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And the Artificial Stupidity Award Goes to...

And the Artificial Stupidity Award Goes to...

I remember well the first time I worked at a company that used corporate e-mail. Instead of the usual development process that involved weekly meetings with users, between which we wrote specs and coded deliverables, this new messaging technology was going to streamline everything for us.

Unfortunately, the e-mail discussions became so fluid and nebulous that progress was paralyzed by the notes flying back and forth. Worse, a whole new type of project politics began to occur. Because your visibility was now measured in terms of the number of in-box entries you generated with influential people, second-rate employees who previously had little influence or peer respect could now inflate their image by sending notes and getting involved in discussions. It had been years since these media studies graduates had been able to contribute in any meaningful way to software development, and they collectively rued the day they had given up science for a softer study option because they failed to grasp basic euclidian geometry in the sixth grade.

After the rejection letters from law school and the local newspapers, they were forced to take up jobs as software testers, technical writers, or quality auditors. They were like a dormant cell waiting for the opportunity to wreak revenge, and e-mail was their weapon. The ability to carbon copy notes made e-mail even more powerful to these Machiavellian employees, who now spent hours writing carefully crafted notes. The recipients of these notes were carefully selected so the writers could look good in front of them as they subtly put down peers with their superior grasp of corporate buzzwords.

During the entire morning that the corporate payroll leeches spent authoring their master memos, the rest of the useful project team were engaged in more mundane tasks such as writing and delivering code, assuming naively that deliverable solutions were what the company wanted. To the customer and senior management who were observers of the trail of back and forth e-mail, it became clear to them just who had things figured out on the project. "Let's see what Richard has to say about situation foo," because after all he had so much wisdom about other project issues, he must be the oracle to all solutions. When the whole project went belly up and the bean counters came in with their axes and marker pens, it was the programmers who were fired and the nothingware e-mailers who kept their jobs.

Alan Turing defined artificial intelligence as when you couldn't tell the difference between communicating with a machine and a person. If the set of responses you got from either was indistinguishable, then the machine had managed to fool you. Each year IT departments at universities have a contest to build a real Turing machine.

I would like to propose a new contest, known as Artificial Stupidity. You write a program that sends unsoliticited e-mail to announce its presence (a list of Dilbert cartoons or funny news stories is a good start), then it should monitor the e-mails it gets copied on and write a "Look I'm so smart" reply. This reply has to include buzzwords such as "prioritization" or "customer-focused," and preferably a few invented words as well like "responsivitation," "architecturalship," or "subliminablation." If you can get the phrase "business to customer electronic on demand commerce" in the reply as well, then you get awarded a bonus of 50 points and the Dan Quayle award, a gold-colored plastic potato mounted on a realistic granite plinth.

I suggested the idea of the Artificial Stupidity Award to a colleague at work and he seemed unimpressed. "We have some of those contest winners connected to the e-mail server already," was his reply. "They work in the human resources department."

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Most Recent Comments
Brad Wylie 07/08/03 04:20:00 AM EDT

Too bad we still see the same attitude taken by developers to those peripheral to their community. Us versus Them. Good versus Bad.
I would never think it a demotion to return to coding and inventing software. You shouldn't think it a demotion to document or test coder's creations. Think of one as teaching what your invention does, the other as testing it does what the coder says it does (scientific method and all that). You're getting nowhere fast by tooting your personal horn of greatness and treating co-workers like shite.

my 2 cents worth

b

Fred Mora 06/06/03 09:45:00 AM EDT

I cannot argue with the politics of the subject, which sounds unfortunately true.

However, I object at the notion that art school rejects are "forced to take up jobs as software testers, technical writers, or quality auditors".

I am a developer at heart. After several years and several successful projects, I did a few stunts as technical writer and spend 2 years as a software tester. In both cases, the new positions involved a significant financial bonus. These jobs were by no means demotions, to the contrary.

I know that in a lot of places, the tech writers and the software testers couldn't code their way out of a wet paper bag, and are considered oxygen waster by the coders. This is a sure sign these places are in trouble. Your article mentions that the joint in which tech writers and testers were such "leeches" went belly up. Why, you mean nobody wanted to badly undocumented, mostly untested code? *What a surprise*!

Attitude of coders toward doc and test *has* to change. Otherwise, IT as a whole will go into a deep crisis.

--Fred Mora

Hal Hagan 06/06/03 08:55:00 AM EDT

Email's the enabling technology, but poseurs, brown-nosers and the kiss-a** crowd have been around forever, will always be around, and will always find their way to the top - for a while. Email gave them a technological platform through which they could say nothing to virtually any number of readers. The article points out that the people at the top of organizations are often so out of touch with who works for them that those who reach out to management often rise to the top, without regard to merit, skill or accomplishments.
There is an important lesson here for those who labour unknown and unrecognized... it's more important to you that your bosses know who you are than it is for them to know who you are. Like you, they're busy trying to impress their own bosses, rather than connect with those below them on the corporate org-chart. Case in point... what's the name of the janitor, or the lady who cleans your offices, or the cashier at the staff cafeteria?
After 27 years of staring at a variety of interfaces from monitors all the way back to punch tape, I've come to realize that strong personal relationships with real people is the most important aspect of any work. I have seen a great number of really brilliant, dedicated and hard-working people get laid off during corporate downsizing because some decision-maker above them doesn't know them well, and therefore doesn't understand what they do, nor the value they bring to the organization.
In this age of downsizing, the occasional email to the right people, or a "How are you?" in the elevator can make immeasurable differences in keeping an all-to-scarce IT job. Forget the brown-nosers - their day will come, and hopefully they'll get promoted right out of your life.