Tuesday, 28 June 2011


After Vegas I returned to Australia with not much to work on. I proofread some of Jacob's patent apps, I went through his new matrix idea, I started building some of the stuff that we'd talked about back at ATB Software... but I didn't have anything formal to work on. I was still waiting for network access, but the company more or less shut down in the first week of December and most of my queries went unanswered. Occasionally I'd get a chirpy reply from someone in the IT department saying: "Done! There you go!" but no passwords or network details were forthcoming.

New Year passed, and so did the first couple of week of January. A full month since I had returned. Very slowly the logistics guy, Wils, organized me some flights out to Sweden to meet the team, to coincide with Jacob's next visit. The first itinerary he sent me was mental: the numbers on the flight times didn't add up and he had me routed through Atlanta. Once I got back in I had to look at it twice to discover that the flights he had booked originated in Melbourne, Florida.

Eventually, after I started to get a bit shirty about my network access, somebody in IT realized what had happened. They had indeed set me up with VPN access to the network and an internal email account, and then they sent all the information about it to that internal email. Several times. Once they put the information where I could find it I found that I could log into the network, no problem, but I had no access to anything beyond the intranet newsletter.

I flew to Sweden. Wils met me at the airport and took me back to the apartment that Jacob and I would be sharing  for my stay. I showered off my 35 hours of airports and aeroplanes and went straight to work. I was in the office by about lunchtime.

I was given the seat vacated by Åke, sharing an office with Tyko. Tyko was no problem; I knew him already, and I discovered that I had a greater tolerance for the techno music that pumped out of his computer all day long than I had expected. Åke, however, was another story, even though he was gone.

Åke's desk told a lot about the man and his work. It was filthy; covered with derelict CRT monitors, cables, mouldy coffee mugs, wastepaper, dust, and a layer of grease that I still cannot explain. I spent ninety minutes cleaning before I was satisfied that I wouldn't contract tetanus from sitting there. Åke's computer was on and unlocked, so I turned my attention to that next. He had left a thousand windows open, each one of them showing a gorgon's nest of ugly code. I carefully saved the contents of each window and closed them until I could again see the desktop of the PC. Then I shut the machine down, wrapped it in plastic, and buried it in a 12 foot hole. If we ever found a sudden need for whatever Åke had been working, on we were beyond hope.

(Alright, I lied about the hole. I put the machine in a corner of the room in case I might one day need something to accidentally-on-purpose put my foot through.)

I met the team. They seemed like a nice, if reserved bunch of guys. No overt social problems, although a couple of them were definitely capital-P Programmers. The guys Tyko said were good shared one office, the guys he said did not were in another. There was a third team, the UI guys, who lived in their own world and nobody was sure what they did... but it involved lots of code churn and without any visible results. Which is odd, you might think, for a team whose business is entirely wrapped in the visual element of the product. But they were not my problem.

I was finally granted access to the source code repository. I checked the code out of CVS, but I couldn't work out how to build it. When I asked where the main solution was... the build scripts, the make files... I was told that there was none: everybody just did whatever they had to in order to make it build on their local machine.

Which is to say, nobody knew what the fuck was happening, and if they did, they were keeping that information to themselves. It was like being in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

I spent a day making the code I had build as best I could, but there were pieces missing. When I enquired after them I learned that they were in a different repository. I had to stand over the IT guys in order to get them to give me access. This happened three before I had all of the source code. I was shocked.

A source code repository is EVERYTHING to a team. If the code constitutes the raw ingredients of your product, the repository is the refrigerator. Even if the raw produce is low quality, you at least try to keep the fridge clean... because if the fridge goes you've got nothing. At Fjord systems, it was like they were keeping the ingredients in a series of buckets,w hich they'd stashed in the outhouse. I'd seen poor code and CM before, but this was rancid.

I spent most of the week getting it all to build in one place. Harder than it seemed: each of the four repositories had some overlap with the others, but they were not kept properly in sync. Once I was done I got IT to set up a new repository, I checked everything in and I said "Okay boys, this is the one place where you will get your code from, and the one place you will put it back." They seemed pleased with it, but it was hard to tell. In hindisght, I should have added "Try not to break it."

