back to article Developer waits two years for management to define project

Welcome again to On-Call, our Friday festival celebrating the many odd things Reg readers have been asked to do at work. This week, we're delving into the mailbag of tales generated by recent On-Calls about the reader paid £35k to do nothing for three months and another paid to do nothing for a year. Reader “Henry” reckons he …

  1. Filippo

    I once wrote a bit of code for an industrial device that controlled access to a factory. It was basically a CPU with some relays that could activate bars and semaphores and whatnot. Everything works in test, the guys install everything, and soon I get called with complaints that the software frequently crashes after completing an entrance operation - the bar opens to let the truck through, and then the program crashes.

    After some fruitless attempts to diagnose the problem by phone, I get there and start trying to figure out what's wrong. To avoid stressing the bars' engines unnecessarily, and to let trucks through without delay, we disconnect the bars, and start debugging. A sizable chunk of the day is spent attempting to reproduce the problem, which seems to have mysteriously vanished. We think of the bars, but all we've done is disconnect them from the relay; the software cannot possibly be affected by that.

    Or can it? Bonus points if you guessed the solution by now. We reconnect the bars' engines, and the issue shows up, big way. Every time the program completes an entrance operation, it then proceeds to explode spectacularly. The effects look a bit like a massive buffer overflow, with random garbage ending up everywhere, but we can't see any way for any buffer to go anywhere it shouldn't. Then I get a suspicion, build a little test thingy that just opens the bars, and have the suspicion confirmed.

    Every time the bars' relay switched with the engines attached, it let loose an EMP that traveled up the relay controller and scrambled the CPU's registers. I bet readers with some electrician background have been sneering at me for a while now, but what can I say? I do software!

    Installation of filters fixed the issue, and AFAIK the system has worked perfectly for the last 10 years or so.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Electrical noise causing crashes used to be a bigger problem than it appears to be now. There was the electric pump that started up after someone flushed the toilet. The electric kettle when someone made a cup of tea. All indicated by throwaway remarks by people in general conversation.

      One long computer program run came at the end of a weekend overtime shift. As it started its final phase's print the shift leader started to power off the unneeded peripherals. When he did that to the papertape reader - the system crashed. There was a different, but similar, human failure in the next attempt. Eventually everyone left the computer room until the job finished so they could finally power down and go home many hours later than expected.

      An intermittent problem of program and system crashes on a mainframe was investigated during the Saturday's whole day of engineering maintenance. It was quickly noticed that the problem occurred when an engineer closed a tape deck door during his maintenance. That was the point when the tape automatically loaded. You could have the mainframe stopped - and watch the engineer's panel logic monitoring lights change as a door was repeatedly opened and closed.

      This was reported to the chief engineer - but a few minutes later it could not be reproduced. What had changed? The answer was that a floor tile had been lifted as part of the commissioning of a new tape deck. The tape deck cables each had a metal box partway along them - and the latest one of these of these was sitting on top of the bundle of cables under the lifted tile. The floor tile was reinforced by a bare steel plate on its underside. The false floor supports were not the usual corner posts - but a matrix of horizontal steel bars. This matrix was connected to the building's "dirty earth". Putting the floor tile back recreated the problem as the slightly protruding metal box was shorting the computer "clean earth" to the building's earth.

      A university mainframe was being run through its final formal acceptance trials. It kept crashing at near enough exactly the same place every time - while thrashing the high speed papertape reader. After several failures someone heard a coincidental "click". The large tape collecting basket was metal - but not earthed - and was being charged by the fast moving papertape spooling into it. The static discharge spark was responsible for the mainframe crashing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I had this strange situation where my phone wouldn't do anything I wanted it to, barely worked, and behaved almost randomly - certainly very differently to any other phone I'd ever seen.

        A closer look revealed I'd accidentally picked up a Nokia and was mistaking Microsoft's badly thought out and buggy software offering for a real operating system. How I laughed when I realised my mistake!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Crash Pad

      At a former job we had a keyfob and access code to a building security system operated and maintained by the usual outsourced security provider of last resort popular with industry and olympics. The security cameras didn't really work, logging was "disabled" - probably never worked at all or the dum-dum's could not be arsed to fix it - the best part: The four-same-digit login was never changed and they did not track the number of key-fobs, if you lost one, you just got a spare. Some PA would ask occasionally, but, since we didn't sign for it, one could just say that "I returned that already".

