core issue about computer programming
Thursday, June 22 2006
If you've followed the link I posted to the compilation of my correspondence with my recently-erstwhile radio station employer, you see that, at the end, after repeatedly refusing to say I could bill for any future work I did, Elissa realized that there was no real option but to hire me to complete work on the site. By that point, though, I'd made a good show of burning all my bridges and had no interest in ever doing anything for the radio station again. Only later did I think of the perfect line to begin that final email, the one where I pointed out that my work was not "proprietary." That line would have read, "What part of me telling Gary Chetkof to go fuck himself do you not understand?" (I used Gary's full name here out of a sense of duty to those who might be tempted to do work for him in the future.)
My guess is that Elissa will assign the other web guy Brian to fix remaining site issues. But, since he only recently learned which side of a variable the dollar sign goes in PHP, I doubt he'll be up to the job. Unless he's a very quick study, I expect a week or so from now I'll be getting another plaintive email. The schadenfreude could go on for awhile.
In reading over those email exchanges, I'm struck by the contrast between the measured, professional tone of (most of) my emails and the hysterical overreaction on the part of both Elissa and Gary. While it's true I was laying some pretty awkward facts on the table, these were, nonetheless, facts. And yet Elissa responded by accusing me of being both "juvenile" and "unprofessional" and Gary suggested I needed to learn "inter-personal skills." These were the business-equivalent of ad-hominem attacks, their only recourse given the obvious injustice of their position and my clear articulation thereof. Presumably, the kind of inter-personal skills which Gary prefers resemble the one where he ordered an underling to tell me I was over-budget on a nearly-completed project in hopes that I'd do "the final tweaking and bug fixes" for free. As for unprofessional, it seems to me that changing the rules of a business relationship unannounced might qualify.1 Gary compared my obligation to that of the hapless general contractor who had installed his floors only to see them warp. But in this case a better analogy would have been if Gary had stormed Napoleon-stylee into the floor-laying project when it was three-quarters done and said that the work must be completed but that no one could bill for any further hours.
This gets to a core issue about computer programming, as opposed to other kinds of work. In their emails both Gary and Elissa frequently characterized bugs or misconfigurations of my code as "mistakes" or "errors" on my part, analogous in some way to, say, a brain surgeon leaving a scapel inside someone's head or an auto mechanic installing a head gasket upside-down. Under the "error paradigm," they reasoned, it was my duty to make good on errors for free, since they reflected failings in my professionalism. But computer programming isn't like that. All programs of any scale are so complicated that they inevitably contain lots of bugs and thus must be debugged to be useful. Most of that debugging takes place in tandem with the writing of the code, but a lot of it takes place weeks later, either as a side effect of use (the cheap way - the only way WDST could afford), or in an organized quality assurance/debugging effort (the expensive way). But that debugging, like the programming, is real work, and someone has to pay for it. You can't hire a programmer and decide to only pay him for the stuff he writes that works perfectly the first time. You also have to pay him for the time it takes him to fix the bugs, research the solutions to vexing problems, test things holistically, and (finally) respond to the complaints of users.
1I'm the first to admit that posting emails and using proper names in this context is also unprofessional, but at this point it's all about entertainment. Several days ago this matter passed into a land where professionalism is a province for dorks who can't get laid and use phrases like "action items" in their emails.
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