The code was horrible. Spaghetti and shitballs. It couldn't be saved. I said as much to Tyko, who gloomily agreed. I told Jacob, who took it pretty well. But our biggest immediate problem was the drivers. It was dangerous, letting our customers use those half-finished, barely functional drivers and we needed to fix them, stat.

I told Jacob that I thought Chucky was free... or at least he had been a couple of months earlier. Jacob remembered Chucky from ATB Software and so we got in touch with him. With Jacob on hand and in the office to hassle HR, we got Chucky sorted for a contract in days, not months, and we got his network access hooked up properly. We got him access to the new repository and turned him loose on the drivers. He worked sixteen straight hours from the minute his access was hooked up. The drivers, he said, were rubbish, but he could at least make them stable. Which he did. He did us proud.

Monday morning Jacob called a meeting of the development team. As soon as he had all of us in there (excluding those who came to work after 11am) he surprised me by saying "Aaaaand.... take it away Pike."
"Uh, what do you want me to say, Jacob?"
"Whatever needs to be said."

I took it by the horns. The product needed an overhaul and a redesign. I went through what was wrong with it, and how to fix it. I roughed out new designs on the whiteboard. I estimated about a year's work.

The team took it coolly. I was a stranger, the only non-Swedish speaker in the room, telling them that what they had been working for all of these years was wrong and needed to be done over. I worried that I was offending them. I worried that I was stepping on Anders, the new team leader... but something had to be done, and nobody else was prepared to step up. Nobody said much of anything when I asked for feedback beyond a noncommital "That looks okay." After each meeting I made an effort to talk to the other developers one-on-one, and the feedback they gave me was invariably good: "This seems like the sort of thing we need," said one of the better devs. Anders told me "We need to start over. I get a bad feeling when I look at the old code."

I started feeling good about it. I figured if this was Brazil, I was Harry Tuttle: renegade air conditioning specialist, suspected terrorist and all-round bad ass. When the going gets tough, Harry swings in through the window and fixes the problem, permit or not. He's played by Robert De Niro, so you know he is not-to-be-fucked-with.

So we made a plan. I would go back to Australia and start documenting up the new system and building  prototype infrastructure while the team finished off the new release. Chucky would begin work on a new set of drivers. Once the release was out and the infrastructure was ready we would reconvene in Sweden and bring the whole team onto the new project for build out. 

It was going to be a lot of work, and there was and obvious pessimism about whether we could accomplish any of this, but I was confident: I'd managed it before with a team a third of the size and a quarter as experienced, and this time I was going in knowing exactly what I was doing. In the eight or so years I had been a professional developer I'd yet to encounter a technical issue that I couldn't solve. It might take time or study or a shitload of pestering questions to somebody more experienced, but we'd solved every problem that came our way, every place I'd been. What I failed to realize was that it wasn't the technical problems that had proven to be insurmountable int he past; it was the people problems. And we already had people problems.

It was clear that Jacob wasn't going to be able to move to Sweden. Although I was sharing the apartment with him, I didn't know exactly what was going on until later in the week. I didn know that Jacob had been suffering from terrible migraines and that they were clearly work-related. This wasn't the easy-going, goofy Jacob I knew.

Anders and I were invited to a dinner with the CEO, the COO and another guest, Martin, who Jacob old me would be the new CTO. Since he couldn't make the move Jacob was stepping back into a similar role to the one he'd held at ATBSoft: that of a chief research consultant.

Martin was a charismatic, likeable guy from Sydney who impressed me as somebody who knew nothing at all about software development and who lacked even the barest interest in it. When they'd been recruiting a new CTO the executive staff had originally chosen Jacob over him. Now he was coming on board and Jacob would be working under him. That did not seem like a healthy position for Jacob to be in, and, with me as his chief henchman stirring up shit inside the development team, that didn't seem like a good place for me to be, either. It was clear that if shit went down... and it always does... Martin wasn't going to be much of an advocate for anything.

It was just like Brazil. The irrelevant and incompetent machinations of people way beyond my pay grade were going to be a problem for me in ways I didn't understand. It was just like Brazil, but I wasn't Harry Tuttle, the A/C fixit terrorist... I was Sam Lowry, the bureaucrat who, while trying to fix an administrative screwup, becomes an enemy of the state.

No comments:

Post a Comment