-have-you in ways that slow a project down, the project is immediately and unceremoniously cancelled.

This might sound draconian. It might be draconian. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable.

Start with the understanding that there’s no such thing as an IT project. Projects are always about business change, so if business stakeholders don’t show up when they’re scheduled to show up, the intended business change can’t be very important to them.

The analogy isn’t that you’re booting them off the flight. You’re cancelling the flight.

Or something. The analogy isn’t what matters. It’s getting even with those lousy no-shows.

No, that isn’t it. You’re merely adjusting to the company’s dynamically changing business priorities. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Or at least, it’s the boarding pass.

Snippets from an email exchange about the H-1B visa program, edited and paraphrased for length and suitability:

Correspondent: Have you ever weighed in on the H-1B Visa concern that bedevils American IT workers? If not, why not?

Bob: It’s a complex topic I know far too little about to express a useful opinion. As someone once said, better to remain silent and have people think I’m a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Correspondent: I urge you then to please do research the subject and then speak out, hopefully in favor of the American citizen IT worker. I fear if outsourcing continues this may inadvertently decimate the pool of available native STEM workers who may avoid pursuing STEM professions due to frustration, leaving it to cheaper non-immigrants.

Bob: I’ll think about taking it on, but I won’t promise anything (no, that isn’t ManagementSpeak for “No”).

Correspondent: More likely, it’s that you know who butters your bread, Bob. That’s right, management. And management is about profit for themselves and shareholders at anyone else’s expense, including the indentured servant Indians who suffer under near slave conditions; and your friends, neighbors, and possibly relative American citizens against whom you choose to be, shall we say, less than a champion.

Look in the mirror, buddy. You won’t like the cowardice you see. ^*&# you and your 1% crowd.


In case you haven’t heard of it, “The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa in the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act, section 101(a)(17)(H). It allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.”

Here’s what I, in my own, cowardly way, know, suspect, and conjecture about the H-1B program, divided into two parts: Public policy, and management decision-making.

Public policy first

I don’t generally do public policy, because KJR’s raison d’etre (pardon my French) is to give you something you can put to immediate practical use. Opining on public policy doesn’t achieve this.

Because I know too little about the subject to share a Strongly Held Opinion, I won’t. Instead, here are a few points to consider as you form your own:

  • Near-slave conditions? This is like calling your preferred political villain a Nazi. Slavery, and Nazi-ism, are far too deplorable to trivialize.
  • Econ 101: Worker visa programs are all a form of protectionism. In this case it’s the labor marketplace that’s being protected. The extent you favor or dis-favor the H-1B program probably depends on your views about protectionist economic policy.
  • Business ethics: Is the H-1B program immoral? I can’t personally come up with an ethical framework that makes hardworking foreigners less deserving of employment than hardworking U.S. citizens, other than the moral logic of protectionism — see previous bullet. From a moral perspective one might, in fact, plausibly argue that managerial hiring decisions should be purely meritocratic, entirely ignoring citizenship.
  • Recruiting goals: Well-managed organizations recruit the most talented individuals they can attract. Including H-1B workers expands the talent pool employers have to draw on, improving their prospects for doing so.
  • Unintended consequences: To the extent an employer wants to minimize IT labor rates, reducing or eliminating the number of H-1B visas issued would simply move the work offshore instead of moving the workers on-shore. If the work is on-shore, at least that means worker wages are spent here in the U.S.A.
  • Supply and demand: IT unemployment is, right now, very low (~3.9%), so demand exceeds supply. This explains at least some of the industry demand for H-1B workers. Reduced labor costs explain most of the rest.

Practical, immediately useful advice

For IT managers:
If you’d rather employ U.S. citizens than foreign IT professionals, embrace Agile. While colleagues of mine tell me offshore Agile is possible, there’s near-unanimous consensus among the Agile experts I know that team proximity matters, and matters a lot more than when using Waterfall application development methods. Having the team all in one place makes everything easier than when team members interact across multiple time zones and through purely electronic media.

For IT professionals: Recognize that you’re in business for yourself, and that what you can do for an employer constitutes the products and services your business has to sell.

Any time and energy you spend complaining about how unfair it all is is time and energy you aren’t spending making yourself more competitive. (Hint: Embrace Agile. Smart IT managers are looking for Scrum-worthy developers.)

H-1B workers are your business rivals. Your job is to figure out how to out-compete them.