Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Dead wood

This is mostly just a long vent. The project is almost over and I solemnly swear never to let something like this happen again.
I work in a small IT department, in the R&D group, and am relatively new there. I was assigned a project last spring -- to convert a static HTML site to XML and develop a content management system (with mod_perl) for the remote author of the site.
The site consists of over 300 hundred pages. It has been maintained for 5 years by the "technical projects specialist." This TPS (who I will refer to as "Betsy") works in the help desk/support group and has been at the organization for 15 years. She was originally hired as a receptionist and was promoted through some bizarre "all humans are created equal" philosophy, I guess. Her job consisted of receiving new web pages for the site and linking them up. The remote author
created the pages in some HTML editor and all she had to do was import them into some other program, which then incorporated them into the rest of the site. I'm not exactly sure how all this worked, but I've been told it takes about 20 minutes for each new web page (and about 2 or 3 pages are received each week).
This was her full-time job, and it took at most 2 hours per week!!
Yet, amazingly enough, she was having a hard time with it. So my manager came to the rescue and decided to have me automate her job, so the author could update the content himself through a web application.
The first thing I did was write a Perl script to convert the HTML to XML. Since the HTML was not consistent we decided to just do a rough job with the Perl script and have a human being complete the task. My manager decided this would be done by Betsy, and Betsy said sure.
I developed a content management web application so someone can paste text from the web pages into forms. The application would create and validate the XML files, move them into the correct locations, etc. This would ultimately be used by the remote author, but in the meantime Betsy would use it. She would report all bugs to me and I would fix them. That was the plan anyway.
What none of us had accounted for was the fact that Betsy has worked 2 hours per week for years. For 38 hours every week she socializes, makes personal phone calls and writes e-mail.
As we waited for her to get something done, my manager (a very excitable person) became increasingly impatient and irritated and was taking it out on me. Betsy's manager is in complete denial about the situation and would not do anything to help us. Besides, she hates my manager because he's so impatient and irritable (with good reason, in this case).
Eventually I offered to help. First my manager said no that would be a waste of my time, but finally he said ok. I expected I would do half and Betsy would do half. 2 or 3 months later I had done about 300 of the pages and Betsy had done 4. Instead of spending my time fixing and improving the programs, I spent it on mind-numbing repetitive work. Ok, just because I'm smart and Betsy is dumb doesn't mean she should be stuck with all the boring work. But at least she could have done half.
Betsy is not the only piece of dead wood in this organization. Anyway that's not my problem -- if they want to waste money I can't stop them. But I never ever ever want to get stuck like that again.
In an effort to seem nice and cooperative, trying to make a good impression during my first year, I wound up seeming like a very slow programmer because the project took so long. I also wasted 2 or 3 months of my life.
Although I have 7 years of experience there is so much I still have to learn, and being in an R&D group seemed like a great opportunity for self-improvement. Well it has been, except for this.
I'm at the end of my rope right now. I'm afraid I'll quit impulsively and that would be too bad since the job has so much potential (not to mention the difficulty of finding a new job). My boss takes out his irritation on me, even though he knows none of this is my fault. People hear it and assume it's because I'm dumb or slow, and my ego is hurting.
Why did this happen to me?

Why Me
Saturday, October 26, 2002

> I had done about 300 of the pages and Betsy had done 4.
> Ok, just because I'm smart and Betsy is dumb

I think you got that last part backwards, son.  You're the fool.  I think it's very clear what you have to do.

Bella
Saturday, October 26, 2002


Computers are good at mind-numbing tasks. Instead of spending three months manually fixing the flawed XML output of your program, you should fix the program. Then there would be no need for Betsey (or you) to manually edit the output. And then there would be no need for Betsey.

Zwarm Monkey
Saturday, October 26, 2002

couldn't you go on a date with Betsy and get her to cooperate and get lucky at the end of the night?

+person
Saturday, October 26, 2002

You can't win here.  If they didn't want to keep "Betsy" for some reason, she'd be long gone.

The experience reflects poorly on them, not you.  If you had stayed there for 15 years, it would reflect poorly on you as well.  You can't perform CPR on a vegetable.  Save the heroics for a company that can benefit from them.