      Now, at the top floor of the premises was a large recreational area with a well-stocked bar, cooking area, shower, toilet, sofas, fat-boys, games, music and beds.

      This was practical, because if one needed a place to crash after a heavy night out - or - a diversion flat for the girlfriend-of-the-day - one could just pop in "after work".

      Indeed, this was possible for many *years* after having quit working there. Sometimes one would go to crash, meet former colleagues by accident and have a drink and a smoke.

      1. clocKwize

        Re: Crash Pad

        Was this in Camden by any chance? Sounds just like the place I used to work...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "The bars' relay switched .. let loose an EMP ..and scrambled the CPU's registers."

      Something like this happened by purest coincidence on the first industrial job I ever did, i.e. a relay wired directly to a solenoid valve. Ever after, I developed an obsession with zero crossing AC relays, trapezoidal waveform DC drivers, and eventually found myself being paid by HMG to go to meetings on EMC.

      If the klutz who designed the electrical hardware on my first job had been more competent, I'd have missed out on some fun trips to exotic places.

  2. macjules Silver badge
    Pint

    Not mentioning any names, but ..

    I once did a contract for a certain huge accounting firm developing their SSO portal. Instead of working at their London offices, or even simply WFH, they flew the development team every week to the only office with sufficient IT resources and space, which just happened to be in central Amsterdam. It was a 9 month contract for work which we pretty much completed in just over 2 weeks and so spent the rest of the time inventing novel reasons why we needed to test the portal against intrusion. Personally I went from senior dev to 'Penetration And Non Detected Attack consultant (PANDA - security testing). Everyone else adopted even more ridiculous acronyms such as SHEEP aka Senior Hyper Envelope Evaluation Person or email response developer. And yes, it was one hell of a lot of money (£700 per day plus expenses) for 9 months of not very much work.

  3. Steve Crook

    Management...

    Are almost as bad as sales. Sales always change their minds, management never make theirs up.

    Management wait until the last minute before making a decision and then want whatever it is delivered in less time than it took them to decide what they wanted. So, generally, if you say a project starts from the "I think we should..." moment and finished at the first release, 70% of the time passes before any development is even planned.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Management...

      "70% of the time passes before any development is even planned."

      OTOH any developer worth his salt should be able to work out what they need fairly quickly and get on with that. The last 30% of the time can then be spent on working out how to persuade them that that's what they said they wanted.

    2. Andrew Moore Silver badge

      Re: Management...

      Plus, when management do finally make up their mind regarding their requirements, and you deliver the project, they then start demanding to know where all the features that they never asked for were...

      1. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

        Re: Management...

        they then start demanding to know where all the features that they never asked for were...

        I was discussing this with a client the other day. Basically, this one normally comes down to mismatched assumptions between the client and the consultant.

        Take accountancy. If I was contracted to write accountancy software, the accountants will know the subject matter and will have used various software in the past. Therefore many of the features they need will seem trivial to them: They are included in every software package they have used before, to the point they don't even think of them as features. They just expect them to be present.

        However, I am not an accountant. I know the very basics from GCSE Business Studies, but that's it. If a feature is not on the spec, I will not know that it is needed. If it is left out, the accountants will scream that it is needed, and is so obviously required that they didn't even think about it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Management...

          ahhhh maybe this might explain why SkyQ is missing all of the handy features that SkyHD had!

          1. Triggerfish

            Re: Management...

            Any manager who makes their mind up, leaves themselves open to being nailed if somethinng goes wrong, whereas complete ambiguity means they can grab glory if it's right, and they can roll the shit downhill to you if not.

    3. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Management...

      Management and sales are two sides of the same valueless coin.

      I have frequently sat in meetings and listened to them swap buzzwords and gradually worked out something that is relatively easy to implement and goes a long way to solving a lot of problems. Then the shit hits the fan when, having been painted into a corner and having some software that actually solves 90 percent of the clients needs, it becomes apparent that the clients needs are secondary to sales and managements needs to obfuscate things.

      I wrote a client facing web app that allowed customers to see all their orders and buy all our products that was largely scrapped because a couple of our major customers would have found out they had been overcharged by 3 or 400% for a basic product. The sales and management teams of course got huge bonuses as a result of overcharging and weren't convinced they wouldnt be out of pocket.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Management...

        "Management and sales are two sides of the same valueless coin."

        Management can contrive to be two sides of the same valueless coin without the assistance of sales.

