Crash Dot Com Part 3: The Meeting

By Shamus Posted Thursday Nov 24, 2016

Filed under: Personal 117 comments

The year is 1999, and my company has just been hired by some sexy new dot-com venture.

The Meeting

Our conference room had large windows like this. But they faced reception, not outside. Sadface.
Our conference room had large windows like this. But they faced reception, not outside. Sadface.

I’m sitting in our conference room, fidgeting nervously. I’ve already forgotten everyone’s name and the complex relationship of businesses at work here. All I know is that the papers have been signed and fabulous sums of money have changed hands. These guys weren’t happy with being just clients, so there was some sort of exchange of stock that happenedI got some. At this point in our story I’ve got a bunch of stock options that, if I could actually use them, would make me a very rich man. Spoiler: I’m not going to get to use them before the crash.. I don’t understand the new power structure looming over my head at this point. We’re still the same company in the same office doing the same stuff, but now we’re publicly traded and some of the controlling power has been distributed to the new people in the room.

I’ve been ignoring the business drama for the past year. It bores me. As long as I get to push my polygons and cash my paycheck then I’m more than happy to trust my bosses to worry about all that bullshit for me.

In any case, at this point we are committed to a new project. This project is larger than anything we’ve taken on before. This meeting is where I’ll find out what we’ve just committed to and work out how we’re going to make it happen.

Hi, it’s me from 2016 jumping in to explain that I’ve left things vague and changed some of the details of this story to protect the innocent, the guilty, and (most of all) the litigious. Also note that it’s been almost two decades. This is the meeting as I can best render it, but it was long and I’ve forgotten many of the specifics.

Anyway, back to me-from-1999…

The Pitch

I swear it looks like this store has percent sign shirts on sale. That's really meta.
I swear it looks like this store has percent sign shirts on sale. That's really meta.

The presentation begins with an expensively produced pitch video. These guys are too serious for bush-league stuff like Powerpoint. The pitch video wasn’t really made for the people in this room, but for prospective investors. But we’re watching it now because it’s a good way to introduce the project.

The video shows various views of a modern shopping mall. The narrator describes the difficulties of modern shopping: Crowds. Parking. Inconvenience. Noise. The video shows someone riding an escalator in an upscale shopping mall and then fades to the same scene as rendered in 1998-style CGI.

“At last, virtual reality malls are now possible,” the narrator assures usNote: In 1999, when someone said “virtual reality” they weren’t talking about the VR headsets we’re using these days. At the time, “Virtual Reality” was a catch-all term for anything made of visible polygons. These guys would probably describe Quake as “Shooting people in virtual reality”..

A camera sweeps through the blocky mall as flat-polygon patrons walk stiffly in the background.

I am now very uncomfortable. I knew this company wanted to hire us to set up some kind of store, but I had no idea what that would involve or what form it would take. But now I’ve seen the concept video I have to say this sounds like ten different bad ideas rolled into one.

I can see the thinking behind this. They’re looking to combine “chat room as social experience” with “shopping as social experience”. The presentation shows ladies shopping together, and they really do seem to be aiming this experience at everyone, not just tech-savvy young guys. You can see they’re sort of aiming for a place where people can congregate and chat like you do in Everquest, but when you get restless you go shopping for real goods instead of killing mobs. It’s a plausible concept on the surface, but there are major technological, cultural, social, and practical obstacles that would need to be overcome to make it happen, and nobody is talking about those problems.

Shopping with someone is usually less about the shopping and more about the someone.
Shopping with someone is usually less about the shopping and more about the someone.

In short, I don’t think people will want to shop in “virtual reality”. I don’t think the average person is going to be willing to type their credit card into something that looks like a “video game”. I don’t think socializing in a virtual mall will sound appealing when the alternative is socializing in a dungeon, a castle, or any of the other locations you might find in Everquest. If the standard web-based storefronts out there are having trouble attracting customers, then how much harder will it be to attract them to a storefront where you need to download and install the equivalent of an MMO client? How much harder still will it be to get them to navigate the 3D environment using controls and conventions are probably unfamiliar to them?

But I’m not here to analyze their business plan. In fact, it would be an unforgivable breach of etiquette for me to question the decisions of literally everyone else in the room. I’m here to answer technical questions, and telling them the entire idea is flawed to the core would probably just get me fired. These people are all older than I am, have run successful businesses for decades, and they believe in this idea so strongly that some of them just plonked down millions of dollars of their own money to make it happen. I’m just a dumb kid and the lowest-ranked person in the room. Their business is none of my business. Voicing my concerns would be like an orderly second-guessing the necessity of an operation and asking the doctor pointed questions during the surgery.

The meeting covers some financial and logistic concerns that don’t apply to me, so I mindlessly shuffle my deck of new business cards and wish I could go back to my desk and do something creative. Eventually they come around to questions about the “presentation” side of things and it’s my turn to answer questions. To them, it’s a cosmetic issue, like working out what color scheme and font to use on your website. To me, it’s at the very heart of the problem with their idea.

A Few Tiny Questions

This virtual world shit isn't nearly as cool as The Matrix led us to believe.
This virtual world shit isn't nearly as cool as The Matrix led us to believe.

John Business seems to be the most important guy in the room. He’s also the guy who narrated the pitch video. He’s seemed happy so far. But now he turns to me and asks, “Can we start visitors outside of the mall? We have this grand entryway and we want them to be able to see it before they go inside.”

I scrunch up my face. “Yeah guess you can. But people like to teleport because it’s more convenient…” I trail off. John Business looks confused. Did I mess up and give him some jargon?

“Shamus means they like to appear and disappear in different places rather than walking.” My Boss is clarifying things for me. That doesn’t happen very often.

John Business nods. He gets it now.

Holy shit. This guy doesn’t know what teleporting is? I guess the whole video presentation he just narrated made him seem a little more tech-savvy than he really is. Okay, I need to step this all the way down to neophyte language. How the hell did someone with such a limited understanding of virtual worlds end up in the deep end? This guy doesn’t seem to know enough to launch a web-based business, and he’s going to oversee the construction of a virtual one?

I nod at my boss. “Right. One of the advantages of virtual space is the way people can move instantly to their desired location. Making them ‘walk’ for a long distance before they can begin using the software will just make them reluctant to log in. And unless we change it every few days, they will quickly tire of the entrance.”

John Business looks annoyed. My boss shifts nervously in his seat. I’ve messed up again. I’m evidently offering guidance above my pay grade. John Business asked me a simple question about a simple task and now he seems to think I’m trying to weasel out of doing it. Possibly he suspects I’m a slacker. They don’t want my artistic input. These guys have already designed the place. They just want me to answer the question.

My boss steps in to smooth things out. “We’ll have them start outside and see how it works out. We can always change it later.”

I nod. Fair enough.

John Business also nods, perhaps ticking off a mental checkbox before moving on to the next question.

Your design must always account for the fact that the system will be used by human beings.
Your design must always account for the fact that the system will be used by human beings.

It goes on like this for half an hour. He keeps asking me to do simple things that would be impractical, annoying for the end user, or harm usability. He’s trying to make a world not just for people playing “a videogame” for the first time, but people who are overall new to the internet. I want to educate him on why the design is wrong, but I can’t seem to do so without violating some sort of unexplained social order. Usually I pride myself on being able to smooth out misunderstandings and bring people up to speed, but right now I find myself falling into the role of the “obtuse, obstructionist engineer” and I can’t seem to break out of it.

