Every job has its quirks. That’s what Kirk reassuringly told himself on his first day of work after meeting the company’s most egregious quirk, The Colonel. Kirk wasn’t quite sure if the impeccably-dressed man’s gruff introduction – which solely consisted of looking Kirk up, then down, then up again, and scoffing “that’s a pretty sad excuse for a Double Windsor” – was in jest or contempt, so he stuck with a the more palatable label of quirky. Fortunately, by the time Kirk realized that deranged was much more appropriate than quirky, he knew that he’d never have to personally work with The Colonel: the chain-of-command simply wouldn’t allow for it.
Having spent the larger part of his life in the military, The Colonel faithfully chose the same rigid structure for his civilian venture, a technology start-up that developed real-time logistics tracking systems. The “high-discipline” company worked well for the first year or so, as The Colonel had only hired ex-military employees and had only solicited to the military. However, when it came time to expand into the private industry, a few concessions were needed to attract the less-disciplined civilian talent: health benefits, sixty-minute lunch breaks, casual Fridays, etc. Of course, the company’s core values – chain-of-command, strict rules, top-of-the-line accommodations for executives, and so on – would never change.
A Good Problem to Have
When Kirk joined, the company was in the middle of “a good problem to have.” Months earlier, the development team had created a prototype to demonstrate the company’s capabilities to prospective clients. Their prototype was pretty impressive for the time: using inexpensive GPS units, standard cell phones, and off-the-shelf server hardware, their system would track “field assets” such as delivery trucks in real-time and display the asset on an interactive map.
As for their problem: The Colonel and his sales team told prospects that the prototype was their core product, and managed to sell a handful of licenses for it. Since putting more soldiers on the ground apparently solves all military problems, The Colonel employed the same tactic and nearly doubled the staff. With a company of fifty (half of which were developers), they were bound to successfully deliver the product they had sold.
But Still a Problem
As it turns out, developing a complex, customizable geographic information system that interfaces with an amalgam of less-than-ideal equipment is kinda hard. There are things like specs to consider, user interfaces to develop, equipment drivers to create, and so on. Add in to the mix aggressive deadlines, angry customers, and large refund checks to cut, and it creates something far worse than a “good” problem. The immediate result of all this is one seriously angry colonel.
The Colonel knew very little about software development, software, and computers in general. In fact, he didn’t even have a computer in his office; his secretary was responsible for printing out his email and typing up his dictated replies. What he did know, however, was that computer programs are made up of computer code, computer code is typed up by programmers, and when programmers aren’t typing code, they’re not making computer programs.
To ensure that programmers were focused on programming, The Colonel cut out a lot of the unnecessary parts of the software development process like system design and testing. While the quit-wasting-time-and-type-in-your-computer-code approach certainly helped get more code written, there were a few side effects. Namely, their software didn’t quite meet the requirements and it was pretty buggy. The Colonels’ new stop-writing-all-this-buggy-computer-code approach didn’t seem to help, either.
A Bad Problem To Have
After six long months of non-stop coding, development finally hacked together a system that could pass as the product sold to their clients. It kinda, sorta, somewhat tracked a variety of asset classes across a map, and usually displayed the results correctly. That is, assuming one was using the exact configuration of cell phones and GPS units that the development team had.
Unfortunately, the first client took the “compatible with any receiver” feature literally, and bought completely different GPS units. While their system read the GPS data in, the coordinate system used was completely different, which meant that incoming GPS data piled up in the system’s processing queue. Changing the input filter on the cell phone fixed the incoming data, but there was still a mountain of bad data to deal with; and the customer really wanted the data fixed.
The Colonel was furious when he learned about this major glitch, and insisted that the problem be addressed immediately. There was just one caveat: since computer code caused the problem in the first place, adding more computer code would likely exacerbate the problem. They needed a solution that didn’t call for any programming to deal with the bad data.
Since the developers had absolutely no idea how to solve the problem without coding, The Colonel offered his solution: covert the data by hand, row by row. And he wasn’t joking; in fact, The Colonel never joked. The two developers assigned to documentation duty were relieved of that job and given an Excel spreadsheet and a desk calculator.
For nearly a week, the pair worked sixteen hours a piece, each day, typing in data from a print-off and calculating the results by hand. This effort did result in a fixed data file for the client, but also left two casualties: one of the developers quit, the other had simply lost all will to live. Things went a bit downhill from there.
Despite having two somewhat successful field installs, the company was not having any luck selling to other prospects. As the weeks passed, The Colonel was becoming more and more agitated that business was not picking up. So, he did the only logical thing and clamped down on all the slacking employees.
The harbinger of many further disciplinary emails came after three employees had an impromptu meeting for a few minutes in an unoccupied conference room.
ATTN EMPLOYEES: Effective immediately, no conference room may be used without first reserving the room on-line. We have a system for a reason and want to make sure the rooms are utilized appropriately. There are no exceptions to this policy. DICTATED BUT NOT READ, The Colonel
The next reminder came a day later after The Colonel spotted someone walking around with a cup of coffee and having a few words with someone past the time where everyone should be dutifully at their desks, slaving away:
ATTN EMPLOYEES: Effective immediately, we will now be enforcing tardiness and desk policies. In addition, we will also be tightening up some of the attendance rules at the office: 1. WORKING HOURS. There shall be no more "thirty minute flex time". You are expected to be at your desk no later than at 8:00AM and leave no earlier than 5:00PM. 2. BREAKS. You have two fifteen-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch break. While you can combine your breaks, you may no longer "split" them and take five minutes, five minutes, etc. 3. DESK - When you are at your desk, you are expected to be working. DICTATED BUT NOT READ, The Colonel
The Colonel clarified these rules the next day.
ATTN EMPLOYEES: There appears to be a misunderstanding of the attendance rules. You are to be at your desk, working, by 8:00AM and are expected to work up at least 5:00PM. This means your computer must be turned on before 8:00AM, and you need to pack your items up after 5:00PM. DICTATED BUT NOT READ, The Colonel
To no one’s surprise, the crackdown didn’t quite help morale or increase business in the least. It did lower expenses quite a bit; by the time this next email was sent out, twelve of the staff had resigned:
ATTN EMPLOYEES: Effective immediately, we will no longer have "casual Friday." We don't stop working on Friday and should therefore dress for work. DICTATED BUT NOT READ, The Colonel
Over the next two weeks, another eight employees quit. By this point, The Colonel implemented some brilliant countermeasures.
ATTN EMPLOYEES: Effective immediately, breaks may no longer be "combined". There have been far too many employees abusing the break/lunch policy and taking a full hour for lunch, each and every day. Morning Break may be taken between 9:00AM and 10:30AM. Lunch Break may be taken between 11:30AM and 1:00PM. Afternoon Break may be taken between 2:00PM and 4:00PM. DICTATED BUT NOT READ, The Colonel
Obviously, through all these crackdowns, Kirk had turned looking for a new job into a full-time endeavor. Unlike so many other employees, he wasn’t quite comfortable just up and quitting without another job in the bag.
Of course, everyone has their limits. As it turned out, Kirk’s limit was this personalized email from The Colonel himself.
ATTN KIRK: Earlier this week, you had brought in several large personal items and placed them in your workspace. You told your manager that the purpose of this was so that your items "did not get too hot during the day" in your car. Please note that we are not a storage facility. Your workspace needs to be clean and orderly; large personal items are not acceptable. There are no exceptions, even if you need to store items just for just one day. DICTATED BUT NOT READ, The Colonel
Kirk resigned shortly after that. While he tried his best to forget about The Colonel and the GIS system he had worked on, he verified that, four years later, they have yet to release their product.