Rocks into Gold: Part 4

This short book by Clarke Ching is a "biztech" parable for software developers who want to survive—and then thrive—through the credit crunch. We have republished the book in a four-part-series. In part four, our characters pitch Bob's plan to MegaCorp. But will business politics get in the way of a good idea? Follow the story as our characters fight to keep their jobs by implementing creative business ideas and management skills taken from agile development.

Will They Buy It?
Bob arrived at work the following morning, slightly hung over, but thrilled with himself. He spied the beekeeping book sitting in its cardboard wrapping, but he ignored it. Today, he had bigger fish to fry. He went straight to the conference room, where Sam was waiting for him.

Bob reported that his meeting had gone well with Peter. Sam suggested they go straight to Gwendolyn and make their proposal. Bob hesitated to mention the potential problem with the lost change-control revenue, but he wasn't good at keeping secrets, so he spilled the beans. Sam understood the problem immediately. She said that the best they could do was to be completely open with Gwendolyn, but to hold off on mentioning it until Gwendolyn understood the big picture.

They popped by Gwendolyn's desk, but she wasn't there. They left a note and went back to their desks. Bob and Sam used the time to play around with his spreadsheet.

Two frustrating hours later, Bob spied Gwendolyn coming through the stairwell door. Soon, the three of them were in the conference room scratching out numbers on the whiteboard. "I can sell this," Gwendolyn said. "You two have almost certainly just saved a load of jobs—both here and at MegaCorp."

She picked up her handbag and made to leave, but Bob stopped her and told her about Peter's plans to use the last mini project to handle change requests.

"A change pool?" Gwendolyn said. "Ingenious! So, what you're saying is that not only do MegaCorp earn more money than they ever expected to, but they also get to change FBU and make it a better product and at the same time, remove the biggest source of friction between us?"

Bob was confused. Didn't she understand the implications of what he had said? "But, that means we will finish the project much earlier, and we can't charge MegaCorp for the change requests," Bob said.

"You are right," Gwendolyn said. "With the way we currently sell our services, that's a benefit for them and a risk for us. Equally, MegaCorp could, if they wanted to, stop the whole project after the first release. But, don't worry about such things, my friend. MegaCorp have so much to gain by working this way that they're not going to haggle price with us. What you two have here is a truly compelling offer. I'm not going to sell them man-days at a competitive daily rate. I'm going to sell them the opportunity to make bucketloads more money."

She grabbed her handbag and said, "Good work, Sam. Good work, Bob. I'll let you know what happens." She dashed out of the conference room. Bob and Sam looked at each other, shrugged, and went back to their work.

Long-Term Benefits
One week later, Bob was sitting at his desk helping one of the younger developers with some tricky code when Eugene "Killer" Watt, the founder and chairman of KillerWattSoftware, stopped by his desk. Bob had worked with Eugene since the early days, but a lot had changed since then and they didn't see so much of each other any more.

Eugene asked the young programmer to excuse them and asked Bob to take a walk with him. He didn't look happy. As soon as they were outside the building and out of earshot of Bob's colleagues, Eugene said, "MegaCorp didn't greet Gwendolyn and my offer with quite the open arms we were expecting. Truth be known, they were downright hostile about it. Their marketing team said that they simply didn't have enough staff to handle three extra FBU releases over the next year. Their customer support director said that their phones went crazy whenever they released a new product and, like the marketing folk, he wasn't set up to handle the extra call volumes. And, it turns out that your friend Peter Prince wasn't quite as keen on the idea once he'd sobered up. He was concerned about the extra coding work required to ensure that customers upgraded smoothly between releases."

"But ..." Bob said, then stopped. He looked down at the pavement and kept walking, not knowing what to say to Eugene. Sure, MegaCorp and KillerWattSoftware's developers would have to do some extra coding work to handle the multiple upgrades, but it wasn't that much relative to the size of the entire project, and the time saved from dropping the low-priority features would more than compensate. He also knew that Sam and Peter's manager would need to do a little extra upfront planning and coordinating, but Sam had told him that she wasn't stressed about it, so Bob wasn't worried about the technical implications.

Bob's problem was that he had no solution to the marketing and customer service implications. In fact, he'd never even thought about them.