What’s wrong here? Our company is typically good at this stuff. We’re usually pretty adept at bridging the gap between what the customer asks for and what they actually need. But this meeting is running sideways and the power dynamics are all wrong. For some reason, John Business seems to regard me with… is it suspicion? I don’t know. But there’s a communication problem here and I can’t seem to solve it.

Looking back from 2016, I see part of the problem is that John Business is here with a bunch of other suits. Usually someone like him would bring Jane Techie along. If an explanation is complicated, Jane Techie and I could have a side-conversation where we quickly work out what’s possible and necessary. Once we’re done, Jane Techie can tell John Business what’s up. Since he already trusts her, he can accept the answer. Her entire job is to protect John Business from any bullshit I might try to feed him. But since there’s no Jane Techie, we can’t bridge that gap of trust.

I didn’t notice this until doing this write-up all these years later. At the time I was just confused and frustrated.

Without trust, every time I say “no” or “Yes, but…” it irritates John Business. And that makes my boss nervous, which eventually makes him frustrated with me. So it feels like the room is against me, which makes me nervous and panic-y, which makes me stammer and vacillate, which makes me sound even more untrustworthy.

The meetings will continue until morale improves…



[1] I got some. At this point in our story I’ve got a bunch of stock options that, if I could actually use them, would make me a very rich man. Spoiler: I’m not going to get to use them before the crash.

[2] Note: In 1999, when someone said “virtual reality” they weren’t talking about the VR headsets we’re using these days. At the time, “Virtual Reality” was a catch-all term for anything made of visible polygons. These guys would probably describe Quake as “Shooting people in virtual reality”.

From The Archives:

117 thoughts on “Crash Dot Com Part 3: The Meeting

  1. The Rocketeer says:

    Well, that’s horrifying.

  2. Jarenth says:

    John Business, who was Gordon Business’ brother.

    1. MrGuy says:

      The B Man.

    2. Incunabulum says:

      Sadly, being ‘Gordon Business’ Brother’ has followed him nearly his whole life – he’s actually John Business *Jr*, but somehow his brother always outshone him and the greater regard his father had for his business accomplishments weighs even more heavily on him since the old man passed away.

      1. Syal says:

        John Business Sr is of course best known for trying to Krazy Glue the world into predictability. Truly a businessman ahead of his time.

    3. Will says:

      “Our game must have zombie-ghoasts!”

  3. Matt Downie says:

    Trust may have been less of an issue than the problem of being negative in an atmosphere where everyone else is excited and positive. No-one wants to hear that their space shuttle might explode. No-one wants to hear that their sub-prime mortgage investments might not pay off. Most of the worst decisions are made in environments where negativity is punished.

    1. Galad says:

      Ooh nicely said. Also something to keep in mind if ever any of us worker bees are in Shamus’position, in a meeting as described above

    2. Echo Tango says:

      Also the fact that it’s pointing out flaws in a project they’ve already sunk lots of money into. Nobody likes to hear they just fucked up.

    3. Daemian Lucifer says:

      The best way to go around this(at least,the best Ive seen)is to just go along,then after the meeting say “boss,may I have a short word about some details” and then tell them all the negatives in private.People are more susceptible to negative criticism when they dont feel like its making them look like fools to others.It doesnt always work,of course,because of “Im too bussy”,but if the boss is smart they will listen.

      1. 4th Dimension says:

        If you mean he should have approached his direct superior afterwards, then yes that is kind of what I think I would have done. I would have carefully stuck to the technical side of things (can we make this entrance with current tech, how many people can be in the mall at the same time etc. using normal language (thus how detailed the entrance is vs how many polygons does it have)) if it’s clear my opinion on the smartness of business is not being asked.
        THEN in private with my boss who probably should by now know that I know a thing or two I would voice my concerns again using carefull language and not ranting. It would be his job then to manage and decide if we should go forward with this or should he kick it upstairs which he should be more suitable for. Hell he might even share your concerns since he should know a thing or two about how your business/product is run, but they are grabbing this project simply to keep the lights on.

      2. Searly says:

        I really need to learn this valuable lesson…. unfortunately I can’t stop myself from picking apart an idea and then trying to put it back together to make it work properly, which many people see as being too negative. Myself I see it as trying to make something work (as in my mind the things that aren’t broken aren’t worth spending time thinking about – they’re already working and my time is better spent working on issues).

    4. Yes, but if they have any business experience at all, they should know that they NEED to hear it. Unless their GOAL is to lose their shirts.

      I think you could make something like a “virtual mall” work, but it’d have to be focused around people *showing off their avatars*. People buy tons of purely cosmetic items in MMO’s, after all. (Guilty–I have more cosmetic outfits, hats, weapons, shields, and orbs for my characters in DDO than I have REAL CLOTHES in my REAL LIFE.) So the idea would be, you buy something, you get a virtual item that you can use to deck out your avatar. Have periodic sales with unique items available.

      And have all kinds of transportation modes available. Teleporting. Riding exotic mounts. Flying.

      Have activities that people could log in and do in order to earn shopping points.

      Regularly add amazing new “architecture” for them to explore.

      I don’t even know how it’d function if you tried to make it a “real mall” where you have tons of people bringing in their store fronts. You’re going to wreck any professional design aesthetic from the very beginning there. Just coordinating all the different businesses and what they want is going to be a major headache. Amazon does this and you wouldn’t BELIEVE how often this process breaks down.

      But, yeah, the pure notion of “a mall, but online!” . . . no. I mean, I work for Amazon now and their interface is pretty simple and straightforward yet people still regularly have problems finding things and buying them–and that’s in flat “click the button” land. I don’t think their website is some sort of miracle of good design (there are things I’d improve, for sure, just from seeing the number of people who can’t seem to grasp the difference between an ad and the actual interface). Now couple that with having to learn how to move around, interact with the 3d world, etc. etc. etc.

      1. Syal says:

        And on the customer side, a lot of the draw of the mall crawls those guys were envisioning is that you have stuff in your hands at the end of it. Digital stuff like Steam can capture a bit of it, but anything where you have to wait for shipping afterward isn’t going to give that same stimulus. It’d be less like walking through a mall and more like flipping through a magazine.

      2. Why would you need cosmetic hats when you can just run around in a Crystal Cove pirate hat? :D

      3. MichaelG says:

        When I look at how subtle the differences between UI elements are now, especially the Win 10 look, I’m amazed that grandma users ever manage to figure the thing out. They must just poke at things until they get some kind of result, and be horribly confused most of the time.

        I know my own mother never really seemed to master email. She’d claim you didn’t send things, or that she sent something which I never got. When she actually wrote the email, it was junk compared to what she’d put in a letter. Sentence fragments, bad spelling, etc. So she must have been really intimidated by the interface.

        I don’t know how you’d make the interface really simple, but I’d sure like to see less “everything is a rectangle” in the UI.

      4. John the Savage says:

        there are things I'd improve, for sure, just from seeing the number of people who can't seem to grasp the difference between an ad and the actual interface

        You say that like it’s a bad thing. If people click on an ad by accident, isn’t that a win?

        1. If they don’t understand concepts like “back button”, no, it’s not.

          You have to understand this here–I have had to come up with elaborate technical work arounds because someone DID NOT UNDERSTAND HOW TO OPEN MORE THAN ONE BROWSER TAB AT A TIME. That is not a joke. That is actually very typical.

