True Tales of the Weird

In order to be able to give a no-holds barred account of what really goes on in the management realm I have to write under a pseudonym and have to be annoyingly vague about where I work. So I apologize in advance that I can’t get more specific about the following story because if I could name the company you would probably immediately not be surprised considering their history.

One of my consulting gigs was as staff augmentation for a major internet provider. The entire contract was odd because it didn’t make sense to have consultants basically just coding and the client really didn’t understand the difference between a consultant and a contractor.

The project I was on was an update to a legacy application and the previous team really wasn’t looking to cooperate because once we were done their services would no longer be required. The client did layoffs every 6 months and were constantly hiring. Essentially they were letting go of teams for projects that didn’t work out or for products they were retiring. They would then turn around and hire a brand new team. Why did they not just transfer personnel between teams? Beats me. I believe there was a lot of intra-company competition and managers would rather layoff employees and release contractors than have them go to a competing team. That’s just a theory though.

The weirdness culminated in having to deal with the legacy team’s architect. I was given a specification written in XML. If you don’t know what XML is that’s not important, because usually specifications are delivered in a standard human readable format, like a Word Document or maybe even HTML you can load and read in a browser. After puzzling over the odd specifications I asked to speak to the architect who designed the old system. The architect from my team, and a client employee I’ll call Bob, found out and said he better go with me. At the time I had no idea why Bob would go with me. I was used to talking to techies, it was the business that usually needed help, and I was fine dealing with them as well. Why in the world do I need someone to come with me?

Well, as it turns out, the legacy architect, who I’ll call Jimmy, had been around since shortly after the company was founded. He had also survived numerous layoffs and was the rare individual who always seemed to find a new position before his team was dissolved. He was also a complete burnt out wreck. Jimmy spoke in a sort of babble that resembled English in that I understood the words but the context was completely beyond me. The reason why Bob came with me is because he had been dealing with Jimmy for nearly a decade and was there to translate. Jimmy was a complete train wreck. His hair was wild, unkempt, and completely gray. He was skinny, pale, and he had this sort of nervous anxiety about him which became more noticeable as I asked him questions. Even with Bob there to translate I didn’t get much out of Jimmy. After we were done I asked Bob what was wrong with Jimmy.

“He’s completely burnt out. He’s been here since the beginning of the company and has survived every layoff we’ve ever had. Imagine being here twenty years and watching your co-workers getting picked off one by one while also being on one high pressure project after another. I honestly think he is still here because some executive feels sorry for him.”

After that I met with Jimmy twice more, with Bob along both times to help translate. The second time was an attempt to get further clarification and the third was really just to see if I could even get basic information out of him. I finally gave up and went to try and translate him specification on my own. An endeavor I spent nearly a month on before quitting, getting drunk out of frustration, and then solving it once I recovered from the hangover.

Truly one of the weirdest assignments I’ve ever had.

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Posted in Business, Career Management, Work
2 comments on “True Tales of the Weird
  1. Jen says:

    This is a rhetorical question, but why would someone stay in such a company for *20 years*? And how on Earth do you write specifications in XML? (I’m really curious about this last one, I just can’t picture it.)

    • Rob Aught says:

      At the time the company was 20 years old and while this guy wasn’t a founder (I think) he had been around since nearly the beginning. I think he was just staying with the familiar and at some point he had just fizzled out.

      This was a few years back, but if I remember correctly the way I translated the XML into English was based on how it was laid out it would be the function name and then the enclosed tags were actually the parameters. He had comments but they did not make any sense.

      The fun part was that this was pre-Web 2.0 days so what they really had was a bunch of functions that were part of an interface written in Javascript. To make it all work you had to submit a form and read it off the HTTP Request. It was actually communicating with a program written in C++ somewhere and our application was written in Java.

      I know that all sounds insane and impossible, but that was how it was all done when I got there. In hindsight we should have pushed harder to write the server-side in Java and get rid of the nonsense, but that wasn’t the job we were hired to do.

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