Monday, August 30, 2010

The Dark Corner

  When I worked making retail store software from 1994 to 2007, there would inevitably be people who would try to cheat by buying the software for 1 store and then run it in multiple stores. Normally, these people could be caught pretty easily because they would call for help from 2 different numbers so we knew the programs were being run in more locations than was paid for. Once there was a customer from the south who we suspected was putting the software in multiple locations, but all the calls for help came from 1 person’s cell phone, so it was hard to prove. One day, this person was calling for help installing a label printer. It was the 3rd label printer this store needed to have installed in the past month and we had only sold them one. I talked to this person and told them the printer was defective and we needed the serial number so we could arrange to swap it out. After a lot of cat and mouse, the owner called my owner and left quite a few curse filled messages on the voice mail stating that he had purchased the software and it was nobody’s business where the software was being used and where they got the printers from and the software wasn’t that good anyway. My owner called back to say that the software was purchased for use in only one location and he wouldn’t support the programs since the purchase agreement was being broken. This led to another curse-filled message and we didn’t hear from that customer for a long time. My boss was upset, but I knew that they would call back eventually. I said, “This software is in our dark little corner of the world and when this customer needs help, they’ll have to come in to our dark corner and then you'll get paid.” Sure enough, 6 months later the customer got a new computer, installed the software wrong, and couldn’t print labels. They called my owner, and in order to get help paid for all 4 stores the software was being used in. The ‘dark corner’ theory proved true.

  When my owner sold the company to a group from Indianapolis, I found out it wasn’t ‘our’ dark corner after all and I was as much a visitor as the customer. While the new group told me I’d be involved in future development of the software and that the software development would be in Indianapolis and Des Moines, my assistant in Des Moines was let go and all the programmers were hired to work in Indianapolis, where all the new development was being done in a programming language I had no experience with. I would occasionally be given small assignments in the new language, but my main job was to document everything that the current software did and do any work that was needed on it since none of the new programmers knew the language the software was written in. I knew that this job was a dead end for me and found a new job after 6 months of looking.

  When I gave my notice, the company didn’t want to hire a new face to work on the old programs that was being phased out anyway so there was no turnover of assignments to speak of. They offered me an hourly rate to work part-time for them and I agreed without negotiating since I didn’t want to leave them in a lurch. I did give the name of a previous assistant so they could see if he wanted to work part-time for them because having to interact with a company I had worked 13 years at but pushed out of was not something I cared for. I worked a few jobs a year for them for the last 2 years, and they would send a lot of emails asking how the software worked so they could rewrite it in the new language. I answered these questions for no charge. As time went on, the requests and the part-time work lessened and I’ve picked up different part-time programming opportunities.

  A few months ago, I got an email asking a few difficult questions from my old place. I spent an hour researching the answers and sent them back. This was at the same time as I was looking at getting a new computer. I had a couple of programs that were installed on my laptop by my old employer. They had an unlimited license and so I wrote to my old boss to see if I could get the software loaded on my new computer. I was told sorry they were not allowed to install software on any non-company owned machine. I was put off by the curt answer and wished I had charged for all the free questions I had answered. A creative mind would have found a way to help me out instead of finding a reason not to, but I was in their dark corner of the world and their rules applied. If one hand washes the other then I had some dirty hands.

  Last week, I got an email from my old boss hoping I had been doing well and had a nice summer, and by the way, could I answer a couple of questions about the old software? Then followed an outlined, bullet pointed list of observations of the system, attempts to coerce the system to behave a certain way, the result of the attempts, and questions in bold and italics.

  I replied by saying my summer had been good and that I wished my old boss had also had a nice summer. I expressed how happy I would be to answer the questions and gave my fee for answering them, but provided no answers. I haven’t heard from my old boss and I probably won’t get my fee but that's OK. They have the source code and more than enough programmers in Indianapolis to get the answers themselves. In the meantime, I've found that I have my own dark little corner and if my old employers want to get something out of it, they’ll also have to pay.