        I had a client where two directors had been given overlapping areas of responsibility. I can only assume that when the business was set up both had to be given titles to satisfy their egos but nobody could think of sufficiently separated roles for them. This lead to frequent shouting matches in the open office. Essentially these were territorial disputes and I think the only reason they didn't go peeing against desks & machinery to mark their territories was that they didn't think of it.

        One of these disputes was how the job batching was to work on a new system. Each was insisting on their pet criteria. We ignored them and built a batching system in which every parameter we could think of could be selected and thresholds set. Neither of them could complain they hadn't got what they wanted which ended that particular dispute. We included a screen for adjusting all this in the shop floor user interface on the basis that the guys doing the work would have a better idea of what was needed in reality and installed it with some reasonable looking initial settings. I don't think it was ever touched again.

  4. jzl

    Ghana?

    So Ghana's a good place for a holiday? Might check it out.

    1. jzl

      Re: Ghana?

      Huh. Turns out it looks pretty good. Seriously considering that now.

  5. Tony S

    It was a large multi national manufacturing company. I was told that they needed someone to sort out their IT in the UK. This would involve the network, servers, data storage etc.

    On the very first day, it became clear that the people that offered me the job, did not have the authority to make any changes to the IT; so neither would I. I queried what I supposed to do and it seemed to be mostly travelling between the two sites, taking part in meetings where I was not required to make any comments. I also occasionally talked to the people that did have to do the work, but they were not required to take any notice of what I suggested.

    Basically paid £40k a year to sit at a vacant desk and surf the Internet. Made a start on a research project for my Master's.

    I did actually find a few items where I was able to help some of the staff out; none of them were authorised and I got told off, but they actually meant that I more than covered the cost of my salary. So I don't feel at all guilty.

  6. glen waverley

    "While workers sorted out desks and networks and other niceties..."

    I know you didn't intend it, but it is possible to read that sentence to imply that the crack team of developers somehow weren't workers.

    I certainly didn't read it that way.

    But I have played a fair amount of office cricket over the years while waiting for fit-out or for design decisions.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

      Re: "While workers sorted out desks and networks and other niceties..."

      I helped build a test platform in a DC in London, and there were only two small cages tucked away to one side where customer equipment could sit - the rest of the entire floor was empty - lots of football played with printer paper balled up and wrapped in tape ensued :)

      Oh, and did I mention there was a pub about 10ft outside the door with a pool table and an excellent cook doing authentic Thai curries? Lovely :)

      That is until M$ came along and bought the entire floor for xbox live :(

    2. Chris King Silver badge

      Re: "While workers sorted out desks and networks and other niceties..."

      My last job was a bit like that... The previous sysadmin/netgod disappeared eighteen months earlier and the whole place had gone to crap IT-wise.

      I turned up on my first day, and they said "Sorry, we haven't had time to fit your office out yet..."

      Bare walls (by which I mean "Bare Brick"), threadbare, stained carpet, third-hand office furniture, and a PC that burst into flames within a week of me starting. Running out of the computer centre with a burning tower unit after the building was closed DID rather attract the attention of Mr Plod, who just happened to be driving through campus at the time !

      A few days later, I also ended up with an insect infestation as a bonus... Flying ants in the office, bats in the roof cavity above me, and Lord of the Flies waiting out for me on the network.

      (Bonus points: Piggy was already dead and the Conch had been smashed)

  7. magickmark
    WTF?

    My story is this...

    At this point in time I was working as a consultant and had developed and maintained a website for a client. Anyway, one day in October the client contacted me about updating the website, basically giving it a major overhaul.

    So meeting was arranged and held at which we went through what the client wanted etc. etc. etc. and the main thing was that they wanted the new version live for the New Year, three months away so no problem. At the end of the meeting they asked for sometime to consider things and that they would contact me.

    A few weeks pass and no communications from them, so I email, no response. This went on for a week or two and eventually I gave up and assumed they had changed their minds.

    Anyway, being self employed (and busy) I did not really take holidays, except I always took off the two weeks over Xmas. But (and I'm sure you can guess what comes next) I got a call from the client sometime in mid December, lets say the 16th, to say they wanted the update to go ahead and reminding me that I had said it could be done for the New Year!

    I politely told them that had been back in October and that deadline was now impossible and anyway I was not going to be working over the Xmas holidays as it was my only time off. And I offered to start work in the New Year.

    At this point the client got very aggressive and even offered me physical violence if I did not agree to do the work.

