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January 07, 2003

God Help Me, I'm Turning

God Help Me, I'm Turning into a Tech Blogger

Hraka Acquaintance Ben Henick of Frequent Ramblings comments on outsourcing

You wrote:

"With outsourcers, the person who maintains the application is almost certainly not the person who wrote the code. The person who did write the code has almost certainly been focused on a new project, if they're still with the company at all, and his management will be loath to redirect him from a project that's currently bringing in money to one that they've already gotten money from.

"In short, outsourcers will fuck you, promise to call, and forget you. It's the nature of the beast. Even the good ones, the ones who intend to call, who want to respect you in the morning, probably won't."

As a nominal freelance Web person, I have to agree with this statement.

The thought of being stuck on the same site for more than a year makes me want to retch. For me it's nothing to do with money - hell, jumping from gig to gig vaults my overhead quite a bit.

But the last thing I want is to have to form a commitment to a client that runs the risk of being sucked into their politics.

When I do my MOU's, I try to be as much of a fascist as I can about scope - to make it clear that I will support something I built, but that postlaunch change requests or postsignoff bugs have no bearing on the satisfaction of the contract.

There is a flipside to the problem: The outsourcers aren't the only ones who pump and dump.

If the outsourcer doesn't stick tenaciously to scope, the client will take them to the cleaners. No doubt about it:

CLIENT: "Well, we need this now, and it *is* part of the core functionality..." { insert long guilt trip and line of bullshit about how the vendor didn't anticipate this need during the design phase, or just as likely they did and didn't bring it up because they were applying the KISS Principle }

VENDOR: "Um, okay, I guess we can do that, it's not a big deal." { Vendor's rep thinks, "holy shit, I'm in trouble if I lose this account..." }

The game of cat and mouse never ends.

In vendor-client relationships, it's not unheard of for both sides to believe they're both right when in fact they've both been idiotic. I've been the idiot a few times, myself - and I've been right, too. My old .sig at this address was used to underscore just this very fact.

But you probably knew that already.

........

I dunno. I've got a big rant waiting here, because I believe from the marrow of my bones that outsourcing is not an inherently bad solution(more for cultural, political, and economic reasons than matters of effectiveness or lack thereof - a definite case of pros and cons, if you will) I also wonder how disasters like this one come to pass (Editor's note: Comment slightly altered in the interests of not have a long url screwing up the template)
[Note the Vignette URL - the irony is delicious, yessss]

Historical editor's note: Vignette was/is a competitor with Broadvision, the company marketing the app that sunk North Carolina dot-coms like a U-boat hunting unarmed merchant ships in 1999/2000

Good Gawd, but software isn't really that hard. How it can be fucked up this badly is completely over my head, probably because I've not got enough of an imagination.

In the great cycle of life that is software development, there is the outsourcer, who is evil, and there is the client, who is evil and stupid. Their hideous aberration of a mating dance is what produces the bloated, overly expensive and above all buggy code that is described in the story above. Ben's description of the dance is pretty on target as well. Clients always want more. Vendors always agree to give them more, even if it's impossible, because the vendor will agree to anything to get the check. Once this particular waltz has been danced a few times, two things happen. One, the outsourcer development team for the client's app absolutely loathes the client. The code they write is going to reflect that. Two, the client has an absolutely ludicrous idea about the relative ease of the software development cycle, because no one ever said to him "We can't do that, because if we did do that, we'll miss the ship date."

Missing the ship date is the ultimate sin. Vendors will ship totally unready code rather than do that. Clients bitch and moan about the buggy code, but the fault for it is equally theirs. One reason is that the design phase for a particular app is a far more truncated time period than it should be. Another is that applications, especially web applications, are defined by marketers, who are not only overly enamored of the latest bells and whistles, but who also tend to think up things that might be neat and decide that they have to have them, right then, which is when they starting talking about core functionality.

Have you ever seen a toddler cry because they didn't get some trifle they wanted? Marketing people are the exact same way.

Once again, the solution to this is an in-house staff, but not just any in-house staff. You don't just hire two or three coders and maybe promote the part-time hardware repair guy to a sysadmin position and put them under some vice-president in general administration or the office manager. They will also hate you, sooner rather than later, and will leave at the first chance, except for maybe the hardware guy, who now does the exact same job he used to do for more money. The correct way to build a top level, in-house staff is to hire an IT director, then go away.

An IT director is senior management, on the level of a vp at least, and the person who hires all of the technical staff, from the project manager to the web design interns, unless it's a really big shop. It's his job to shield his staff from the office politics that is anathema to Ben and other developers, as well as from marketing. As many marketing personnel nowadays are single girls with gravity defying bosoms and a penchant for alcohol, the first task is easier than the second. The point is an IT Director can honestly tell people "no" when they ask for the moon, or can say "Yes, but it will cost this much and take this long. Now you tell me how important it is." He won't agree to deliver the moon and the sun, because he's already got a commitment from the company in the form of a paycheck. Essentially the company pays him not only to oversee the technical team, but to keep the company's expectations about software realistic.

When bugs come up, as they always will, the IT Director either decides how serious they are, or oversees the process that does that. He assigns priorities and duties, and takes care of his staff. From the other manager's point of view, he's a geek wrangler. He interfaces with the freaks so they don't have to. From his staff's point of view, he's a management guy that knows what he and they, are talking about, and he keeps the other bosses out of their hair. He's a manager wrangler.

IT Directors are expensive, and rare. But once companies start to re-discover the fact that a quick technical response time not only gives them a leg up on their competitors but saves them money as well, they'll be less rare, and certainly seen as less expensive than millions of dollars in down time.

Posted by Bigwig at January 7, 2003 10:48 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.
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