Eugene stopped walking, turned to Bob, smiled broadly, and said with a twinkle in his eyes, "But, when their finance director saw Gwendolyn's cash flow projections, he turned to me and said that although his colleagues had all expressed very valid objections, MegaCorp would figure out how to overcome them. He said that too many jobs and too much money was at stake to let a few little 'details' get in the way."

Bob's jaw dropped open as he processed Eugene's words. For a moment, he resembled a goldfish trying to say his own name: Bob, Bob, Bob. MegaCorp had accepted Gwendolyn's new offer and now no one in KillerWattSoftware would lose their jobs!

Eugene added, "There's just one thing. By the end of the meeting, MegaCorp decided to do three mini-projects, each taking about four months, rather than four mini-projects each taking about three months. Is that a problem?"

Three mini-projects? Four mini-projects? It made no difference to Bob. The folks at MegaCorp knew what they were doing, so he told Eugene that was fine.

Eugene put his hand on Bob's arm and said, "Thank you, Bob."

"My pleasure, Eugene." Bob didn't know what else to say. Strictly speaking, he knew that he had done more than his job required—he was a just programmer, after all, albeit a very good one—but he liked to think that he had done precisely what any good, red-blooded developer would do under the circumstances.

Eugene said he would like to repay Bob and asked him if there was anything he wanted or needed. Bob asked—perhaps, if it wasn't asking too much—Eugene could possibly arrange to get him a bigger monitor for his desk. Eugene said he would see what he could do, but he couldn't make any promises.

Bob figured that meant yes. They slowly made their way back to the office, talking about the old days as they went.

Eugene stopped outside the office building and he asked Bob to explain just how he came up with this simple but devastatingly effective solution. Bob shrugged and said that he had just thought about things a lot and tried to figure out how to solve his problem by solving other people's problems. The hardest part, he said, was figuring out what the other people's problems were. There wasn't much more to it than that.

Eugene thanked Bob again, then he held the door open and let Bob into the building first. Bob gulped when he entered the room and saw his colleagues all standing together, facing him. Bob figured Sam must have told them the good news. They burst into applause.

Back at his desk a few minutes later, Bob called Peter Prince. He asked Peter if he had received the news.

Peter said, "Killer! Dude! Have I heard the news? Everyone here has heard the news. You and me, we've saved the project and our jobs! We're heroes!"

Bob, who didn't want to be a hero, just said, "OK."

"And guess what? Our managers here reckon that at least one-third of our projects can use your idea. Our finance director has demanded that every single project manager prioritizes his project's features just like we did. And you know what? Even if we can't deliver a project in a piecemeal fashion, we can probably chop some low-value features, deliver the project sooner, and get the MegaCorp cash registers ringing sooner. Man, we are going to be famous."

"Cool," Bob said half-heartedly. He wasn't all that interested in the money side of things now that his job was safe. He glanced at his watch. He really should get back to the young programmer he'd been helping before Eugene came downstairs.

"And what's more, dude—don't tell anyone this, but the big bosses are in a big meeting right now figuring out how to keep the idea secret from our competitors!'


"Yeah," said Peter. "We've found a way to tighten our belts and keep moving forward at the same time. We want our competitors to just keep tightening their belts."

Bob said he had to go and hung up. He was upset. Why would anyone want to keep such a simple and sensible idea secret when it could cause so much good? He didn't want to keep his idea secret. It didn't feel right.

What would people think of a doctor who discovered a powerful and cheap cure for a deadly disease but kept it secret? Wouldn't a cook with a fantastically simple but delicious cookie recipe want to share it with the world? Wouldn't a good programmer always share a nifty new algorithm?

Then, Bob had another idea. He fired up his word processor and typed. Two days later he finished typing his story. He read it, smiled to himself at the couple of little jokes he'd thrown in and the fake names he'd given his colleagues. He made a few final tweaks and then, once he was happy with what he had written, he pinged Billy using the inter-office messaging software.

"BinaryBilly, you there?"
"Where else would I be?"
"I've got a story I want to share with the world. Can you help?"
"Surely, my friend."
Bob smiled. He wasn't upset anymore.

Read "Rocks into Gold" Part 1 of 4.
Read "Rocks into Gold" Part 2 of 4.
Read "Rocks into Gold" Part 3 of 4.

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