          I mean, this is a literal list of stuff that I’ve found you really can’t expect people to grasp how to do:

          1. Minimize a window without closing it.
          2. Back button.
          3. Refresh browser window.
          4. New tab.
          5. New window.
          6. Clear cache/cookies.
          8. look at one window while doing stuff in a second window.
          9. Attach anything to an email.
          10. copy a link and paste it in the address bar

          And gawd help you if they’re using a phone or a tablet or (gag) Safari.

          I have seriously gotten calls from someone who was irate because they wanted to buy something and “our site was broken” and “it wouldn’t let them buy it” and “they can’t find it with the price they found”. After 5 minutes I discovered that the reason why they couldn’t do any of this on AMAZON was because the item they were looking at was posted ON EBAY.

          1. 4th Dimension says:

            And because they don’t really understand that there is some logic to how computer interfaces work (or they might know how to do something, but they don’t know to apply the knowledge) they regard the computer an the mouse as a bundle of rattlesnakes and lies that could AT ANY MOMENT jump at them and break the computer, destroy their work due to sligtless miss click.

            1. WilliamontheMount says:

              My boss is a fifty-something who wears an Apple Watch and communicates via Emojis, but can’t figure out half the things listed above. And when she makes mistakes she blames the mouse, and calls the computer a “Communist.”

            2. Kacky Snorgle says:

              And then there are the interfaces that are actually out to get us.

              Example from this very morning: I was driving home after visiting family for Thanksgiving, and I stopped at a random gas station. Tried three times to get the pump to read my credit card, but it kept failing. Went inside and asked the nice cashier if something was wrong with the card reader, and she told me I’d probably put my card in backwards. Went back out to the pump, and looked more closely at the card reader, and…the thing was actually designed in such a way that you had to hold the card by the chip end when inserting it, in order to get it aligned correctly. And there was a handy diagram right next to the reader, illustrating this, but it never occurred to me to look at it, because there’s always a diagram and it always says the opposite of this one.

              I left feeling very sorry for that cashier, who probably has to answer that question eight times a day….

              1. Eighty.

                I don’t mind answering the question a hundred times. What drives me up the wall is this:

                1. People who for some reason feel it’s necessary to “justify” why they couldn’t figure it out and go off on a long rant about how evil businesses are because they confuse decent hardworking Americans ON PURPOSE so that they can’t use their credit cards. Look, I don’t care. I DO NOT CARE why you didn’t get it perfectly right and whose fault it is. I don’t need to hear your freakin’ personal conspiracy story. You now know the right way. Move on with your life.

                2. People who get super-mad and start bitching at me like it’s MY fault. Because I designed the whatever-it-is, apparently. Look. Getting mad and lashing over this kind of stuff doesn’t make you an Oppressed Person. It makes you a jerk.

          2. I sort of know that feeling; my mom’s relatively tech-saavy, but I’ll be damned if she could attach something to an email without me helping. D:

      5. Cilvre says:

        sony had exactly this on the ps3 called Playstation Home.

    5. Zaxares says:

      Plus the way Shamus describes it it sounds as if John Business and Co. have already sunk huge amounts of money into this venture. They’re at the stage where they REALLY don’t want to hear “it won’t work”, because of the Sunk Cost fallacy.

  4. Droid says:

    The meetings will continue until morale improves…

    Well, at least you ended this article on a light note…

    1. Durican says:

      …They were never heard from again.

      Some say that even to this day hushed voices echo down the corridors from the meeting room in the dark side of the hall. Sometimes new employees ask when the meeting room will be free, and the answer is always the same.

      Quoth the Receptionist: Nevermore.

  5. Syal says:

    Oof, it’s tough dealing with a head-in-the-clouds visionary type. They’ll come up with ideas faster than you can analyze them, and implement them before you can point out any problems. I inevitably fall back on really mundane stuff like making more coffee or correcting people’s spelling, to save my brain from whirling into mush.

    I say that, of course, to clunkily point out ” credit card into into something” and “conventions are are probably”.

    1. It’s ultimately a customer service problem (almost everything is). They view themselves as the customer, and the vast majority of people believe that if they’re paying for something, it’s your responsibility to deliver what they want. If you protest that what they want is insane, their knee-jerk reaction is almost always to get mad.

      The way to actually solve this situation is INCREDIBLY time-consuming and round-about, which is something that engineers and engineering types hate because they see it as a colossal waste of time. Business people also are often INCREDIBLY busy and don’t want to TAKE the time. That’s why they’re spending money, after all. If they wanted to “do it themselves” they’d just do it. I’m terrible at it myself even though I WORK in customer service, but I’m trying hard to get better.

      Basically, what you need to do is to explain what you CAN do in such a way that they can discover the problems in what they stated they wanted for themselves. It has to be a guided discussion.

      For instance, people often call me at work (I’m Amazon Customer Service) and say things like “can you just order this for me?!” or “can I give you my credit card information?!” and, instead of just telling them “no, you have to do it yourself” I try to explain “I work from home, I can answer questions and look things up for you but they really don’t want to give people like me that kind of access to your information and money.” People appreciate that, they’re like “oh, that makes sense!” And they feel virtuous about doing it themselves on the website because it means they’re being smart with their personal information. They trust me, they trust Amazon, they are motivated to struggle with the website until they have it down, because it’s not a demand that someone threw at them, it’s an opportunity.

      Of course, figuring out how to PHRASE a given response in this way when you have no chance to prepare and they’re sitting there WAITING for you to speak is really difficult. I get an idea of how to phrase SOME of this stuff because I deal with dozens of nearly-identical questions on a weekly basis.

      People are willing to change their minds if they understand that something is the best alternative. But they’re not going to REALIZE it if they see the limitations as something YOU are inflicting on a whim rather than constraints imposed by reality.

      If I had an infinite amount of time to construct a response to John Business, I’d probably come up with something like this:

      “Well, what about if their connection drops or they get called away . . . they’d have to start all over again from the entrance. They might not bother, if it takes too long.”

      1. MichaelG says:

        I’m not as sympathetic to the busy business types as you are. Frequently, you can’t even get them to sit down and use a competitor product. In Shamus’s case, the guy should at least have been familiar with an MMO or video game before doing this “design” in his head.

        They just won’t stray out of their comfort zone where they feel in control. Playing a game for the first time makes them feel stupid, and they hate that. Easier to blunder into a new company with all kinds of uninformed demands, and lose a pile of money!

        1. Trix2000 says:

          To be fair, they may not KNOW that they need to make that comparison.

          Which also to be fair, is something they should be open to hearing from someone with more knowledge and experience. It’s one thing to go into a deal like this, but if you bring in people to answer your questions and only expect them to play along with your dreams…. you’re going to either get nothing useful or a hard slap of reality down the line.

          The guy may not know about MMOs and how virtual worlds work, but he should be willing to hear out the people who do know about them and the limitations involved… and adapt accordingly. I means actually taking the trouble to learn something, and not assuming he knows everything from the get-go.

          Which if, of course, difficult for a lot of people sometimes… particularly with the types who would dive into a deal like this so readily. Personally I’d at least have done some more research or ask questions before signing anything – never know what roadblocks you might not be aware of.

          But then I’m not a businessman. :)

      2. FelBlood says:

        A better answer would have been, “Yeah, we can start them there the first time they log in, but if they log out and come back, they’ll probably want the server to remember what store they were in.”

