Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Software Happens

Author's Note: Back in early '96 I was approached about doing a syndicated column on computers and humor. They asked me to write a couple of sample columns on spec; then, when they saw my first attempts, the deal fell apart. "Too technical," one complained. "Too cynical," said another. "Too long," the third witch added. "What we really had in mind," the first one continued, "is something just like Dave Barry would write, if Dave Barry was writing about computers."

Having no interest in pursuing a career as a Dave Barry Impersonator, I politely declined their offer to submit more samples. Still, I remain rather fond of this column, and from time to time I trot it out again, to see if the world has caught up to it yet.


A conference room in a nondescript modern office park, Anytown, USA. The time is about 10:30 A.M. Seated around the conference room table, in order of declining importance, are:
  • The Executive, whose job it is to make decisions — boldly, assertively, and unencumbered by facts.

  • The Marketing VP, whose job it is to keep the Executive convinced that he|she is a visionary genius, worth every penny of his|her outrageous|insane salary.

  • The Marketing VP's Lackey, whose job it is to babble loudly and enthusiastically, thus making the Marketing VP seem brilliant by comparison.

  • The Quality Assurance Analyst, whose job it is to look out for the customer's best interests. This person is universally reviled.

  • The Senior Software Engineer, who is the one person in the room who actually understands how the company's core product really works.

  • The Junior Software Engineer, because engineers always travel in packs, for safety, to keep from being trampled by rampaging MBA's.


EXEC: (Lounges back in chair, strokes chin, considers everyone in the room with an icy glare.) "Okay, people. It's six months until the Big Trade Show, and word is our major competitor is coming out with a new product that's going to clean our clocks. What have we got?"

SR ENGINEER: "A six-year-old mass of patches upon patches — "

MKT LACKEY: "Which until recently was the industry leader!"

QA ANALYST: "There are serious problems with the AHDA function — "

JR ENGINEER: (Looks up from doodling.) "The what?"

QA ANALYST: "Accelerated Haggis Depletion Allowance. The Feds changed the reporting requirements. As of May 15 last year it's supposed to be printed on taupe-colored 16-pound A4 paper — "

MKT LACKEY: "What if we form a strategic alliance with a paper mill and private-label the form? It'll be a value-added service to our dealers and an additional revenue stream — "

EXEC: "Ahem." (A deathly silence falls over the room.) "As I was saying, six months. What can we do?" (Looks straight at the senior engineer.) "Well?"

SR ENGINEER: (Looks straight back at Exec.) "Seriously? Fix a few of the bigger bugs in the current version."

QA ANALYST: "I can see our trade show booth now. New, Release 3.8! Now with fewer bugs!"

MKT LACKEY: "Please. Release 4."


MKT LACKEY: "We can't announce a '3.8' at the Big Trade Show. We'd look stupid. This has to be a major number, like 4.0. In fact, our customers are getting gun-shy about point-zero releases, too. We'd better make this 4.1."

JR ENGINEER: (Giggling.) "4.1a."

QA ANALYST: (Giggling more.) "4.1a-gamma."

EXEC: "I don't care if we call it Ed. The point is, we need something to announce, and soon. The last magazine review called our user interface 'quaint.' Can we do something about that?"

SR ENGINEER: "Sure. We've wanted to redesign the front end for years. It'll take twelve months' time and cost three million dollars."

EXEC: "What if we double the programming staff?"

SR ENGINEER: "Then it'll take twice as long, cost four times as much, and work half as well."

EXEC: "Okay, forget that." (Looks at QA.) "How about web site feedback? What do our existing customers say they want?"

QA ANALYST: "Reliable products at reasonable prices."

EXEC: (Shakes his head.) "Crazy idealists." (Looks at Mkt Lackey.) "Market research? Is there just one single hot-button feature — "

MKT LACKEY: (Smugly.) "We're the industry leader. We don't do market research; we tell the market what it wants."

EXEC: (Hyperventilating.) "You mean to tell me there is not one flashy new feature we can have ready in time for — "

MARKETING VP: (Who has been patiently waiting for this exact moment to strike.) "Well, I did come up with a short list of," (casually picks up sheet of paper, considers it, then shrugs and drops it), "cosmetic improvements, really. More like a tiny face-lift than a major..."

EXEC: (Eagerly seizes list from Mkt VP, reads it.) "Are you kidding? 'Seasonalize the screen colors?' 'Make the error messages more life-affirming?' This is brilliant!"

MARKETING VP: (Innocently.) "If you say so." (As if in afterthought.) "Oh, I did bring some extra copies." (Produces thick sheaf of neatly bound and collated copies with 4-color covers and PowerPoint presentations on CD; starts passing them around.)

EXEC: (Still reading from list.) "'Embed subliminal advertisements in screen saver?' 'Use fuzzy logic: add maybe option to all yes/no toggles?' This is fantastic! I want all these features in the new release!" (Turns the full force of his glare on the Sr Engineer.) "And this time it ships on-time, come Hell or high water!"

SR ENGINEER: (Finally gets copy of list, reads first item, blanches to dead bone white.) "Oh my God in Heaven..."

I will spare you the rest of the gory details, as I'm sure you already know them. Release 4.1a did ship in time for the Big Trade Show, and it was as buggy as a roach motel. Release 4.1b went out ten days later by Fedex to the most vocal angry customers, and Release 4.1c was on the ftp site by the end of the month. A week after that a mob of angry end-users with torches and pitchforks stormed the office park, dragged the Marketing VP out to the parking lot, built a pyre of burning Lexus upholstery, and...

Hey. We can dream, can't we?