Bill Roper (billroper) wrote,
Bill Roper

Acquiring a Reputation

When I ran across the (completely false) story about the fellows who tried to use a bullet as a fuse in a car with catastrophic results, it brought to mind the following (completely true) story from my past.

Many years ago when I was studying for my MBA at Northwestern, I got a summer intern position working for Searle in their IT department. They were in the process of writing an all-new system to track their foreign investments. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem.

Except that the lease was going to run out on the Honeywell mainframe that the current version of the program was running on, so the program had to be finished, tested, and debugged before that rapidly approaching date.

Except that this was the first project that Searle was writing in Express, which was a fancy little database language that none of the programmers had ever used before. There were two higher-ups who were familiar with Express and had brought it in, but neither of them were actually doing any programming.

Except that this was the first project that Searle was using Arthur Andersen's Method One project methodology on. And, in fact, they were applying it to the project retroactively, so that all of the paperwork that should have been completed in the first two years of the project had to be done now.

What we had was not a recipe for success. Now, create a team that consists of one middle-aged programmer/manager who is learning Express, one middle-aged unfireable programmer who has no intention of learning Express (although he would write code that wouldn't actually compile), one brand-new hire who didn't know Express but was willing to learn, and me.

Sane people would flee in terror. But this has seldom stopped me.

I started hacking away with my copy of Express, building a dummy database of planets and their moons to demonstrate to myself that I had a clue. I also explained to the folks there that we should put a clear-screen command at the front of each menu for the benefit of the people working on video terminals. "Trust me," I said. "The users will like it." They did.

We had to write one page specifications for each of the subroutines in the program. No problem.

Except that we had a consultant from the company that wrote the Express language who would come in periodically to share her wisdom with us. (Not write any code, just share wisdom. I have a visceral distrust of consultants to this day as a result.) I had been there a week, looking at the specifications for the program, when our consultant said in a meeting, "We should be able to write this program with fifty subroutines."

As it is wont to do when my ears hear a statement that I find to be beyond belief, my mouth opened involuntarily and I said, "More like two hundred."

When I left Searle at the end of the summer, we were at 167 subroutines and continuing to climb.

Of course, since the consultant had said fifty, we budgeted enough time to write specifications for fifty subroutines. This is not nearly enough time to specify more than three times that many subroutines.

Anne, the new hire, and I realized that this project was a disaster that wasn't so much waiting to happen as one that was careening down a steep slope toward the cliff at breakneck speed. We tried to gently hint to Jack, the programmer/project manager, that there was a problem, but Jack wasn't hearing us. And Ed, the unfireable programmer, didn't care.

(Ok, Ed wasn't actually unfireable, but he certainly acted like he was. Since he was, as I recall (possibly inaccurately), the only member of a protected class around the IT department at the time, maybe he was unfireable. I stuck with "Don't ask, don't tell.")

Periodically, Anne would come to my office or I would go to her office and we would close the door and laugh about the complete uncontrollable disaster that was going on all around us. All we could do was keep writing specifications as fast as we could. Fortunately, I was really fast and Anne was nearly as fast as I was. Jack was ok. Ed was being Ed.

On our biweekly paydays, various people from the IT department would go out to lunch in assorted and variable groupings. It was on one such Friday that Anne and I found ourselves at lunch with Judy, Jack's boss.

"So," Judy asked, looking at Anne. "Are all the specifications going to be done by next Wednesday?"

Anne must have been spending too much time around me, because her mouth opened involuntarily and she said, "Hell, no."

This was not, perhaps, the most judicious of comments. Anne and I spent a good bit of the rest of lunch explaining to Judy that the size of the project had been grossly underestimated, which was why everything was so far behind. (Not to mention filling out retroactive paperwork for Method One, but I digress.) But we were convinced that Judy would be looking for Jack when we returned from lunch. And we were hoping to find him first.

Unfortunately, Jack was nowhere to be found -- by us, at least. Anne and I were sitting in my office with the door closed discussing the situation when there was a knock at the door.

It was Jack, looking like a man who had just had a strip torn off of him. Sadly, he asked, "Why didn't you tell me that things were this far out of control?"

"We tried. But you didn't exactly hear us."

Jack allowed as to how that was pretty much the case. After that, Jack would join Anne and I as we discussed (and still laughed about) the disaster that the project had become.

Of course, my mouth would still open involuntarily at inconvenient times. There was the meeting of all the interns in all the various departments with Searle's then President, Donald Rumsfeld. He made a statement about how we should be grateful that Searle had given us these jobs. And I cheerily replied that I thought that they were getting good value for the money.

Which -- in my case, at least -- they were. He took the comment in stride and no one ever mentioned it to me, so apparently he either wasn't offended or he checked on me and discovered that I was actually Rex the Wonder Intern.

I got offered a part-time position with Searle for the following school year, but decided to turn it down to concentrate on a search for a permanent job, since I didn't really think Searle was what I was looking for.

Ok, but what about the car fuse?

Well, we were on the way to another one of those payday lunches. One of the guys had a brand-new car that he wanted to show off, so he was taking it. I was in another car that started out a bit behind them. As we drove west on Golf Road, I saw a car stopped in the right lane and said, "Hey, isn't that..."

It was. A brand-new dead car. I suggested that we push the car off onto a side road with less traffic, which we did. As various people started pulling parts off under the hood to look for the carburetor (and as they discovered that the engine was fuel-injected), I recalled my good buddy Clif's Dauphin, a car with a nasty habit of blowing a fuse that would cause a gate to drop across the fuel line and cut off the supply of gasoline.

"Check the fuse box," I said. They looked at me like I was kidding, but finally opened up the fuse box and found a fuse labeled "Fuel Pump". The fuse for "Radio" had the same rating, so we swapped them and the car started right up.

This was the subject of much amusement back at work. "Ok," they said. "He's a really good programmer. It's not fair that he knows about cars too."

I'd exhausted most of my automotive knowledge when I suggested looking at the fuse box, but I didn't bother to tell them that.

Sometimes it's good to have a reputation.
Tags: anecdote, musings, work

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