Stories about Software


Surviving The Dreaded Company Framework

This week, I’m making it two in a row with a reader question.  Today’s question is about an internal company framework and how to survive it.  Well, it’s actually about how to work effectively with it, but the options there are sort of limited to “get in there and fix it yourself” and “other” when the first option is not valid (which it often is not).

How does one work effectively with a medium to large sized company-internal framework? The framework has one or two killer features, but overall is poorly abstracted and [released] with little QA.

I think the best way for me to tackle this question is first to complain a little about Comcast, my erstwhile cable company, and then come around to the point.  They recently explained, in response to one of my occasional Comcast rage-tweets, “[The] promotional pricing is intended to offer you the services at a reduced rate, in the hopes that you enjoy them enough to keep them.”

This is, in a nutshell, the Comcast business model — it was an honest, and forthright tweet (unlike the nature of the business model itself).  What Comcast does is reminiscent of what grocery stores do when they flood the local shopping magazines with coupons: differential pricing.  Differential pricing is a tactic where in you charge different rates for the same product to different customers, generally on the basis of charging more when people are non-price averse.

The trouble is that outright differential pricing is usually illegal, so companies have to get creative.  With the grocery store, you can pay full price if you’re generally too busy for coupons, but if you load up with serious couponing, you can get that same grocery trip for half the price or less.  They can’t say, “you look rich so that’ll be $10.00 instead of $5.00” but they can make the thing $10.00 and serially discount it to $5.00 for people willing to jump through hoops.

Comcast does this same thing, but in a sneakier way.  They advertise “promotions” and “bundles” to such an extent that these appear to be the normal prices for things, which encourages people to sign up.  Then, after some time you’ll never keep track of and never be reminded of, the “regular” price kicks in.  For me, recently, this turned out to be the comical price of $139 per month for 24 Mbps of internet.


When you call them to ask why your most recent bill was for $10,928 instead of $59.99, they’ll say “oh noes, too bad, it looks like your bundle expired!”  And this is where things take a turn for the farcical.  You can ask them for another bundle, and they’ll offer to knock your monthly bill down to $10,925.  If you want to secure the real savings, you have to pretend for a while to be canceling your service, get transferred over to the “retentions department,” and then and only then will you be offered to have your service returned to a price that isn’t absolutely insane.  I suspect that Comcast makes a lot of hey on the month or two that you get billed before you call up and do that again, because the ‘normal’ prices are equal parts prohibitive and laughable.

Why am I mentioning all this?  Well, it’s because when the time came for my most recent annual Comcast gouge ‘n’ threaten, things got a little philosophical.  I wound up on the phone with an agent to whom I confessed I was sick of this stupid charade.  Instead of arguing with me, he said something along the lines of, “yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous.  Before I started working here, I used to hate calling up and threatening them every year, but the thing is, all of the other companies do it too.”  This was either a guy being refreshingly honest, or a really shrewd customer service tactic or, perhaps, both.

But the interesting message came through loud and clear.  In my area, if you want TV and internet, it’s Comcast or it’s AT&T.  And if both of them behave this way, it goes to show you the power of a monopoly (or a nominally competing cartel).  Their motto is, in essence, “Comcast: it’s not like you have a choice.”

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Three Martini Open Office Plans

A tweet came into my Twitter feed last night, and I noted that (1) I was a little late to the party and (2) it was wildly popular.  I found myself a bit surprised, because it was critical of the open plan office construct, which I figured was by now just an accepted condition of salaried employment, like status meetings or PTO limits.  Apparently, however, this is one particular management fad that has not met with universal approval.  The tweet (shown below), is trending toward 10K likes and retweets.

Personally, I love open plan offices.  Granted, I don’t actually work in one with any regularity, but I enjoy them immensely when I have occasion to park for a few hours at a client site.  It’s sort of like going to the gym, but without the sweating.  Actually, I’d say, it’s more like going to a bar (more on that later).

Three Martini Lunchers

I’m a type A introvert, and I work predominantly from home (or a hotel wherever I happen to be, since I travel a lot).  This means that it’s not uncommon for me to get swept up in my work and log 10+ hour stints of heavy concentration.  For instance, I recently wrote an E-Book for a client in 2 days.  It’s like I go into a sensory deprivation chamber and I get things done, delivering code, write-ups, posts, or whatever to clients on or ahead of schedule.

But following a productivity ‘binge’ like that, there are typically human connection things that have to happen.  I travel to a client site to present something in person or I get on a series of conference calls to collaborate.  It is in these situations that hyper-productivity ends and human connection begins in the meatspace.  Consulting requires more than just output — it requires relationship management.

More and more these days, when I pull that part of a tour of duty, it happens in an open plan office, simply because there are more and more open office plans.  Even clients that don’t have them now talk sheepishly about how they should.  For me, fresh off a week or two of minimal human interaction and intense productivity, I fly somewhere and meet with people for a couple of days, wherein the goal is mainly relationship forging.  In this capacity I’m greeted by someone who proudly demonstrates the egalitarian nature of the office space, and ushers me to a high top or to a focus room or whatever they’re calling it.

At this point, it’s as if I were in a college Starbucks that served a single company.  Some patrons are sitting alone, studying glowing screens, while others gather in impromptu circles, having animated discussions.  There’s the occasional jerk making lots of noise and distracting everyone and the occasional good-natured hijinks in the form or Nerf guns or whatever.  The result is a Dionysian experience to my Appolonian, introverted sensibilities.  I wouldn’t want to try to get serious, thought-intensive work done in such a place (if I needed to do that, I’d obviously leave), but it’s a nice way to obtain social camaraderie without much pressure.

