Blingless in Sofia

There are large parts of the world where many of those of moderate wealth, and all of those of great wealth, have acquired their possessions questionably. In such places bling abounds. If there are ‘expensive’ restaurants for business visitors or tourists they tend to be decorated brightly, opulently and ostentatiously, with the undiscerning, and undeserving, rich in mind. They are peopled by fat-bellied, swarthy gangsters, shouting into their mobile phones, blowing cigarette smoke with arrogant abandon and largely ignoring their blonde and leggy molls, who look on vacantly, even anxiously, uncertain of their tenure.

Such was Sofia some fifteen years ago, and such is Moscow still, and probably Almaty. If you weren’t wearing Gucci, or Versace, and weren’t dripping with ill-gotten gold, you were consigned to a table in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant, to be served, eventually, by reluctant waiters, and glanced at with sneering pity by more profligate and better-tipping oligarchs.

I feel a great nostalgia for such times. There was an edge to travel in the newly free democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that has been lost to normality. It was an adventure. Now it is merely a pleasure.

I’m in Sofia for two nights on the first leg of a four-country tour of LLP Group’s offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, before returning to my home city of Prague, and then on to the UK for Christmas with my mother. I’m travelling not on a Santa-style sledge, drawn by flying reindeer decked out in our company’s colours, but by low-cost airlines, which take me through two additional capitals, Belgrade and Berlin. If time permits I might also make a detour to Vienna on Sunday, since I have designs on Demel, the great Viennese café and cake shop, who make the best stollen and gingerbread in the world. I need stocking fillers for Christmas.

The purpose of my tour is unambitious and largely gastronomic. I take my colleagues out to lunch or dinner. I bestow Christmas goodwill, and listen to their woes and joys. Yesterday I took my Bulgarian colleagues to my favourite place in Sofia, the entirely bling-less Made in Home, a restaurant that is the antithesis of gangsterism, ostentation and tastelessness. The blingy rich wouldn’t even be seen dead there, though, aware of it or not, they’re far more likely to be seen dead at the places they do frequent. Its décor comes from grandmothers’ attics, bizarrely juxtaposed with original modern paintings and prints. Its chairs are a mismatched collection from the last ten decades, and your table may well have been made from a door. It’s cosy, friendly, inexpensive, and peopled by people of all kinds, none of them eager for display, and the food is absolutely excellent. It is the kind of place you might find in New York, London, Tel Aviv, or Paris, but that’s not to suggest it’s bland.


We booked a table for 12.30 and although we set out from the office at 12.15 we were lucky to arrive before losing our table. Traffic in Sofia is appalling, made worse by breakdowns (see my colleague Stoyan removing an overheated car from our path) and by road works. Sofia, one of my favourite cities in Eastern Europe, is still being remade.



We enjoyed an excellent lunch, choosing from a menu that included Bulgarian as well as ‘international’ dishes. The emphasis is on vegetables, but you can also eat fish and meat. It was so good I returned, alone, for dinner, and ate the zucchini patties with yoghurt all over again.


Beyond the Call of Duty – How Far Would You Go for Your Client?


There’s a Monty Python sketch – Four Yorkshiremen – in which four prosperous but nostalgic middle-aged men compete to recall the misery of their childhood, each trumping the other with the degradation they suffered.

4 yorks

‘Who’d have thought, forty years ago, that we’d be sitting here drinking a glass of Chateau de Chasselan.’

‘I’d have been glad of the price of a cup of tea then.’

‘A cup of cold tea!’

‘Without milk or sugar!’

‘Or tea.’

‘Out of a cracked cup.’

‘We never had a cup… we used to drink out of a rolled up newspaper…’

…and so on, until…

‘We used to get up in the morning at half-past-ten at night half an hour before we’d gone to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day at the mill for tuppence a year, come home, and then each night our dad would strangle us to death and dance about on our graves.’

‘You try telling that to the young of today. They’ll never believe you.’

At risk of provoking a similar competition I was thinking about the most inconvenient things I’ve had to do to keep a customer happy.

There was the time I got up, still a tiny bit drunk, in the middle of a Saturday night in Budapest and took a taxi to a town 60 km away to deal with an MRP program that had inexplicably ground to a halt.

There was the time I interrupted a skiing holiday in France to fly to the UK to present a proposal to an oil company.

There was the time I spent a thousand pounds on mobile phone calls from Turkish Cyprus to a client in London to try to resolve a persistent system failure.

There was the time I spent a whole night importing historical data into a SunSystems database for a large auditing firm.

And there was the time I spent a few nights in an unheated flat in a closed city on the outskirts of Moscow in the company of a family of cockroaches.

In retrospect, I suspect that the world wouldn’t have ended if I hadn’t done some of these things, but I hope they made a difference.

None of these stories, though, comes anywhere close to the devotion of one of our LLP Group consultants to her client. I won’t name her, and though perhaps she went a tiny bit too far, I admire her shameless and single-minded determination to support her client, come what may.

No resemblance…


She’d spent a whole week in London working on a new system implementation, and come Friday evening she was standing in the boarding queue at a gate at Heathrow Airport, on the way home to a Central European capital. The phone rang, and it was the project manager. They were having difficulties in closing their accounts at a site in the north of England. They needed her help.

