The Bean Counters

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1992

Once upon a time great ships of state sailed the seas of commerce. On the bridges of these great ships were the captains of industry, the wise and visionary leaders of that day. Many of them were engineers, who personally embodied a breadth of knowledge and wisdom that enabled them to navigate the murky waters unerringly toward the distant lands upon which their eyes were so firmly set.

These were the days of yore –a legendary season in history when engineers were in charge. But now the mists of remembrance have all but closed over those times gone by. Today the stormy oceans of commerce are full of small and large boats sailing aimlessly under many different flags.

If you have visited the bridge of your boat lately, whom did you encounter there? Did the captain and mates have their eyes turned toward the still-unseen distant lands ahead? Or was their gaze instead cast downward upon the foaming whitecaps just beyond the bow? Or perhaps they were fixated not upon the sea ahead, but backward toward the boat's built in wall safe. Were the captain and mates, perchance, wearing tell-tale three-piece suits? If so, then you have met the new type of business leader - people who are guided only by the short-term accumulation of money. Since talking about money is crass, we call them bean counters.

In the days of old the crew of the ship would gather around the captain to listen to tales of the great land beyond - the joys and benefits that would ultimately compensate for the hardships of the long voyage. The echoes of those wondrous tales still resonate about us, but those who tell them no longer abound. Now, should a passenger or crew member ask the captain about the final destination of the voyage, the same answer reverberates from boat to boat. ``Wherever there are beans,'' intones the chorus of new captains. ``But where shall we steer?'' asks the crew, pleading for a motivating vision. ``Toward the beans,'' comes the predictable wisdom from above.

``What happened to the wonderful land beyond that our old captain promised?'' asks the crew. The captain frowns, ``There were no beans there,'' he says in disgust. ``He was court-martialed. We don't allow people like that to command boats anymore. Now get back to work.''

The engineers have now been relegated to the engine room below deck, where there is no sunlight or any notion about where the great ship is headed. Still, they take great pride in the gleaming new engines, which they continually improve and polish. ``Does the captain know the potential capabilities of our wonderful new engines?'' asks one of the faceless engineers. An equally faceless companion looks up from her engine-software. ``How could he?'' says the software designer with resignation. ``He has never been down here.''

Dispirited, but determined, the engineers discuss among themselves the possible new lands that might lie out in the ocean, if only there were resources for certain improvements in the drive and navigation equipment. They decide to commission a small group to approach the august captain to plead for their plan. Unfortunately, the captain is too busy to meet with the engineers. He has a full calendar of appointments with various people who specialize in predicting bean crops. The humble engineers are not surprised; they had only expected as much. None among them had ever met the captain, though they had often seen his picture in popular magazine Beaness Week.

An assistant to the first mate is delegated to meet with the engineers. He frowns his displeasure at their appearance - conspicuously sloppy in comparison with his own. Though he himself is only an apprentice bean counter, he keeps his shoes well-polished and his vest fully buttoned. Surely it cannot be long before he himself takes command of a ship. After all, he has a master's degree in bean administration from a great school with alumni in important positions throughout the bean economy. As for the dress of the engineers - what can you expect? They have spent too long in the engine room; they know nothing of the real world.

The engineers explain to the assistant their plans for an upgrade of the equipment of the engine room. The assistant is mildly amused at the computer-prepared charts that the engineers show. Typical, he thinks, even to the inclusion of several mysterious-looking equations that the engineers seem to think justify striking out in a new direction. His face set in an expression of impatience and concern, he daydreams until the engineers reach their final chart – a spreadsheet showing the accumulation of a future crop of beans.

Now he pounces on the hapless engineers. "You know nothing of beans!" he shouts. "The last time you made a proposal like this we had a crop failure! It was only through the efforts of our great new captain that we were able to obtain new bean seed. Even if your plans made sense (his expression is one of incredulity), you should know that there are insufficient beans in this year's allocation for your proposal. Furthermore, the harvest this quarter is down. This is not a time to bother the captain about such matters."

The engineers hang their heads in disappointment, remembering also the land that was sold, and the farm workers who were laid off. "Why does the world have to revolve around beans?" they think despairingly.

So ends the parable, but how has this turn of events come about? How could mere bean counters, ignorant of technology, take over complex, technologically oriented businesses? Perhaps there is a clue in Jerzy Kosinski's book Being There, in which an uneducated gardner, Chance, is struck by a car and suffers amnesia. Treated as an unknown savant by his benefactors, Chance meets the President of the United States. Chance is taciturn, but the President urges him to state his opinion of the current situation in financial markets.ce replies in the only terms he knows: "In a garden growth has its seasons," he says. "There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed all is well and all will be well."

Great wisdom is read into these words, and Chance, now Chauncey Gardiner, becomes a government advisor and a media celebrity, as he endlessly repeats homilies about the raising of crops.

Is it possible that we engineers have ceded our futures to a rising legion of Chauncey Gardiners? Have we accorded too much wisdom and too much power to those who have the skills for tending a garden of beans? Or is counting beans a lot more important than engineering vision in the world today?

Robert W. Lucky