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The Cost of Being Right

I stopped in the gas station today to pick up a few sodas and iced teas.  It was a time-poor man’s grocery run here in Lousiana, where it was in the 80s today.  This expedition left me with a plastic bag full of sweating drinks, a soggy receipt, and a lesson about the cost of being right.

First off, let me just say that I was and am right.  About what you ask?  About the fate of my receipt.

The receipt wound up in the bag with the sweating sodas, where it became sodden.  This wouldn’t have happened if the clerk had done the right thing and handed me the receipt, or even the slightly less wrong thing and asked me whether I wanted the receipt in the bag or not.  Instead, she did the wrong thing, and stuffed it into the bag where it became waterlogged.  “Receipt’s in the bag!” she informed me cheerfully.  Ugh.

Here’s the problem.  I take all of my credit card receipts, fold them, and put them in my wallet.  When I get home, I record the credit card transaction in Quicken so that when I download actual transactions from the financial institution in question, I can compare and make sure there are no spurious charges.  This scheme requires a dry, legible receipt.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — this is a matter of personal preference.  I prefer being handed my receipt whereas you prefer to have it in the bag.  That’s an understandable sentiment, but I assure you that it’s wrong.  I have empirical thinking on my side.  If the clerk hands me the receipt and I want it in the bag, it takes me less than a second to stuff it in there.  If the clerk stuffs it in the bag and I want it in my hand, I have to hold up the line while I go rooting around in the bag, looking for it, only to find it plastered between two Diet Mountain Dews.  So, as you can now see, I’m right.


By the way, I’m willing to keep up this line of argument until you get exhausted and concede that I’m right.

You might, then, think that I explained the error of her ways to the clerk.  Or not, if you know me well at all.  I didn’t.  I thanked her, smiled, and left the store.  Once home, I extracted my soggy receipt, did my best to make out the figures on it, and entered them into quicken.

You see, it’s not that I’m any less convinced receipt-handing is optimal (though I could be persuaded).  It’s just that being right about this isn’t important.  It’s not important enough to me to think any further on (after adding a note to use this as a blog post intro), and it’s certainly not important enough for me to comment on to the clerk or anyone else in my life.

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Is Unlimited PTO a Good Deal for Me?

True to my promise from last week, I am making a more concerted effort to bun down the queue of reader questions on my blog topics Trello board.  Thus, today brings you another answer to a reader question (one of these days, I may get around to doing video answers).  I am actually obfuscating this question somewhat, as the verbatim question could potentially be specific enough to identify the parties involved.  But here’s the thrust of it.

I recently received a job offer from a company that I’d been interviewing with, and it made no mention of PTO/vacation or time off in any form.  Assuming it must have been an oversight, I asked about it on the phone when discussing the offer, and they said they don’t track time off — it’s unlimited.  As long as various stakeholders are happy with their work, they don’t care how much time people take.  Is this a red flag for my prospects of working for this company?

My gut reaction to this, upon reading, was, “no, that’s awesome!”  In a corporate world whose defining feature may be treating adults like children (I have this slated in my backlog as a future post), this seems refreshingly adult.  Get your stuff done and we’re not going to bean-count how you spend your days.  It reminded me of something I once said to a person reporting to me when she asked if it’d be alright to duck out an hour early if she worked an extra hour the next day: “I don’t care how many hours you work in a day if you’re doing good work, so please don’t make when you come and go from the office something I have to care about.”

My secondary reaction was to start and think, “get that language written into the offer letter; have them amend it to state explicitly that they offer a discretionary amount of time off.”  That was the core of the message that I conveyed privately to the submitter, without going too far into detail.  So, over and done with, I suppose.

But this got me to ruminating a bit more on the topic in general and about the strange nature of the corporate vacation concept.  Does this nameless company have it right, following orgs like Netflix that famously buck the convention of tracking PTO?  Is this a good way to reward awesome, trustworthy folks with appropriate trust?  Or is this a trick to seem generous, or even to sneakily save money while knowing that social pressure will actually prevent employees from taking all that much time?


Unlimited?  Really?

Before anything else, let’s get a little more precise about terminology.  Unlimited vacation sounds like just the kind of thing that they’d offer at a Shangri La organization far too selective for the likes of you, thus creating a Catch-22.  If you’re good enough to work somewhere that “adequate performance gets a generous severance package,” then you’re not the kind of slacker that would take advantage of unlimited vacation, anyway.

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Escaping Sucker Culture

A lot was made of my recent and popular post, The Beggar CEO and Sucker Culture. Given the traffic that it generated, discussions took place ranging from the merits of developers unionizing to startup versus established corporate cultures. Perhaps the most common theme, however, was what my call to action was and the actual mechanics of escaping sucker culture.

In my comments and in social media, people offered messages along the lines of, “what do I do to escape when I’m trapped,” and “I drew a line in the sand and got fired, so don’t rock the boat.” To be clear on what I was advocating in my post, I wanted people to stop accepting that they owed companies (and people like Victoria) free hours and to stop feeling guilty about not wanting to oblige. This is a far cry from a call to action of, “tell your boss you’ll never work a minute over 40 hours again and if she doesn’t like it, you quit.” I was calling for a subtle shift in attitude and not any specific action.

But this does beg the fair question of “what comes next?” Resolving not to feel like you owe your spare time to the company is all well and good. But it doesn’t get you home to your loved ones – it just gets you to feel resentful while you continue working the same schedule. So in this post, I’ll offer up some ideas for how to reclaim your hours and stop being forced to give handouts to companies.


I want to be clear about something, though.  I’m offering ideas for things you might try and not a step-by-step how-to.  Office political situations are extremely nuanced, and, if you like the thoughts I’m offering, you’ll need to figure out how to tailor them to your own situation.

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