Tuesday, November 30, 2004

what do you mean it can't say 'on'?

Sit back, kiddies, and hear a corporate engineering tale of terror and woe and lack of common-sense turned into an art form. It doesn't really give away the ending to warn you that everything gets Totally Fucked by the end of the story.

While working at a hypothetical engineering company in an alternate universe (NYSE:Tek), I had the misfortune to end up in the most doomed group imaginable. I usually don't tell the story because the reality of the situation is so bizarre that people think I am exaggerating, when in fact I tend to tone down the absurdity because it's just too mind-boggling even for me... I WAS THERE and it sounds like bullshit to me, so hearing it second-hand must just exacerbate that effect.

So: I'm a hardware design engineer, creating the tools that computer chip manufacturers use to verify their new chips work as planned, or more often to figure out just where and why the things don't work as planned. This is a sort of silicon psychology, because if the chip if screwed up and the only way you have of knowing what is going on inside the chip is to ask it, there's no telling what you may find. The trick is to build a system that piggybacks the chip, that contains a functional model of the operations of the chip in question, that insinuates itself into the data-flow and monitors the transactions for anomalies. Once the chip is functioning reasonably well, the system can inject new transactions and observe the chip's responses. Developing, testing, an implementing such systems was my job.

Actually, my job was to argue with marketing department hacks who had either (a) a tenuous grip on reality or (b) a glue-sniffing problem. Possibly both. The ideas these fucktards would come up with (and sell to the customer before verifying with engineering that the idea was even possible) would have been more fitting coming from a special-ed essay contest than supposed professionals. Since the VP of our department, our engineering department, mind you, was a marketroid, these idiots basically had input into every phase of the project. Since their input was invariably stupid, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to explain things like the basic laws of physics that any bipedal organism should already know on a cellular level but these chimps had somehow managed to forget or dismiss as unnecessary abstractions.

One project was nearing completion when what should have been a routine design review turned into an episode of the Twilight Zone. I was showing slides of the final harware design, the placement and labeling of knobs and connectors and and a power switch with a little red LED that showed you when the unit was on, when the Alpha Idiot spoke up:

"That power indicator light is marked 'On'. This implies that if the light is on, the unit is on."

Um... yeah? Isn't that what those little red LEDs are for?

"What if the unit is off?"

Well... (I'm starting to get uncomfortable here, no idea where this is going)... the light is off. See: turn it on, the light goes on, turn it off, the light goes off. (In my head I'm hearing Homer Simpson: "Bed goes up, bed goes down. Bed goes up, bed goes down".) AND on top of that amazing bit of functionality, when the unit is on it also does some nifty things that the customer might find useful, assuming of course that they too aren't stymied by the power light.

The marketroid got a smug look on his face, and delivered the coup de grace, which I'm fairly certain involved the words 'Mr. Smartypants', but seeing as how I called him some rather more incendiary names a short time after I'll leave out all of the honorifics and stick to the point:

"What if the light burns out? And the power is still on? Then that little light of yours isn't just useless, it's actively misleading."

Ignoring the fact that EVERY PIECE OF ELECTRONICS IN THE WORLD has a fucking power indicator light, I calmly pointed out that the projected mean-time-between-failures of a standard red LED is something like ten thousand times as long as the useful lifespan of the device in which it was mounted, and besides the unit was a rather complex piece of electronics that did many useful things besides telling the customer whether or not it was on. Surely the fact that the device was capturing and processing signals would alert the customer to the fact that it was on in the event that the little red light burnt out?

At this point the marketroid starts speaking to me as though I have some sort of learning disability - in addition to his usual contemptuous sneer, he's also begun waving his hands around in the air and speaking slowly, as though to give his ideas more time to get through my thick skull:

"If the light is on... the customer knows the unit is on... but if the light is off, the unit *might* be off... or it might be on... with a burnt out power light. For the safety of both the customer and the sensitive hardware, you can't mark the 'On' position with the word 'On'.


When I regained the ability to speak coherently, which may have been before or after I finished saying some things that ended up on my Permanent Record, I asked the marketing asshole what recommendation he had, since my radical idea of marking the goddam switch 'On' and 'Off' was apparently too wacky to see the light of day.

"The solution is obvious - since what you have marked as the 'Off' position can mean two conflicting things, you can't mark it at all without being misleading. On the other hand, if the light is on the machine is in is a single definite state, so you can mark that side."

So you want me to mark one side 'On', and leave the other side blank?

Now the guy is getting angry, apparently feeling that I am being deliberately obtuse:

"No, damn it! You can't mark it 'On' since it's possible for the unit to be on when the light is not on!"

Umm... ok, I give up. How do you want me to label the indicator light?

"'Not Off'".

My manager thought this was a great idea. Both my manager and the marketroid thought the marketroid was a fucking genius. I thought they were both shitheads, and removed all off the wording from the silkscreen around the switch. Not too long after that, a circuit in my brain turned not off and I removed myself from corporate engineering.

The marketroid got promoted. The manager got laid off. I got migraines and stress-related health issues.

Not that I'm cynical or bitter or anything.


Blogger krishna said...

Obviously, the person in question understood only the on/off portion of your presentation( The remaining ( & more important technical and functional details were too much for him to grasp). It is interesting to see how people with large egos behave when confronted by what they do not know. Instead of admitting to their ignorance in a dignified manner, they expose their stupidity by their silly interventions. I am surprised that there are such stupid people in a supposedly professional organisation,. You must send this anecdote across to Readers' digest. This is too hilarious and absurd to remain under wraps.

Your story-telling skills are amazing. Have you ever tried your hand at writing short stories, novels etc?

Blogger Foobario said...

>Have you ever tried your hand at writing

No, I've just complained so much that it's become an art form :)
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