        This is something John Business can understand, but it will also reveal to him just how little he understand about cyberspace. I know, this criticism is 17 years too late to be constructive.

      3. FelBlood says:

        Also, I really wish that the sort-of-but-not-really-competing web store I do support for* would let me say that.

        Alas, I actually do work in the bowels of a data secured environment, and I am totally able to process Debit or Credit card payments. If you want to take advantage of any promotional offers tied to Paypal, Visa Checkout or Masterpass, then I can walk you through doing it yourself.

        Add to this, that our marketing has generally been directed toward a demographic of grandmothers and persons on fixed incomes for most of the store’s existence, and you have a recipe for some of the most frustrating tech support calls.

        *Qualfon employees aren’t really supposed to disclose which of our client accounts they work on. On a random unrelated note, have you heard about I assume that you already have a burner email to sign up with, if that’s the sort of thing you’re concerned with.

        1. I’ve had calls where people have said “I can’t log in to my account. Here’s my password.”


  6. Kylroy says:

    Do you know if this guy even *had* a Jane Techie that he did trust anywhere in his company?

    1. Ninety-Three says:

      Judging by the fact that he was asking “Can you walk into the mall?”, if the guy employed a Jane Techie, he clearly never spoke with her.

      1. Syal says:

        I get the feeling they were investing in Shamus’ company as a means of hiring Jane Techies.

        1. FelBlood says:

          Truly the Dot Com bubble was the age when a company that consisted entirely of idea guys and yes men could summon up millions of dollars in investment capital, just by having a really good pitch video.

          It’s kind of scary that they could get so far before running into a person who had actually used a virtual world, and understood how people actually use them.

          1. Syal says:

            I’m assuming these guys got the money from a realspace mall they were already running. It sounds like they thought of the Internet as a way to build a new mall everywhere in the world at once, and didn’t think about other changes.

            I’m hesitating to call the other guys Yes men, they could well have been willing to shoot down ideas they could understand. They might have all been lawyers just there to make sure the paperwork was properly completed.

            1. For instance, they didn’t think about the fact that if your mall can be everywhere at once, you’re also now in direct and ferocious competition with *every other mall in the world*, instead of JUST that one rundown strip mall down by the interstate.

          2. Trix2000 says:

            Goes a long way towards explaining why the bubble ultimately collapsed, too. :)

            …Well, aside from the fact that it was a bubble.

  7. Fists says:

    “and I want the car to have a large arm with a cannon ball on the end attached to the roof that precesses about the car as it accelerates”

    “Uh, Sir?”

    “Silence Jenkins. Can you imagine the majesty? and sharks! With laser beams!”

    “But Sir”

    “See Jenkins, this is why I don’t invite engineers to brainstorming”

    1. Falterfire says:

      Nah. Supervillains no doubt have tons of engineers on staff. Because an engineer in a position like Shamus is describing where you’re supposed to be making a profit and designing something people will use is going to hedge and make safe decisions.

      But an engineer put into a position where you’re deliberately trying to do absurd things with the full realization that they’re absurd? Quite a few would be thrilled. Sharks with Laser Beams? Sure, let’s see what we can do. If there are two engineers in the room, it is probably a matter of seconds before they’re trading ideas back and forth about what power of laser they need and how heavy of a battery you can strap to a shark.

      1. Thomas Adamson says:

        Agreed. Fists seems to be describing the supervillain’s accountant. One who, if he’s not careful, is going to have another visit to the subterranean volcano-lair piranha tank.

      2. Ingvar says:

        Unless you go for a mechatronic shark, in which case it boils down to a problem of “available internal space” and “heat dissipation”. And you’re probably better off with mechatronic sharks than with live biological sharks. To start with, the latter really needs to be in water, so “strap to car” is right out. Secondly, they get really really messy, once you’re at motoway speed (please don’t ask how I know this). Thirdly, the heat from the laser interacts badly with their tissue (again, please don’t ask).

        The cannonball wassounds cool, though. We should totally try that and see what happens.

      3. Joe Informatico says:

        Back in the day, that was the point of corporate thinktanks, no? Set a couple dozen engineers loose in Bell Labs or Xerox PARC and just let them blue-sky a bit, then patent and sell anything useful they manage to produce. Or alternatively, not realize what you have and sell it to Steve Jobs for lunch money…

        1. MadTinkerer says:

          Or worse: miss one meeting with the IBM guys and they end up going with their second choice for outsourcing the operating system for their personal computers. You have the most popular OS for all other kinds of home computers, CP/M, but you missed one meeting and IBM is going with those other guys. You know: those guys who make software for street lights and beginner programmers. I think the one guy’s name was “Bill”.

  8. Echo Tango says:

    This’d have been much smoother if they’d hired your company at a small fee for fasibility consulting, before dropping millions on a new venture. Part of what differentiates good businessmen from great ones, is the ability to detect bubbles, and either steer clear, or home in on the core concepts that’ll make them rich. Part of that, I believe, is having some understanding of the tech side, even if they leave most of the details to other people in the business.

    1. Peter H Coffin says:

      It was a time when VC flowed like water down the Rhine and if you didn’t commit fast, someone else would beat you to market with your own idea. No matter how flawed theirs was, yours would forever be a copy of the other thing. A whole lot of stuff came out without any thought to ‘feasible’. And even more never saw the light of day because it wasn’t scaled right, had impractical amounts of glitz, or just wasn’t as interesting as the initial demo, and never got finished enough to release.

    2. FelBlood says:

      Part of bubbles is that they attract scads of people who merely appear to be competent businessmen.

  9. Da Mage says:

    This makes me cringe…..real bad….

    You seem to have run into one of those people that have a ton of money and therefore surround themselves with ‘Yes Men’ that never question or disagree with them. This builds a self-perpetuating loop, where if anyone ever questions their ideas, they are personally attacking them.

    You see it all the time in internet circles now, but I guess this is where those people were pre-internet.

    The worst part is that after their idea falls over you are to blame for not making it perfectly to their idea, because it couldn’t be their fault, they are perfect.

    1. Trix2000 says:

      To be fair, I think everyone has at least a bit of that – it’s difficult to have one’s own beliefs or knowledge questioned, regardless of correctness. Easy to want to defend the perception of our capability.

      That said, there is such a thing as going too far…

  10. Grudgeal says:

    Ooof, this post brings back some unpleasant memories of meetings I’ve had before. That’s the problem with project meetings when optimism and idealism is high, nobody wants to be the one who goes “errr, maybe this isn’t such a good idea?…” and nobody wants anyone else to be that one either.

    1. Peter H Coffin says:

      Which is why if you’re the nerd in these meetings, you sit on your hands until the end when they ask what the next steps are, and that’s when you pop up with “At first glance it all looks technically feasible, but we should consult with some subject-matter experts on our side and schedule a call to discuss the feedback we receive.” Then, the following week, you lay out all the misgivings as “feedback”, and present how to work around all the problems. That way, you’re a problem-solver rather than bad news.

      1. Alex says:

        Thanks for this advice. I was wondering what was the thing to do in such a situation.

      2. Ingvar says:

        I usually start those kinds of meetings with “this sounds relaly cool and exciting, but my job is to pick holes in everything you’re saying, so I might end up sounding a lot more negative than I actually am”.

        Then I am (secretly) just as negative as I sound, but they think I’m just doing the Advocatus Diabolicus thing, because that is what I’m being paid for.

