Lawrence walked through the lobby of his prospective employer. It was loaded with the trappings of a giant government (military) contractor; large glass gew-gaws signifying compliance with industry standard X29-Q hung on the walls beside pictures of the CEO smiling and shaking hands with various Presidents and Secretaries of Defense.

He was shown to a conference room where he met the head of IT. Smalltalk and background questions eventually led into the details of the job opening. "It's a pretty vanilla project. We want to move our old Honeywell system over to an AS/400 relational database before our old 5-digit date overflows on us."

Lawrence nodded, and discussed some of his own experience on such projects. He trotted carefully over that minefield, fully aware of how political these legacy projects could get. "So," he concluded, "I've got a good handle of the sorts of challenges involved in this kind of project."

"Great," the head of IT said. He leaned over the desk and delivered his real question with all the smoothness of rocky-road ice cream. "How long do you think this would take?"

"Um, well, without actually knowing what the system requirements are like, I couldn't even guess."

The IT head waved his hand. "Oh, don't worry about the requirements," he said coolly. "We're just moving the system to a new platform, nothing's changing. It'll be the same thing, but on an AS/400 back-end with a J2EE front-end, and a few minor enhancements. Otherwise, it's entirely the same thing. So how when do you think this migration could be done?"

Lawrence repeated his previous response. "I can't say. It depends on how big and complex the existing application is, and what exactly those 'minor enhancements' are like. I'm really not comfortable just pulling a number out of thin air." Or delivering an estimate during an interview, he didn't add.

The IT manager frowned at him. "Well, we need it done by August 13th."

"But I thought you had a few years before your date-field overflowed? Is there some other business requirement?"

The IT manager handed him a copy of a recent memo from the CFO. "That's the date the CFO set."

"I see."

Lawrence wrapped up the interview and got out of there as quickly as he could. A week later, his phone rang and the IT manager offered him the position. Lawrence politely declined and found some other contract work.

Eight months later, he saw a new position open up at the same company. It appeared to be the same department, but the name listed for the supervisor was different. Thinking that he might see something very different in this interview, Lawrence returned.

Once again, he walked through the glass-and-trinket laden lobby, noted that they were now proudly compliant with industry standard X30-Q, and found himself back in the same conference room he had been in 8 months prior. There was something subtly different about the office this time; it wasn't just the fact that the only face he recognized was the receptionist.

When the head of IT came in, Lawrence realized that the sense he had was one of panic. They quickly ran through the smalltalk, and the new IT head got down to brass tacks. "We're in a little bit of a bind," he explained. "A few months back, we hired a project manager to oversee an upgrade of our mainframe to a new AS/400 system. He told us it could be done by August 13th, and he had something in production by then, sure. But it doesn't work. Inventory doesn't get tracked accurately, invoices go to the wrong customers, and the wrong amounts are totaled up. Reports are incorrect to the point of complete meaninglessness. And the project manager just quit without giving us any notice."

The head of IT continued for a bit longer, adding scoop after scoop of despair flavored ice-cream to the sundae. The cherry on top was that the company was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a day and, oh, there was no documentation on the application, at all.

"So," the IT head said, "how long will it take to fix this?"

Lawrence had a disturbing sense of dejá vu. "I couldn't say," he admitted. "It depends on how complex the application is, how many developers are working on it, how clearly documented the actual bugs are, how many screens- I don't have enough information to even guess how to guess."

The IT manager frowned at him. "Well, it needs to be done by October 1st."

"Let me guess: because the CFO wants it done by then?"

The IT manager nodded and smiled. "Exactly. Hey, I can see that you have a good understanding of how these kinds of projects work. I'm going to recommend to the CFO that they hire you for this position."