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Weird client behaviour? (Long post)

I was recently approached by a "web magazine". Its a site  for parents with young children that features articles, forums and a doctor that answer questions. It has about a 1000 paying subscribers.

Now last fall they decided to rework their site from ground up. They hired a consulting company, but things went sour (dont know the details) and now the magazine is stranded with a half finished product.

This is really quite funny. They call me up an ask me if I know perl, I say "Not really, no" (I do Java and ASP) but they insist on me taking a look at their half baked system.
I understand that they are quite desperate so I agree to come look it over.

Its basicly the weirdest non-standard thing I have ever seen.  The consulting firm has written their own server side script interpretor (undocumented I might add) and hooked it into an apache server via perl. The apache server is in it self _heavily_ modified, and I couldnt even launch the thing to see the system in action. Config files contain things I have never seen etc. To top this off they wrote their own DB connection objects that made no sense to me what so ever.
All this to make what is basicly a pretty standard DB based content management system + forum much like every community style site out there. (Ok, the user management is a bit heavier since its for paying members..)

So after looking at this stuff for a bit I gracfully decline their not very lucrative offer, especially since they claimed it HAD to be done before august and I am fully booked till the middle of June.

But, I tell them, I could write an equivalent system in Java/JSP. I got most of the needed code already (Ive done a few simmilar systems before) and any resonably skilled Java coder will be able to modify or add to it. I would use very a standardised architecture and it would be reliable.

They said No!

I inform them that the chance of them finding a person with the needed skills, to undertake this task within the given time frame, especially cosidering what they are willing to pay, is very slim.

They still say no.

I tell them that the functionality of what they already have could be replaced by free PHP stuff available on the web.

They tell me that they gave the consulting firm a 5 figure amount for that weird thing and they are going to make it work. End of story.

Is this common? Does this seem like utter stupidity to anyone else? Can some buissness savy person explaine this?

Eric Debois
Friday, May 17, 2002

Wearing the economist hat: They will never get back the money they have invested in the old system. In business class terms that is called sunk cost.

It is not only common sense but also "MBA sense" to do the rewrite.

The only thing more dangerous than a pointy haired boss that doesn't know information science, is a pointy haired boss that doesn't know business science either.

Roland Kaufmann
Friday, May 17, 2002

I was a programmer in japan for 2 years, and I saw tons of systems like this. I.e. where some company had hired a firm to build a simple database-backed website, and the consulting firm had badly implemented 1/10 of an RDBMS on their own, isntead of just using sql server or postgres or whatever. total nightmares.

an american company i worked at for a stint had something similar, but not as bad. their in house guys were java wizards but basically didn't know shit about writing a sql query, so they basically spent 1.5 years writing a huge disastrous pile of java code to avoid any SQL more complicated than "select * from table".

i imagine there are more systems like this than you would think. there are a LOT of clueless programmers out there.

as to the company's attitude, there are also tons of people with that same attitude. there are even more clueless business people out there. ;-) 

i used to wonder why this happened, and determined life was too short to worry about dumb people. just learn how to identify these types of situations and dont get involved. ;-)

american express
Friday, May 17, 2002

Eric Debois wrote:
"I tell them that the functionality of what they already have could be replaced by free PHP stuff available on the web.

They tell me that they gave the consulting firm a 5 figure amount for that weird thing and they are going to make it work. End of story."

People don't like to be called stupid. It takes very carefull handling and great convincing powers to get your point through. Why would they believe you? The ones that took the 5 figure number probably sounded believable too.

The good guys in the IT suffer a great deal from all the loose cannons which are around just to make money.

Jan Derk
Friday, May 17, 2002

Jan, you are so on the money.

I'm not sure if Eric really wanted the job anyway.  But there might have been a more tactful way to approach them and perhaps get the job and do them a favor by providing them with a maintainable system.

On the other hand, the web magazine folks might not be telling you straight either.

Friday, May 17, 2002

I think another possibility is that, politically, they probably couldn't admit to their higher-ups (or investors, or whoever) that they paid > $10000 for something that doesn't work, and that it would be easier to start over than to use what has already been paid for. It might be about them keeping their jobs by not openly admitting their incompetence in overseeing the project.

Such twisty thinking would help explain how they got to be managers, though it doesn't make them good managers in any productive sense of the word.

Saturday, May 18, 2002

Eric, people like this can be very dangerous. They presume to understand development, and yet clearly don't. Further, they seem not to have accepted that they've made a mistake and have done their money.

There are really two different jobs here. One is to build a system for them, and it seems that's what's you've been offering. The other is to fix their disaster, and that's what they want you to do. They seem also to want you to do this at low cost.

You should explain the situation to them. If you're interested in doing the job, avoid the existing code completely and also require payment in advance. If they don't, move on. They want to fix the mess; let them do so.

Hugh Wells
Saturday, May 18, 2002

Good thoughts here. Im not much of a sales man, am I? But then, I was just being honest, and I have several clients who appreciate that.
And actually, no I diddnt much want that job.

When I told a friend about this, he said that it was probably a conscious strategy of the consultants to make the system obscure, knowing well that noone else will dare to touch it. If that is the case this has become one dirty bizz.

Eric Debois
Saturday, May 18, 2002

The reason the system was crap is most likely that the "consulting company" was not a development shop. It was probably run by sales-type guys without development expertise, who hire the cheapest guys who'll work with them. Management brings in the deals, flogs the 3rd-rate developers, and then probably whinges about finding it hard to get good developers.

The developers have to work ridiculous hours, but never learn to do good work anyway, and pretty soon hate their jobs.

It all gets back to the fact, in software development, software developers are often not the ones in charge. This is different from most other mainstream intellectual professions.

Hugh Wells
Saturday, May 18, 2002

If the managers are concerned with getting what they have done, and you have the ability to replace what they have with something more standard and easier to maintain, why not take the job, sit down with them and have them explain how the system is suposed to work (from the user side---say you have to do this to get a handle on how the system currently works) and then completely replace it but keeping the user interface?

That way, they get to say their $multithousand project finally works, and they (unbeknownst to the managers) get a maintainable system that works.  The only downside I see is that now the original consulting company's monstrosity is now seen to “work&38221; when it never did.

Or is this further purpetuating a lie?

Sean Conner
Saturday, May 18, 2002

I would tend to think that, with people like this, if you use any of the material they've paid for, they will turn around and claim that material was a significant part of the success you obtained. Therefore they shouldn't pay you so much. Also, that they own the work as well.

It's obvious that they haven't accepted their mistake. Also that they were foolish enough to choose an incompetent firm. What they want now is for YOU to shoulder THEIR problem.

Hugh Wells
Saturday, May 18, 2002

Now last fall they decided to rework their site from ground up
call me up an ask me if I know perl, I say "Not really, no"
Its basicly the weirdest non-standard thing I have ever seen

Maybe it seems more complicated than it is, b/c you don't really know perl?  Also, this site could have been written in 1995, don't compare it with today's approaches.  And not replacing it is called "throwing good money after bad" It happens everyday.  They associate redoing the site with the initial build time and cost, even though they may not correlate.

Sunday, May 19, 2002

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