    2. Ninety-Three says:

      It’s not just idealism that causes that acceptance. I’ve seen contractors who got told to build a terrible idea, but they’re getting paid for hours worked, so they happily go along with it rather than express any criticisms that might shorten the project.

      1. They don’t have to live in it, after all.

    3. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      I teach policy analysis and evaluation, and one of the modules is “How to Brief Elected Officials.” So, this, but government, not private sector.

      I’m going to use this…

      Sounds like you got ambushed. This was a meet-and-greet, explain the basic idea meeting, and then they asked you for analysis -an analysis you were in no way able to provide because you’d just been given the material. As I tell me students, never wing it. Even if you are pretty sure you know the answer, if you didn’t come prepared to say it, your response is “I do not know that answer, but let me take it back to my office, we’ll find the answer, and give it to you as soon as we can.”

      The VC guys might be dumb as a post, or they might be pretty smart -but either way, they clearly needed a tech briefing, which they had not asked you to prepare.

  11. Steve C says:

    What are the ages in the room? Your bosses, John Business, etc?

    1. Shamus says:

      I’m the only person under 30. My boss was probably 40-ish. John Business was probably 50.

      I don’t remember anyone else’s faces / ages.

      1. ThaneofFife says:

        I was only a teenager at the time in question, but this story is really resonating for me. Every time I heard someone on TV try to explain the internet in the late 90’s, they would either appear completely clueless, or say something egregiously and obviously wrong.

        I remember seeing one mid-90’s video of a guy explaining how magazines on the internet (still a new concept) would work. Basically, he argued that they would only show article titles and sub-heads, and that users who clicked would be directed to a paywall. What he failed to mention is that nearly everyone who saw the paywall would then leave the site without paying–completely obvious to a teenager. With the exceptions of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, I can’t think of any newspaper or magazine today that puts a blanket paywall over all its content. Most will at least give you some number of free articles per month.

        Even worse was a super bowl commercial starring (an obnoxious SNL weekend update alum whose name I can’t remember–Norm something, I think), where he basically just said “dot com” after every sentence. At the end he asked a woman at a bar, “Dot com here often?” It was just painful.

        We see similar things today with basic computer security issues. It’s like nails on a chalkboard listening to some politicians and business leaders try to talk about these issues.

  12. wswordsmen says:

    Sounds like you should have exercised your stock options the moment you left the room. You clearly were being asked to work on a project whose biggest features were things that would actively harm the product, and the person overseeing it didn’t even have the slightest clue about it.

    Of course you already know all of this and have thought about the signs you should have noticed a lot more than some rando like me listening to your story ever will.

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Aye right – sounds like he couldn’t, though. They’ll have been the kind that you can only exercise after a certain period of time, or until after a specified condition has been met, I guess..

      1. guy says:

        That happened to my dad during the bubble; stock options that didn’t vest until after the company went out of buisness.

        1. Matt Downie says:

          That sounds like a great bit of small-print. “These stock options cannot be used while the company is solvent.”

      2. venatus says:

        the company may have also put a freeze in place, since employee’s can be subject to non public info and it’s illegal to use non public info to make decisions about stocks a lot of big companies will just say “no buying and selling during this period” when they’re trying to plan something

        1. Taellosse says:

          I’m not a lawyer, but I think most insider trading laws in the US only apply to senior executives – usually the equivalent of SVPs, when the company has enough tiers of management to have different types of VP. Basically, people who know about corporate planning, not just individual products. Maybe that’s not how it should be, but I think that’s how it is.

          1. cloudforger says:

            Nah, it applies to anyone who has “material non-public information” in the US. I work at a large tech company, and all of the engineers on my team are subject to trading windows because we have access to information about upcoming product announcements as well as hardware purchase forecasting. Technically anyone who comes upon “non-public” information that could affect share prices can be charged with insider trading. If you’re interested, the wikipedia article on insider trading is pretty good, and matches up nicely with our annual legal training on the matter.

          2. Nentuaby says:

            Yeah, at a smaller place you might reasonably get away with only the execs paying attention. The amount of care and attention paid to insider trading avoidance scales directly with company size, though. At Amazon, the internal documentation portal actually has a feature where in order to see key pages, you have to tick a little box that says (paraphrased) “I understand that this page contains information our lawyers have identified as Material Non-Public Information and that the moment I look at it I will be subject to trading windows.” I was subject for about half my time there; basically any time I was working on an unreleased project.

    2. Ingvar says:

      Those kinds of options usually come with a 1- to 5-year “vesting period”, in which you can’t sell them. I guess the lower end of the spectrum is more common, and I’ve seen option packets with “bunch of 1-year, some 2-year, and a few 5-year”.

      1. Adeon says:

        The most common I’ve seen is a 4-year gradual vest. So you get 25% of them after one year and then the rest are divided evenly to vest monthly for the next three years.

    3. Matt Downie says:

      Wouldn’t that have constituted illegal insider trading?

      1. wswordsmen says:

        No, his information would be the same as any other investor who received the pitch he got in the video. The fact he was an engineer on the project and knew it wouldn’t work isn’t because of the work he did (he hasn’t done any yet), but because he knows the projects premise is inherently flawed.

        The only difference between him and any other person who understood the problems was he was in a position to walk away and still make bank, assuming a few other things that the post implies are true but could well be false.

      2. Lachlan the Mad says:

        Practically nobody knows what insider trading looks like. If you work for a company and buy stock for your company, or are given a share package, then doing pretty much anything with those shares could be considered “insider trading” depending on how much information you’re acting on. It’s very weird and not something that has much of an equivalent within other fields of life. Like, if you’re a member of a sports team, putting any bet at all on your own team is considered cheating (even if you bet on your team to win!), but stock options are basically doing that all the time.

        1. Shoeboxjeddy says:

          The sports analogy is a good example actually. A member of the company is in too good of a position to make the “bet” that share purchases are meant to represent. Allowing an insider to train freely can let them 1) make a lot of money off of rubes (uninformed investors) who couldn’t know any better, 2) stop them from acting in the public’s best interest (let’s hide bad news so the stock will stay high up!), or 3) stop them from acting in the company’s best interest (let’s sell some of our assets off to post a great result this year… I’ll cash out at that point and not care about any subsequent years).

  13. Jack V says:

    FWIW, the way I hear it, no-one wants to get into an extended argument in the middle of surgery but there *was* a general cultural shift when people realised nurses were discouraged from questioning doctors, and you got deaths when other people present said “I thought something might be wrong but I assumed the doctor knew what they were doing”. And they made an effort to shift the culture so that was acceptable, although unsurprisingly many doctors argued about it. I don’t know if that extends to orderlies, although hopefully it would if there was something important.

    And I know all the reasons people don’t want to listen to someone saying “this whole idea is stupid”, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s good to do so at least sometimes…

    1. Veylon says:

      The same thing happened with civil aircraft. It used to be that the co-pilot would just do whatever the pilot said, but now they’re encouraged to work as a team.

    2. King Marth says:

      Similarly, checklists solve a surprisingly large number of issues with such high-skilled fields as surgery and airplane flying. It turns out that very smart people still make stupid mistakes when their tasks are hideously complex, the smart people in question are chronically overworked, and any individual failure no matter how simplistic (confirm patient’s name, including middle name!) can be catastrophic. It feels insulting to have your basic competency questioned like this, but even if these checklists changed nothing 99% of the time, that remaining 1% is by far worth it. Similarly, if you take any kind of medication, use a daily-pill-box or some other clear marker, as if it prevents you from forgetting and missing/double-dosing for one day out of the year (when you’re terribly sick and go to bed in the mid-afternoon and wake up sporadically, losing all sense of time) then that can be worth it.