    Needless to say I choose not work for the client again and they eventually got someone else to do the work although they made a right pigs ear of it and within the year the website went offline and vanished.

    To this day I find it incomprehensible that: a) they could be that slow in making up their minds b) actually believing that the deadline would still be applicable c) so extreme in their reaction.

    Some people ehh?

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

      Re: My story is this...

      "b) actually thinking that the deadline would still be applicable"

      This appears to be quite common. Project starts, rough scope is set and rough plan and timelines agreed.

      Then comes a couple of months of dicking around with getting the project in the system, changes to scope etc. etc. When it all finally kicks off they seem to think the original deadline still holds.

      Now we just quote a number of days from 'kick-off' (i.e. when all the money and scope is agreed and it's all signed in writing).

      1. wyatt

        Re: My story is this...

        Sounds familiar. We've a car parts retailer (who also does bikes) who have taken ages to make up their minds. Consequently they've lost their slot with the software developers who are writing an integration. They knew it would happen but are complaining like mad as they're at the back of the queue now.

    2. Valerion

      Re: My story is this...

      Quite normal. I once had to do a project. The CEO (a total asshat) asked how long it would take. I said 6 months, conservatively. He said you have 3. I said no, it'll take 6. He said it WILL be done in 3.

      Fast forward 2 months and they finally iron out the contracts and I'm allowed to start. And, of course, I now have 1 month to do it. At the end of the month I was off on holiday.

      He told me I couldn't go. I basically said well I'm going, fire me when I get back if you want and off I went. I didn't get fired and he didn't get his project finished to his timescales either. In the end, with a lot of work and a very reduced set of testing, we got it done in about 5 months IIRC.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: My story is this...

      I worked with what I would call sensible people for a long contract. At the start of it I was asked to come in early on one particular day each week. I agreed as I was sure I could get there on public transport. Near the end of the contract the company moved location further away. They were absolutely astonished when I said I didn't know if I could still get to the new office early and said 'but you agreed months ago to come in early' (to the old office) . I don't know what it is that turns these people into idiots who think you can either break the laws of physics or should be willing to turn your whole life upside down to the point it costs more to go to work than what they are willing to pay.

  8. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    My first real job

    Straight out of Uni my 'start on the bottom rung' job was as a PFY at a company which had not yet taken delivery of the kit meant to fill out its rather spacious new data centre.

    Unfortunately it was shift work and PFYs were expected to wait it out in the operators' room which was as bare as the machine room. No computer, not even a terminal, and reading newspapers or books was frowned upon. Consoles, smart phones, even the Internet had not been invented back then.

    I lasted a couple of months before I went stir-crazy and left.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: My first real job

      I learned early on that the "Look Busy Kit" (TM pending) is essential for places like this. It consists of a pile of blueprints or docs. What they actually are is irrelevant.. just have the pile and scatter it about the desk. Periodically re-shuffle the pile. Then assorted tech book cover in various sizes. Use these to cover the real book you are reading. Lastly, schedule several off-site meetings weekly with "colleagues".

      OTOH, I had a boss early on who would tell me to grab my notepad, we were going to "engineering". We get up with notepads in hand, go out to his car, get in, and go fishing for several hours.

  9. psychonaut

    project spec

    i got a spec from one of our more useless project managers at the software house i worked at. the project was to write a link between sage payroll and our HR system.

    the project spec consisted of

    "Write a payroll link between our system and Sage Payroll".

    that was it. nothing about what fields, formats, types, who what where when wither whence.

    1. John Tappin

      Re: project spec

      Hey,

      That's pretty OK for a project spec, its not a design you know.

      Could be an issue if there is more than one instance of either of those but often the job involves getting different data formats from different platforms, mapping them, arguing for ages about exceptions and edge cases and who's responsibility they are etc.

      I don't think I have ever worked somewhere, even in a software house, when I could simply code from the document I was given with no fear of gaps arising.

      1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

        Re: project spec

        I tend to find the "We want it to look like this" requests easier (Very odd when you do receive bits of paper with how they want it laid out).

        I can see what data they want, I can then get some test data (or make up my own), normalise the data and make it to my own specs.

        1. psychonaut

          Re: project spec

          the project spec usually included all the data we needed regarding fields, format etc....thats her job (well, supposedly, to be honest every time you got her as a PM there would be some kind of disaster)

  10. Triggerfish

    Give me a moment

    I need to check when I started working here....