Also, it's not all about the bottom line.  A very profitable company can be dumb as bricks, due to repeated good luck or a single good decision in the ancient past.  Likewise, a struggling company can brilliant.  Some business models just were not meant to fly.

Bill Carlson
Saturday, October 26, 2002

Two Words:  Bone Dance

Brad Siemens
Saturday, October 26, 2002

Sounds like you or your management underestimated the risk of linking non-technical people & technology. Sadly, a large percentage of the bell curve should never be put in front of a computer without extensive training.

There's a story like this in every company with more than a few hundred employees. In fact, I'd wager that EVERY company with more than 1000 employees has a version of this in every department, every year.

Maybe the next generation of people & technology will be better suited for one another...

K Seurat
Saturday, October 26, 2002


Been there, done that. In my case, I designed a quite nice dotcommie B2B portal based on XML and XSLT. The company has an existing design team. The original idea was let to them the presentational part; ie, they should create the XSLT files and we should only worry for the functional part. Back end and front end, if you like.

Guess what? A good portion of time was spent removing Dreamweaver's brain dead HTML tags, and converting HTML mockups to XSLT, because the designers didn't bother to learn XSLT. But we didn't waste too much time on that, because we were smart and used good text editors with regular expressions support and things like that.

Leonardo Herrera
Saturday, October 26, 2002


"mind-numbing repetitive work"

That's what computers are for.  Who's the dumb one again?

If you're in the "R&D" group, you should be smart enough to figure this one out.

P.S., It sounds like Betty knows how to work the system.  You could learn a lot from her.

son of Betty.
Saturday, October 26, 2002

You've been too helpful, and too compliant.

Step back assume responsibility for YOUR responsibilities.

Long time contractor
Saturday, October 26, 2002

Betsy got you good! Ha ha! (Sucker!)

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend you document your experience in a post-mortem memo to be distributed to key players. Warning: do not name Betsy by name, but do include the % of pages you yourself manually edited. In fact, the memo needs to be rather delicately phrased so as not to directly implicate Betsy. She's not to blame anyway -- since she was working for you, she should have been transferred to you during this assignment. You are being asked to shoulder the blame for her ineptitude, but you never had the authority to tell her what to do. In the memo, you might mention this in the context that the employee had other responsibilities she was apparently doing for her boss (no need to mention that these were personal phone calls and chat rooms) and was therefore unable to find the time to assist with the conversion tasks. You recommend that the next time that an assistent be transferred to you directly. The reason to do this is that you then don't have to worry if they don't listen to you. You tell them their assignments and if they don't do even one of them, you write them up with a formal warning. After three formal warnings, you fire them or transfer them to someone else and request someone who is not a slacker. You also set up monitoring programs on their computer and keep track of all the time they spend surfing, emailing, etc. ANd you require them to keep a time sheet showing exactly what they did each day. And when they blame you because you haven't trained them and the work is too difficult, you send in a request to outsource the dataconversion tasks to a head shop in India since the American workers do not have the sufficient training for basic data-entry tasks. But you do need this authority as a supervisor before you start work. If you are not given this authority, you need to show in the estimate how much more it will cost them in real money to have you, making $80/hr do this than to have Betsy making $45/hr do it.

Be careful in the current situation criticizing Betsy directly until you know who she slept with 10 years ago. And I assure you she did. I have seen plenty of Betsies and I know how they operate and how they stay in business.

Ed the Millwright
Saturday, October 26, 2002

OK, check this out...

We're going to fire our own version of Betsy, on Tuesday.  I've been bitching & whining at my boss since June to fire the dead wood.  The problem is Betsy, but also her organizaion for tolerating her.  I'm pleased that we've fired the middle management that hired her, and those like her, over the last year.  Now there are just a few small hangers-on left - and its broom work from here.

She spends most of the day playing board member for an animal shelter on her cell phone, though we pay her to be a tester.  She was hired over all objections by her boss, a former Anderson employee, who was fired last month.  She completely failed all the interview questions, yet she was hired.  No, its not what you think, she's as ugly as a bull dog. 

I think that guy just hired morons because they are easy to control.  I'm amazed at how often this is the real motivation for hiring incompetents.  When Betsy and a few others are swept out the door, it will be the end of a 2 year long struggle for heart, soul and financial solvency of our company.  And we won. 

