Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Ars Moriendi

A couple of days before the end of my vacation I received an email from Andy, the Project Manager at Fjord Systems.

"Pike, I hate to ruin your holiday, but everything's gone wrong. We're in deep shit."

Andy wouldn't tell me anymore. I arrived back in Sweden a couple of days later expecting to find the common area festooned with intestines and severed heads in the fridge. It sounded to me as if the project had died hard, but what I really found was... nothing.

The team had told me that they were good to go when I had left for my vacation, three weeks prior. They had all agreed to do the work. They knew who was supposed to be doing it, and how. That was what they told me.

Apparently, once I had left the office, instead of buckling in to do the work they had panicked. As best I could tell, the team had spent three weeks running in circles around the office, screaming and throwing their own faeces at each other. As far as the art of dying went, these kids were a bunch of amateurs.

Anders had finally asserted himself a little bit. There wasn't enough time to undertake the full scope of the project I had laid out, so they would be cleaning up the old core engine (the part that he'd told me made him feel sick to his stomach) and reusing it more-or-less as it was. The so-called 'core engine' was the piece of the product that actually did the majority of the work of the app, but it was not necessarily a complicated piece of technology. It sprawled a bit, but I did not believe it would have been difficult to rewrite it, or simply to break into chunks in preparation for a rewrite... as per the designs we'd agreed upon. Nonetheless, the team lead had finally made a decision and I decided to go with it. He agreed that the core engine would be integrated as per my designs so that it could later be unplugged, piece-by-piece, when we had finished this initial refit. Fixing foundations and the plumbing was the main thing.

I left the office with a bad taste in my mouth. Despite the fact that everybody had agreed to stick to the design, I'd heard them muttering. They didn't believe we could make it work. They didn't believe that we could make the deadlines. I was frustrated. I'd done this all before, with less people, and I knew it would work if they'd stop bitching and start coding. But I couldn't say that to them; that was Anders' job.

I went home and I tried to get to work on the driver integration with Chucky, but it wasn't that easy. My working hours in Australia would end right when the team's would begin, and I would finish a full day's coding with hours of emails, realtime chats and conference calls with the team. Every morning I would get up, sync down the source code, and find that the team had broken what I was working on the day before. Half of the productive part of my day would them be lost fixing it. I don't know what the team was actually doing, but it was clearly not working, since the project wouldn't even compile after their checkins.

I asked them nicely not to break the build. Weeks went by and I still found myself having to fix it on a daily basis. I tried a sterner approach, but this didn't help matters. I didn't yell down the phone, but once I abandoned politeness, the build breaks became less frequent... and meetings became commensurately more surly. I could hear them muttering at me in Swedish.

Joseph was granted a patent that he had filed. Nobody seamed to care. "Software patents don't mean anything," I was told.

Srinith and Sven complained to me that nobody else was working. Anders and the senior guys sat around in their office with the door closed. Tyko was wrapped up in his research. Nobody knew what the UI team was doing. I told that they were the A-team. They were the most productive guys and they were on board with my desire for progress. If we hasd to do this with a team of three, plus Chuck,y then so be it--I'd done it before, back at ATB Software, and this time I didn't have interference from management and marketing to contend with. I had to trust someone, so I trusted them. I asked them to look after the integration with the core engine and the UI team while I pulled my head in and finished the driver interface, and they agreed. This was a mistake.

My A-team introduced some new code libraries to instrument the source in order to catch memory leaks. This library was incompatible with my test apps, but it was cancerous: once it was in the application it proliferated everywhere and could not be removed. I complained: the new framework did not leak memory and the overhead of the instrumentation was huge. It threw lots of false positives and it made debugging a nightmare. Only the core engine needed to be instrumented, and there needed to be a way to turn the whole thing off. But they were adamant, and I had bigger fish to fry. I wrote new test apps and got on with it.

My A-team took the very simple structure that I had created to be a unit of currency between all of the subsystems and wrapped it in layers and layers of macros, so that they would act in an object-oriented way without being truly object-oriented... or debuggable.

My A-team changed all of the error handling routines so that, instead of passing error information up, they would throw assertions that would crash the application.

At this point I decided that I needed to rein them in, and I think they simply decided that the would instead replace me. They started to pull apart the infrastucture I had written, stripping out the inheritance hierarchy that would permit us to drop in new versions of the core engine. If they needed to make a small change to a class that I had written they would push the entire code module into an 'attic' repository and then create a new one... containing almost exactly the same code, but minus the history of changes and of course with his name on it as the original author.

I just took it. The design was all that mattered. If we could stick to the design for this release I would be able to steer the team back on course after the release date, I thought. I was up to my eyeballs in the driver interface and I didn't want to fight about it. But I knew that they were gradually stripping away all of my design and replacing it with Special Magic.

I start to get bug reports from the communications layer. I'd forgotten about the comms layer, with all of the other nonsense, but I didn't think it was a major issue. I couldn't duplicate the bugs, so I asked for log files. No matter how often I asked, nobody would furnish them to me... but the reports kept coming.

I did get a number of feature requests. "This comms layer is useless," Srinith would say. "It doesn't do X."
"It was designed so that could be built on top of it. It's easy enough."
"It should be handled inside the comms layer."

Like an idiot, I would then extend the comms layer to handle that behaviour, rather than insisting that the behaviour should be handled externally. Instead of thanking me, Srinith would then say "This comms layer is useless. It doesn't handle Y."

I did that three times, until Srinith ran out of new features. The comms layer was still buggy, and still a source of complaint, but by then Chucky had finished the driver and I had finished integrating it. Once I was able to focus my full attention on it, I was able to duplicate the underlying bug in the comms layer... and it was a serious one. Srinith jumped on it.

"Alright," I told the Andy, Anders and the A-Team. "I found the bug and I can fix it, but I need two weeks. Ten business days."

I showed them a design document, and they agreed to it. I got on it, and made good progress. Srinith threw some new feature requests at the comms layer for me, which he 'needed urgently', so I build those as well: twice each, once for the old comms layer (so that Srinith could continue programming with it), and once for the new one. On the ninth day I had finished all of the features and I was chasing the last remaining bug when Andy called me up. "We're pulling the plug on your comms layer. Srinith is going to write a new one."

I was on schedule. I would have the layer ready for them, bug free, on the day I had promised. It had the same interface as the old one; nobody would even notice when the new library went in, except that the bugs would disappear.

"Sorry. Anders told him to go ahead." In other words, Anders needed me to fail.

"What's he going to build? What's the design? Is there a document?"

"He's just going to do whatever."

I could see the death of my baby looming.

Joseph was laid off. Martin sent me a note to assure me that Chucky and this had nothing to do with Chucky and I, it was just that they didn't think Joseph's research had a place at the company.

A week later, Chucky quit. The drivers were done and he'd been offered something that paid better and gave him health coverage. Also, he said, he was tired of all the sniveling. I decided that I was, too. I was required to give three months notice, so I held out a few more days before I handed in my notice. My last day would coincide with the release date.

I wanted to make a graceful exit.

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