  11. Paul Mitchell
    Facepalm

    Signal to noise

    I am remined of when I was working for my PhD. We had a stabilised power supply for the labs/building, which you could plug your instruments into, and be assured that no voltage spikes were going to get on to your chart recorder because they made the pen servo jump.

    Then we found out that someone in the lab next door had plugged their 'fridge into the sabilised supply, and every time the motor kicked in....

    D'oh

    (Edited for attrocious spelling)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Signal to noise

      A colleague had a student holiday job at a large scientific computer establishment. His job was to run a plotting program. The plotter was a fixed speed device that started spewing paper as soon as it was switched on. All the computer did was jiggle the pens.

      "Run" was the operative word - as the plotter and computer were at opposite ends of the large room. He had to start the plotter - then sprint back to the computer to output its results before the plotter ran out of paper.

      1. keithpeter
        Windows

        Re: Signal to noise

        "He had to start the plotter - then sprint back to the computer to output its results before the plotter ran out of paper."

        No chance of putting a suitably timed wait loop at the start of the computer program and then sauntering down to the plotter and starting it?

        Then you would find - 30+ years later - that the widely used code library based on the original program had this mysterious short delay coded into it and nobody would be able to explain why it was there...

        1. I'm Brian and so's my wife

          Re: Signal to noise

          That was such a beautiful situation it brought a tear to my eye..!

    2. Alistair Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: Signal to noise

      Diesel Test.

      Microwave

      popcorn maker

      industrial coffee maker.

      Dismay, heartbreak, breaker flip. Dead data center.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Signal to noise - Diesel Test.

        Diesel test.

        Cutover to Diesel.

        Loud bang

        White smoke

        Total power outage

        Reconnect

        Breakers trip

        Turn things off in main building

        Reconnect

        6 week experiment in 5th week ruined as UPS has run down

        Serviceman had drained generator of oil but forgot to refill it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Signal to noise - Diesel Test.

          We had a diesel backup at our lab. Mostly to keep freezers running if mains interrupted, I suspect the onsite servers were protected as well

          Never needed it, it got run every couple of months as a test.

          By comparison though the sensation of being in a sugar factory when the power tipped. All the sound and fury of normal operating changed in an instant to stillness, darkness and the gentle hiss of steam. Oh, and lots of alarms in the control rooms.

          Our experimental measurements interrupted, we retired to our lab (a now equally unpowered and unheated portacabin) to pass the hours til shift ended.

    3. Steve K Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Signal to noise

      Well you still missed 2...;-)

    4. G.Y.

      vacuum & UPS

      I had a project run on 2 Winchester disks (75+75MB, I think); the tape backup was delayed &delayed. I was told "back up 1 disk to the other". "what if there's a power-cut?" -- "you're on an uninterruptible power supply!"

      Then the same technician plugged a vacuum cleaner 4 times running into that UPS, killed it. I inquired as ti why she was not shot at dawn.

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: vacuum & UPS

        Do we know the same person, GY?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have a couple of projects that were "urgent", are completed and waiting user testing and all I hear are crickets chirping.

    Funny how things are only urgent until the requestor has to commit and expend a little effort.

  13. tfewster Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Last week: "You have until the end of June to finish your part of Project A". Me - No problemo.

    Wednesday this week: "You have until the end of this week to finish your part of Project A". Me - Err, OK, still do-able. I'll have it ready for review on Thursday. (/me delivers and waits in vain for feedback).

    Today (Friday): "Project A went live last night without your components as we didn't like them! It's a disaster, top brass are furious, shame on the department, etc." Me - ODFO.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Been there seen that. Total fuckwits.

  14. elDog Silver badge

    In the bowels of the Pentagon

    A particularly important computer - vintage 1960's - would randomly crap out.

    It took several weeks to realize that the pneumatic tubes used to relay REALLY important stuff between offices passed over the memory banks (iron cores) and induced fluctuations in their storage.

    This was back in the days when parity memory was really important. I think it may still be that way up in space.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: In the bowels of the Pentagon

      Kewl! I knowing this, I would make sure to mail some magnets once in a while.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A bit late to add but...

    In my first job there were major headaches with the 2 PC's in the spare parts warehouse. Random crashes when working with, or printing from Borland Sprint word processor (to date the story...)

    Turns out the back wall of the office was right behind the industrial sized pallet shrink wrap machine, and every time it whirred into life, the electronics in the room threw their legs in the air and gave up.

    Ended up moving the people to a different office...

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