The most important part of the equation was that we didn't get distracted by it all - we kept on delivering product.  We would not have won, nor would it matter if we can not/could not deliver.

name withheld until wednesday...
Sunday, October 27, 2002

Actually, what you should do is go see everyone involved and tell them you need to make the system better. Because, to be honest, that's what you need to do. Be honest. People like that. Tell your manager, tell Betsy, tell Betsy's manager.

Spend four weeks learning more about parsing so the system's a no-brainer. Betsy tried to help by agreeing to something she wasn't confident with.

x
Sunday, October 27, 2002

Wow. You're in a minefield. As others have pointed out, Miss B has things worked out and you don't. She's probably already pointing out to all the management all the errors on YOUR pages. HERS don't have any. (She only did four, but who's asking.)

Your best bet is probably to find/invent some emergency you have to devote the next 12 months too (i.e some coding problem ) and then be too busy to do anything on the other problem.

x
Sunday, October 27, 2002

The reason Betsy got hired in the first place is due to the old saying "A's hire A's, B's hire C's". Betsy is a C.

Long time contractor
Sunday, October 27, 2002

A close friend of mine has such dead wood around.
The thing is that she has got a s3x affair with one the managers and knows about some dirty things about people around there. And they are afraid to fire the disfunctional organ. But then the whole body is sick.
This is just insane, but real.

Phil
Sunday, October 27, 2002

What did you do wrong?

First, as a few people have already pointed out, never do repetitive text-processing tasks by hand when a computer's available.  That's what scripting is for.  I design hardware, and even I know that.

Second, don't volunteer for low-productivity tasks.  In the course of a normal career, you'll have enough of these forced on you to satisfy the latent masochistic tendencies of most people; no need to add to the misery.

And don't compound your difficulties by beating yourself up over these mistakes.  Most of us have made similar ones.

But what should you do now?  Go to your manager and tell him that it's clear this project wasn't a success, and that he's thoroughly pissed off at you, and you want to find out why.  Sit down with him and do a project post-mortem.  Try to be as dispassionate as possible with what happened, and, above all, don't go off on one of your Betsy-is-dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks rants.  Stick to the she-did-this, didn't-do-that facts, as if you were reviewing a faulty design.

If your manager has an ounce of rationality beneath the bluster, this may help mitigate his anger over the project.  And you may actually learn something from him.  The one thing it almost certainly won't do is get Betsy fired, so don't go into this counting on it.

If your boss can't be convinced to do something like this, or gives you an "Even an idiot like you ought to know what went wrong" response, it's time to polish up the resume.  I can work for hotheads, but not for someone lacking a solid rational center. 

Hardware Guy
Sunday, October 27, 2002

Could you have just given Betsy Citydesk?

Ged Byrne
Sunday, October 27, 2002

Have you looked at the app - tidy?
It does html to xml like a champ.  All sorts of useful encoding as well.

Pundit Du Jour
Monday, October 28, 2002


Just a thought:  If you're early in your career, you can probably afford to stay at ONE place a short time.

You can explain to the new employer that it wasn't what you expected, things didn't work out, etc, etc.

Employers that see a pattern in your job jumps will figure out the obvious:  The problem is the employee, not the organization.  He leaps before he looks at what the job really entails, or he gets positions he isn't qualified for, or he bails when the going gets tough, whatever.

I'd say stick it out a year, and, if you have to, move on.  Just be aware that you are using up your "get out of job free" cards for your career ...

Matt H.
Monday, October 28, 2002


PS: If this was "your" project, a project assesment at the beginning might have been valuable.  Smart money says that you could have done some scripting on your existing HTML and ported the web page to CityDesk for a few hundred bucks, instead of multiple man-months of effort.

Some companies, of course, would refuse the expense, because it's unplanned vs. planned.  (Don't work for them.)

:-)

regards,

Matt H.
Monday, October 28, 2002

One day delayed, our Betsy just got called into the HR office.  Finally.

patience is hard
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

You think you got it bad?  I work for the government, and fully half of my co-workers are Betsies, and at all levels.  Even if everyone here agreed that Betsy needed to go, dislodging a unionized government employee is nigh on impossible.  So you pick up their slack...or else turn to the dark side yourself.

Proof once more that nice guys take it up the...er, finish last.

Dunno Wair
Thursday, October 31, 2002

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home