She tried to resolve the issue over the phone, and kept joining the back of the queue to give herself more time. Whether the project manager knew where she was, I don’t know. Finally, there was no one left in the queue and she was the last to board. At which point she told the ground staff that she wouldn’t be boarding the flight and would be making her way by train to the north of the country instead.

Understandably, ground staff, cabin crew, pilot, flight controllers, passengers, everyone was furious. The plane would miss its slot, other passengers would miss their connections, and so on. But our consultant was adamant. So they offloaded all the blue Samsonite suitcases they could find, our consultant identified hers right there on the tarmac, and then scurried away to the north of England, by taxi and train.


I wonder that she’s not on a blacklist of unwelcome passengers and that any airline will fly her anywhere. But they do.

Can anyone trump that?

What’s the most pointless work I’ve done?

In the 1980s the Soviets used to buy factories, lock, stock and barrel, from the West, particularly from Finland. They would buy the walls, the ceiling, the machines, the lifts, the windows, the storage crates, the kitchen, everything, with one big contract.

‘Everything’ also included the software to run the factory and, of course, the computers to run the software. And that’s how I found myself in Zelenograd, 40 km from Moscow, in the Autumn of 1988.

The MRP system I was implementing in Hungary, was the final tick in the final box that completed the contract and triggered payment to the Finns for an entire floppy-disk unit factory.

Zelenograd was then the ‘silicon valley’ of Russia, though its shabbiness suggested ‘silicon wasteland’. Wikipedia says ‘Before 1989 Zelenograd was a de facto closed city in some aspects: it was prohibited to take photos in the central parts of the city, near the plants, teaching and research facilities, and foreigners were not admitted into the city.’ But that’s not true. I was there.


The problem the Finns faced was that they couldn’t find a system that could easily be sold to the Soviet Union (export rules being what they were in those days). Unless they delivered a system they wouldn’t get paid. But because our MRP system had already been sold to Soviet-bloc Hungary, it qualified. (There were no packaged MRP systems native to the Soviet bloc at that time.)

It was actually a fascinating project, and when we won the order I approached the project with enthusiasm. Not only did we have to adapt the software to deal with overlapping manufacturing processes, but we also had to provide an interface to clever (Finnish) shop-floor reporting devices placed next to each of the machines involved in the process. The machine operators would report  completion of each stage of the manufacturing process using these devices.

The Finns appeared to be grateful for my enthusiasm and in due course, after we’d trained the factory’s staff and finished all the adaptations, the final box in the contract was ticked. The Finns got paid and we got paid. And that appeared to be the end of the matter.

We went out to a very smart Moscow restaurant to celebrate.

So, when do we start loading real data into the system?’ I asked.

‘We’ll let you know,’ they said. ‘But probably not immediately.’

Of course, the system was never actually used, and I realised, as we celebrated, that it was never intended to be used. Even the clever shop-floor reporting devices were empty of their components, long since ransacked by the factory’s electricians for domestic use.  And in any case the five-inch floppy disk units were already obsolete. Perhaps even the factory was never used. I never heard anything more about it. But I’m sure it made some people wealthy, and I don’t just mean the Finns. That’s how things were.

You might think that getting paid for a project, even if it came to nothing, means that it couldn’t have been pointless, but I am old-fashioned, and I like to think that my work has some direct value.

Who loves to queue?

It’s often said that the British like to queue, but I don’t think that’s true. What the British like is to queue well, in an orderly manner, where precedence is properly established by our time of arrival, and where discipline is maintained even when the bus arrives. For the British the concern is more with quality than quantity. We really don’t like to queue (it’s humiliating), but if we have to queue, we like to do it well

.Bus queue

There are other nations, though, whose people seem to revel in queuing, so much so that they like to do it more than once. I was reminded of this when I was in Rome last week.

In Italy you often get the chance to queue at least twice. At bars and cafes you queue at the cash desk to ask for what you want and to pay, and then you queue again at the bar to ask for what you want and to get it. I’m a system designer. This is bad system design. Who would design a system where you have to enter the same data twice? It widens the scope for error, especially if you don’t speak the language.

But the Italians aren’t nearly the worst. When I lived in Hungary in the late 1980s the Soviet-prescribed model was that you queued three times in shops. First, you queued to ask for what you wanted (often, of course, they didn’t have what you wanted), then you queued at the cash desk to pay for what you’d chosen, and after that you got a receipt and joined a third queue to get what you asked for, all wrapped up in brown paper and ready to go. It kept the working population busy, I suppose, and you could idle away a Saturday morning queuing fifteen times to buy five things.

But the worst queuing I’ve done on a regular basis, in terms both of quality (poor) and quantity (huge), was at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow in the late 1980s. The queue at passport control was a disordered scrum where you could spend ninety minutes elbowing your way to the front, kicking at the shins of those who try to get in front of you.

Departure from Moscow meant five queues: a queue to have your luggage checked, a queue to check in, a queue at passport control, a queue at security and then a queue to board the plane.

And then there was the time I queued eight times in Bucahrest to buy a small ball of string. No, that’s enough about queuing.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to queuing, the British are best.