      Of course, with all of these things you have the tradeoff between safety and money. Regular software folks don’t build code to NASA standards because everyone will just blame Microsoft or hardware specs when your programs run slow or crash, and you need to release before the holidays or the company will go under. The design meetings and pages of specifications per line of code are prohibitive for anything less dangerous than space travel, which is almost all things.

    3. Richard says:

      For example, Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509.

      It took off, banked left all the way to 90deg and dropped straight into the ground.

      The full AAIB report is here, for the interested:

      Report on the accident to Boeing 747-2B5F, HL-7451, near Great Hallingbury on 22 December 1999

      Korean Air had a longstanding hostile cockpit environment, resulting in copilots and other staff and engineers being unwilling to question their superiors, or even work together.

      This is generally believed to be the accident which finally pushed that airline into realising the problem and starting a huge retraining effort.

  14. acemarke says:

    I’m guessing that most people who visit Twenty Sided have seen this video before, but it’s too relevant to not paste into a comment. The legendary “The Expert” video, aka “Draw 7 red lines, all perpendicular, some with green ink and some transparent”: .

    1. Steve C says:

      Yeah I was thinking about the exact same video when reading Shamus’s story. Everyone should watch that video.

      1. ZzzzSleep says:

        I was also going to post the video if nobody else did… :-)

  15. Jabrwock says:

    I still have meetings that go like this, with the same kind of tech-unsavvy people. Only it’s museums trying this new fan-fangled “interactive exhibit” concept.

    The idea of a virtual museum trips over many of the same problems. Technology is there to enhance the experience, not rewrite it.

  16. guy says:

    Man, I worked with a venture capitalist on my college senior project, but I got really lucky and ended up with one who listened to everything the technical people said.

  17. Cuthalion says:

    Oh, man. This is part of why I haven’t tried to get promoted — I prefer my boss to be the one to go to meetings with execs. Then, when my boss asks me afterward how hard it would be to do X, I can be open about concerns, and it’s up to them to set expectations in follow-up meetings.

    1. morpork says:

      I wish I were so lucky. My boss is one of Them. The only expectation they set is who to assign blame when things go south.

  18. Daemian Lucifer says:

    In 1999, when someone said “virtual reality” they weren't talking about the VR headsets we're using these days. At the time, “Virtual Reality” was a catch-all term for anything made of visible polygons.

    So you are saying that the 80s had a closer depiction of actual vr than the 90s?Fascinating.

  19. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ok,you(and other people here) believe that the problem was that this guy was just a business guy.But thats not really the case.The problem was that he was the boss.And if you think that things wouldve been different if he were knowledgeable of the technology,I have two words for you:
    Peter Molyneux

    Tell me that the whole “people starting outside to look at this mall in all its glory” doesnt remind you of “instead of an inventory menu we will have this huge pocket dimension where the players can walk around and take their various armors from closets and dress themselves”.

    1. Ninety-Three says:

      At that point I’m just finishing up, getting the last of the assets done. And he pointed at the screen at a massive press thing and said, this is probably about 30 per cent of how good it looks because the art is not done yet. And I was like, the art is totally done. Why are you saying that? He was just like, aye, you know John, come on, you’ve got to sell these things.

      Molyneux wasn’t caught up in the majesty of his cool product, he was deliberately lying because he knew he could sell things by saying what people wanted to hear. I’m pretty sure 1999 shoppers didn’t want to hear about walking.

      1. MadTinkerer says:

        Peter Molyneux never lies. Lying means he’s aware that he’s not saying the truth. He 100% sincerely believes his own fantasies.

        I’m not saying it’s okay. I’m not saying he shouldn’t stop running companies into the ground with ever escalating flights of fancy. I’m just saying I’m pretty sure, at least before GODUS came out, that he was always telling the truth about his wonderful video game dreams.

        I know it’s hard to believe that someone with that much industry experience would have less and less idea of what can be done on time and on budget, but he really does seem to be the world’s best pitch man and the world’s worst strategist at the same time. I just wish he learned his lesson before he destroyed his reputation.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          No,he definitely lies.He flat out admitted to making shit up for the press.

        2. Lachlan the Mad says:

          I believe that the way it worked wasn’t exactly a matter of truth or lies. It was more a case of Molyneux believing that he could announce any feature, at any time, and his programmers would make it work. Here are a couple of the nightmare stories I’ve heard while researching my almost-complete Fable LP on the forums (shameless plug, shameless plug):

          – One of the famous “features” of Fable I which Molyneux promised was that you could knock down an acorn and it would gradually grow into an oak tree as the game progressed. He reportedly completely made this up on stage, and the Lionhead devs spent quite a long time trying to make it work, but they ultimately couldn’t deliver on the feature.

          – At one point fairly late in the development of Fable II, he marched into a staff meeting with tears in his eyes, and demanded that there would be a dog in the game, and that dog would die at the end. His own dog had died recently and he wanted to replicate that emotional experience in the game. So the developers crowbarred a dog into the game, which works quite well in terms of gameplay systems but is almost totally superfluous in terms of plot (among other things, your dog seems to remain exactly the same age throughout the twenty years that the game takes place over).

          – In Fable III, again fairly late in development, he went to one of his gameplay designers and told him he’d invented an XP system for the game (prior to this point, the game had no XP system at all), and that if that one programmer could get it working, Molyneux would buy him a ticket to E3. Once again, this system technically worked, but the game was appallingly balanced, and the skill tree (which was an in-game area that you physically walked through to buy upgrades) was very badly-designed and really chewed up the engine.

      2. Daemian Lucifer says:

        The reasoning behind it is irrelevant.The boss wants some crazy shit,no one is brave enough to tell the boss that they are wrong,or if someone does so they are shut down by the rest of the team(or the boss),and the crazy shit gets implemented despite being obviously crazy.Whether the boss had good intentions or not when they came up with the crazy shit doesnt matter at all.

  20. Most people who are older (fifty and up now) don’t want to get technology and know how it works when running a virtual business. I can only imagine what this was like in 1999.

    Plus most virtual sites run disastrously and like a bad porno, or a b flick. Once again, I can only imagine virtual sites for shopping.

    Here’s to hoping it goes alright at least.

  21. Rodyle says:

    I have a friend working for a large online retailer. He told me they have a “pitch day” once a year, where everyone can come up with a proposal for a new bit of functionality or a new business direction and present it to the company. Some of the stuff sounds eerily similar to this: stuff thought it by people who probably had the best in mind, but lack so much technical knowledge that it’s quite surprising they even managed to get their computer to show a powerpoint presentation.

    I thought that the best one he told me was the following: allow B&M shops to get in on the online experience, by making a 3d-scan of their shops, which the user can then visit on a website, mouse over items and get a link to the item in the webshop.

  22. RCN says:

    This is one of the main problems of Venture Capitalism.

    The businessmen will ALWAYS assume their employees or partners or associates are lazy jack-offs who will do anything to weasel out of work and giving him the profit he is owed. This is the main problem faced IT and general maintenance everywhere: it is a job that is not directly related to the main objective of making dough, but it is so crucial for the whole venture to be able to make dough at all that their neglect will spell the downfall of any business. And still, whenever an engineer tell a businessman something is impossible or stupid, he will assume the guy is the enemy and find someone who will have it done… in the most idiotic, incompetent and harmful way possible, but it is done nonetheless. Then, when something like the multiple Sony hacks happen, the suits will storm down like a fury on top of the guy who said the easy way was the stupid way.

