Holiday Autos' IT chief takes fame in his stride

When the BBC, buoyed by the success of the antics of Ricky Gervais as the manager from hell in TV comedy The Office, decided to...

When the BBC, buoyed by the success of the antics of Ricky Gervais as the manager from hell in TV comedy The Office, decided to commission a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the real thing, car rental company Holiday Autos rose to the challenge. But how did the company's IT department feel about coming under the spotlight in The Secret Life of the Office? writes Nathalie Towner.

Holiday Autos is no stranger to the pages of Computer Weekly, having won last year's E-Business Gold Award for using Web technology to generate £2m worth of sales a month online. But surely showing IT systems crashing and employees crying, screaming and even walking out in front of millions of TV viewers is the sort of publicity that would have even Max Clifford running for cover?

Not so according to the company's IT director Alan Herbage.

"We have been doing record business since the first episode was shown and we have also had the busiest consecutive 10 days ever," he says. This has of course had implications for the IT infrastructure that the company depends upon.

"We had to check capacity carefully before the first programme was aired and sure enough at 10pm, as soon as it finished, we had the biggest number of hits ever on our Web site," says Herbage. "We had IT consultants ringing in to help and give advice and basically trying to get work off us."

Herbage wasn't always so relaxed at the thought of becoming a TV celebrity. "My first reaction when I was told about the series was to think about how I would look on TV. It makes you think about how you communicate with people and how this would come across. I was concerned that the camera crew would affect the way I approached my work," he says.

In fact, the camera crew quickly became a normal feature of day-to-day life for the staff at Holiday Autos. They first arrived in March 2000, were around for most of the year and later returned to focus on the traumas of the office move. This was of course a huge headache for the IT department.

Everything went smoothly for the first stage but moving the reservation centre proved more problematic. "All seemed OK at first, the roll-out was fine, but then suddenly the whole database collapsed and we weren't sure why this had happened," says Herbage. "The two tech specialists were under a lot of stress and wanted them to stop filming - you get very self-conscious about the language you use. They didn't actually stop, although they were very unobtrusive and the footage never actually got used."

Herbage says he was never overly worried about IT problems being broadcast to the nation. "I wasn't anxious about how the IT would be portrayed. It is normal to have problems in IT, it never goes smoothly. I have been in IT for 30 years and this is what happens," he says.

"The programme did not delve into IT that much. On its own it doesn't make for interesting TV, but it did generate recognition that the company relies very heavily on its IT systems."

Once the programme had been broadcast, Holiday Autos' employees discovered the less glamorous side of celebrity life. "We have received lots of abusive phone calls, some employees have been accosted by members of the public," says Herbage. "We even had to put two bouncers on the door for security because the press were crowded outside and were offering £100 to people to get them to talk."

The many hours of footage were condensed into three 50-minute episodes which inevitably focused on drama and conflict. So much so that at times office life at Holiday Autos seemed to bear more resemblance to a Dickensian workhouse than a 21st-century call centre.

"The TV programme has gone too far one way," says Herbage. "All companies are made up of different elements but in the programme all the focus is on the pressure of the job."

Ultimately, Herbage believes the programme has not done the company any harm, and the current recruitment drive by the IT department has not suffered any setbacks. "The job candidates have been really positive about the show. If anything, it has created more interest," he says.

But what does Holiday Autos' managing director Clive Jacobs make of it all? His no-nonsense leadership style made him the star of the show, but it also meant that many viewers saw him as an insensitive egomaniac with dubious taste in office furnishings.

"Clive has been pleased with it all," says Herbage. "He has had e-mails saying thank god there are still people like him around who are prepared to work, and he has even had offers to appear on other TV programmes."

It seems there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

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