    Current corporate culture is like a legion of generals who think that all you need to do war is having enough people on the battlefield, with little regard of how to get them there, how to arm them, how to feed them, how to train them into actual soldiers instead of just “people”, how to even give orders to whoever is not within earshot. And that is the BASICS of warfare and the whole system is rigged that these generals never engage in actual combat and compare their success solely by how many “people” they have under them.

    1. RCN says:

      Oh, and in the General analogy I did, the thing that is ignored the most is probably troop morale. Generals only win wars on the backs of troops who actually want to fight. But corporate culture right now is one that assumes every single soldier is positively elated just to have the chance to be in the frontline, by feeding them the idea that everyone who isn’t fighting is going to die.

      1. Lachlan the Mad says:

        To be fair, your description of how a general sees warfare sounds almost exactly like how the generals on both sides treated their strategy throughout most of World War 1. Particularly the Blackadder version.

  23. RichardW says:

    Reading the description of the virtual mall made me think back to PlayStation Home of all things, which actually did kinda do this. A shared hub world where players could walk to virtual stores to buy clothes for their avatars and the equivalent of storefronts for games like Warhawk and Resistance that you’d have to walk to.

    I think the idea was you’d meet up with your buddies and start a match from in there, essentially making PlayStation Home a super inefficient version of the Xross Media Bar. But the functionality to start games from within Home itself was either never added (at least I never managed to find it in my roughly annual visits to Home) or that was put in years after launch, when nearly everyone had given up on PlayStation Home being anything other than a really crappy place to watch Sony’s E3 livestreams.

    Personally the thing just ran so poorly that I rarely used it. Guess not many other people did either, since Home was unceremoniously discontinued years ago.

    1. Shoeboxjeddy says:

      Home was a pretty excellent case study for how Second Life type worlds should NOT work. For example, to pass time in the game, you can bowl. But they deliberately made a limited number of bowling lanes. So that you could experience the real life fun of… waiting for a lane to open on a crowded bowling alley.

  24. Aitch says:

    I wish there was a way to show off the actual pitch video. Trying to imagine what they had in mind, I couldn’t help but think of this :

    Mall Quest, as played and narrated by FrankJavCee

    I’m filled with a hundred questions, but I’ll just have to wait in anticipation of the next part. Being blindsided by an absurd idea is bad enough, let alone one with millions of dollars behind it.

    I’d like to think I’d be making a list of all the requests and nodding with vague reassurances, then be in my boss’s office the very minute after to try and figure out what’s even going on – whether to try and convince him what a terrible idea it is, or just to cash out and run, but then I see the way most people react to these kinds of ideas. As long as there’s an ungodly sum of money behind it, they’ll be off praising ideas like Elon Musk saying we can go to Mars and live there no problem, it’ll be beautiful and perfect and FUTURE…

    Oh and by the way, that waiver you just signed in the small print explained that 3 years outside the Earth’s magnetosphere and you’re looking at around 10% brain death from high energy radiation alone, and you’ll be at best scraping by eating paste in a bunker hundreds of feet underground, and that’s once we figure out how to either send heavy mining machinery or build an entire infrastructure somehow to construct that kind of machinery, but… FUTURE~!!! GENIUS~!!! That Elon is so clever…

    1. 4th Dimension says:

      Well to be fair to Elon he is in the rocket building business not colonisation. From what I understand his pitch basically boiled down to saying that they should be able to bild such big/powerful and reusable rocket that could carry X tons of cargo to Mars and back. As for what to do once there he did not comment much because again he is a rocket guy not a colonization guy, in fact I remember hearing that that is his official stanpoint. He wants to make this kind of payload carrying capability available, but what it will be used for he does not know. But it’s not like it’s going to be wasted.

  25. MadTinkerer says:

    You know what’s even more fun? Being the guy to try to explain the flaws in a fellow student’s plan when you’re trying to implement a GDD in a Game Design class.

    By definition, your classmate will be 100% ignorant of the flaws in the plan. If you have no experience, you will be blissfully unaware of the flaws and won’t argue. You might think everything is a great idea. If you have a little experience, you have some idea of what is a really terrible idea, but your caution will be undermined by classmates who don’t understand why the ideas are terrible, and suspicious of you for not thinking their awesome idea is awesome. If you have a lot of experience, you will know to avoid the class like the plague, and not take it in the first place.

    Essentially, the more experience you have going into a GD class, the more you will be punished for trying to help. You will be told you are lazy for not wanting to implement awesome ideas. Since you are so experienced, it should be easy for you! Someone might even tell you with a straight face that absolutely everything in the GDD that didn’t get implemented in the final product is your fault because you didn’t want to put the effort in. Because even though they’ve been told about the concept of cutting features, it’s still an idea to them and they don’t yet realize it’s actually a real thing they have to do in real life.

    What I’m saying is: Game Design classes are cancer. Take a class where you work on your own project, or with just one partner, and don’t ever take a class where you are forced to work on a “team” of more than three people who have never worked together before. By definition, students do not know how to do their jobs yet. Take a class where they train you to do a job, instead of expecting you to start produce something before you have started to learn how to produce it.

    Better yet: just quit college and take online programming courses. No, really. It’s better to go get some terrible low-paying job which is just enough for an apartment, and take online programming classes part-time, than try to get a full-time Game Design degree. That’s what I did.

    And now I ranted about that terrible class again. I’d stop ranting if idiots would just stop having Game Design classes.

  26. Zak McKracken says:

    Just one more theory about John Business:

    Not only did he not have Jane programmer with him, but he had a number of his underlings in the room. He needs those people to respect him, and if his ideas are shown to be bad by some engineering guy in a meeting, that makes him look really bad.

    I’ve been in situations where Joe Boss was clearly wrong (in a field where he shouldn’t have been but he misremembered some details and drew the wrong conclusion), somebody pointed doubts about their position, and then Joe would very quickly change the subject.
    By the next meeting, he had naturally assumed a new position and acted as if he had never had a different view. That sort of switch happens much quicker in 1-on-1 conversations, but it’s never announced. It took me some time to realize that he’s got the view that as a leader he always needs to be confident and can never show doubt about his own position — which he would have to if he acknowledged his errors. So he corrects them silently, and the rest of us more or less learned to deal with it: If other people are in the room, only mention a small detail, no more. Later, bring the matter up in private and introduce some more counter arguments. It helps to act as if you just discovered them yourself. By the next meeting, the course will have been corrected. It certainly took me a few years to work that out, and I don’t claim to be particularly good at this.

    This sort of person can be awkward to work with, but then I pride myself of accepting and publicly acknowledging errors that I make and doubts which I have, and I don’t think I’ll ever be much in of a leadership role because that’s not the kind character somebody goes to for advice or direction.

    The next instalment in the series will no doubt prove me wrong but I wonder what would have happened if Shamus had presented those doubts between meetings, less formally, a day or two after starting on the task, without potentially embarrassing witnesses, maybe phrased as a question of how long it should take someone to get through the huge portal.

    1. “he had a number of his underlings in the room. He needs those people to respect him, and if his ideas are shown to be bad by some engineering guy in a meeting, that makes him look really bad”

      Then he’s a moron. If I was that boss I’d listen. I’d use all the information I was given and make a informed decision based on that.

      A boss should be able to ask how long something takes, how much it would cost. Are there other ways to do something? Give me three alternative scenarios.

      If my underlings know they can trust me and come to me with their ideas and opinions and have me listen to them seriously then that can only make the company stronger, bigger and more profitable and outlive the competition.

      I’m always a fan of meetings where everyone throw their ideas on the table, then cherrypick the best one or a combination of ideas.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        oh, sure!

        But if you turn up to some meeting and the first thing that new guy says is how your ideas are bad, before he even has the full info on what it’s all about, you don’t tell him he’s right.
        … well, actually, I might but most other people in management positions will know to avoid that sort of situation. Granted, smart people will try to avoid it by having most of the critical stuff checked by someone who knows their stuff beforehand. But even then, it happens eventually, but if you’re upper management, you did not become upper management by discussing your failings with your underlings, so you won’t start now.

        I picked up a nice line from some economics researcher who interviewed gang members and leaders. Gang leader on why he never reduces his own take even if “business” is slow: “I can’t look weak ‘n’ shit”. (dang I wish I knew where that video is…). This seems to be a theme that goes through most leadership roles. That boss guy was trying to not look weak ‘n’ shit because that would have endangered his role. If people start doubting your directions, they might stop following and then you can’t control where the whole thing is drifting to, and that was your job.

        … just to clarify: I too think that owning your mistakes is another way of earning respect but this is an observation I’ve made throughout my career so far, with most people in management posts. The good ones are seldom wrong, the bad ones more often, but all step over mistakes as if they never existed.

  27. Shamus, holy shit that image with the guy walking the shortcut.
    That tend to drive me nuts when I see people do that. I’m like “Really? You walk offroad to save 2-3 seconds? Good luck in the winter dude or when it’s raining, those shoes will look awesome.”

    Designwise though, a architech or landscaper should have seen it though.
    It’s also not difficult to change that to a proper path. The “middle” could keep it’s tree, or alternatively put a statue or some info display (if it’s outside a mall) there.

    I see many such shortcuts that people take which are not really shortcuts. But as long as people believe they are they use them (they convinced themselves they are right).

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      I think there’s a kind of school of thinking on architecture which suggests not making paths but letting people choose theirs, then create paths wherever most people chose to walk across the lawn. Seems to me the most elegant thing to do.

      But then, there will always be 90° corners which people want to cut, and if you pave every connection between all relevant points on a yard, you could just pave the whole damn thing.

  28. I would have voiced my opinion (been honest), after all as a employee my interest is in the company doing well.

    Now if the suits ignore what I say or choose things to the contrary, then fine. I’ll do my job. But I’m not going to be silent (which would be the same as passively sabotaging the company).

    And if I get fired for trying to make the company better, then screw that company. And if another company wonders why I got fired I can point to a news article and say “See that? They ignored my suggestions and idea. I told then that could happen if they continued!”
    And if the new company would not want to hire me for being honest then screw them too as the suits in that company must be morons as well.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      There’s a very fine line between offering helpful criticism and being an annoying person.

      I knew a guy who prided himself of being honest and never just telling people nice things because they wanted to hear them. Much of the time he was just venting his displeasure about something he understood only one half of. He was never quite wrong but it was extremely hard and frustrating to extract the valid concerns from his ramblings. At some point most people just decided it was better not to bother.

      I think half the time when somebody does not listen to justified concerns, it’s simply because it was not presented in a digestible way. And that happens extremely quickly if the perspectives are sufficiently different. I always try to remember that the aspects I am criticising about something are just what I can see, and for other people there are other sides to the same story which may have more weight and of whom I am completely unaware. That very much helps me to avoid stating absolutes when maybe it’s actually just me missing the point. And it helps to get your point across, or start a conversation without starting a war, and so at least I can learn something.

  29. GTB says:

    I’m really hoping this eventually involves VRML.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      Yeah! TrueSpace could export to VRML! That was going to be so cool!

      They even had a multi-user VRML modelling environment to work on TrueSpace scenes. Soo cool!

      (and then it crashed)

  30. Joshua says:

    I’ve been on the other side of things, being brought into meetings for sales pitches of computer software that’s going to be designed to replace an existing program with new bells and whistles. It’s awkward when you ask about a feature and the engineers act like it’s not possible or shouldn’t be needed, when we’re the ones who will be using it for our own purposes and we know exactly what we’ll be needing. In that case, I don’t think it’s the engineers being lazy, just them not wanting to spend man-hours (and thus money) for a specific client because they’re trying to make this as portable as possible to different clients.

    The biggest issue I remember is when we were looking at a production allocation software program (I work in Oil and Gas) and we discovered 90% through the meeting that their program had no mechanism to “lock” a prior period once you were done with it. The engineer tried arguing with me that they believed that any process that gave any hassle to the operator (people in the fields) would just result in those operators refusing to use the program. So, it was considered preferable that Joe Operator could be attempting to enter in a day’s production or inventory level for a well and accidentally recording it as November 25th, 2006 instead of November 25, 2016. That’s like going to make a payment on a bill online and the website allowing you to accidentally set the payment date at any time in the past because they didn’t want to “hassle” you by telling you that’s not allowed.

    Their suggestion was that instead of having the ability to implement “locks” on periods once we were through with them, we just needed to run a *manual* process each day to check for any changes to a month once we were done with it. So, five years down the road, we would have to manually check each month since that time against the original records to see if there were edits made….for every single well we had (over 800).

    So, I have been on the other side where the obtuse engineers think it’s perfectly acceptable that the customer should have to drive a square peg (the software product) through a round hole.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      Yeah, I bet past experience with software engineers may well have played a role in that reaction… one more good reason to argue carefully.

      Then again, I bet many of those software engineers try to say no reflexively to feature requests because they’ve also had their fair share of requests for stuff that was a pain to implement and never got used anyway.

      (by the way: Who on earth designs the type of software that HR departments use to let employees record working hours, holidays and such stuff? I’ve seen a couple of those in different places, and they all look as if somebody just wrote a script to turn a bunch of database fields into a browser-based input mask. You put all numbers into lots of fields with crazy names, then check the “ready” checkbox, and click “save”, and then everything vanishes, and you can never see it again. Yes, it’s apparently supposed to work like that…)

      1. Richard says:

        UI design is hard. Really hard. Really stonkingly difficult.

        Which is another way of saying that it’s expensive and time consuming to get mostly right, and cannot ever reach “perfection”.

        To make it worse, the UI is the most visible part of any product, and thus the one most likely to have an executive stamp placed on it – for good or for ill.

        On top of that, in most cases the actual end users don’t decide what to buy. Business software is almost always purchased based on whether or not it meets a feature set and price, often with no demonstrations of the actual software at all.

        Thus it’s really common for back-office business software (especially CRM and HR) to be completely impenetrable and cost a fortune to run (in terms of wasted employee hours) – the software met the required feature set.

        1. Bloodsquirrel says:

          Yeah, I remember in college they taught us about how to separate your UI and your model, and treat the UI as something to be tacked on later.

          I’ve actually learned since that you should always start your design with the UI, because in reality it’s going to drive how your users use your program and what is actually possible with it. Otherwise, you can wind up writing a ton of neat-sounding complicated capabilities into the system, only to realize how obtuse actually using any of it would be with any reasonable interface.

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