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Topic: Confessions of a contractor - part 1 (Read 1 time) previous topic - next topic


May 05, 2017, 11:26 pm Last Edit: May 05, 2017, 11:51 pm by allanhurst
I make no apologies for being a contractor - after all Bob Widlar insisted on that title rather than a  'consultant'

This is a collection of reminiscences from my time in software contracting. Some names have been changed to camouflage the guilty, but there again some of them have not!

My third ever contract was with a firm in Surrey in the mid-eighties where we designed the London Underground ticketing system. I got involved because an old permie friend of mine rang me up and enticed me on board with phrases such as 'good rates',' all the overtime you can handle',' prestigious job' etc etc.

 So another old friend from Cambridge and I agreed to sign on the dotted line, and we hired a house between the three of us in Brockham.The team had a great proliferation of Allans. I'm an Allan, my mate Alan was an Alan, - there were loads of them. So any time you wanted one, you could shut the whole team down for five minutes by going into our Lab and yelling Alan. It was so confusing that us intelligent (!) engineers decided that a little name-oriented bit-stuffing was required, and so everyone, whether they were called Alan or not, was called Harry. I was Harry Hurst, my mate Geoff became Harry Norman and so on. Problem solved. We're all Harrys to this very day.

Tale 1 : In which Geoff gets converted, stuffed, fired, and unfired in the space of 2 working days and an Anglo-American understanding develops.

The rules of our little menage a trois in Brockham were that we all took a turn in housework and cooking. My tastes and Harry Chaney's ran to hot curries, whereas Geoff would seldom venture beyond a British style sausage-and-chips.

 This didn't last long, and the heat of our curries during the year we were there went from Madras to well beyond the Phall event horizon. Harry C was married to a delightful lady who was a keen and excellent cook, so his problem was that of general incompetence in the cooking line rather than limitation in cuisine - and, of course, this meant he didn't have much idea about shopping for food.

      One day he came back from the shops with ten pounds of sprouts. 'I like sprouts' he said. Sure, we said, but TEN POUNDS?? Being of a subversive turn of mind, it being my turn to cook, I converted a fair proportion of them into that wonderful invention, a surefire winner on any curry eater's plate - the SPROUT BHAJI.

This dish, however, had some unfortunate side effects - read on!

   Geoff's guts had always been rather on the inventive side in their own way, and could clear a crowded room in twelve seconds flat with their anal outpourings. Once introduced to our super-califragilistic pulse and curry Brockham fare they found themselves in a sort of intestinal heaven, and converted at least 10 per cent of anything which came their way into aural and olfactory energy - much to the dissatisfaction of anyone working near his corner of the lab. I reckoned that with suitable modifications to the carburettor on his car and a little bit of tubing he could have made it back and forth every week from Cambridge with no expenditure on petrol whatever.

      On Thursday nights we'd brew up a truly ginormous lentil and chilli loaded weapon system, prime his working parts with a few of pints of yeast-packed Burton Ale to get them in the mood, then leave him Friday at work for his internal organs to fester them into 4-star. By the middle of Friday afternoon if he held tight he'd be loaded up and ready to go. With the journey otherwise costing about 4 galls of petrol at 2-ish quid a gall (Those were the days!), we'd be on a winner. Geoff reckoned the extra corrosion in the engine might be significant, but it was a bit of a beat-up heap anyway, so we'd little to lose.

     Unfortunately this plan for maximising our profits by saving on fuel came to a sudden and disturbing halt in the following way. As I mentioned previously, although we could see pennies to be gleaned from Geoff's super-efficient methane plant, the product was rather offensive to unaccustomed noses, and his bit of the lab became known as 'pollution corner'.

     Strong men would walk an extra 30 yards outside the buildings to the tea room several times a day rather than run the gauntlet of his guts.  The nearby wallpaper was much more decrepit and his computer crashed more often. Some unkind folk put this down to Compaq, but I'm sure their line acceptance tests didn't foresee the environment Geoff subjected his machine to.

     And it didn't just stop at pollution corner - the noisome product of his fecund rear insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of the lab, and condensed in unexpected places ready to leap out on unsuspecting passers-by.

     A particularly comfortable nest for the stuff was the great bible in the corner wherein dwelt the Task Interface Message Specification - the dreaded TIS.  Many a time the American management team would observe some poor Brit contractor slumped over this tome coughing and swearing, and would grill him at the next progress meeting, presuming him to have discovered some hitherto unnoticed field in a message which needed to be implemented.

    But this was seldom true. Geoff's anal effulgence had a strongly anarchistic bent, and could spontaneously change any message into any other presumably by meant of selectively rotting the cellulose in the paper. I swear it got inside the big Intel development system as well and corrupted several files - why else wouldn't the f**** thing build a process when you asked it to?

     As Sherlock Holmes wisely intoned, when you have eliminated all the probable explanations, what remains, however unlikely it may seem, must be the truth. But the American managers hadn't come across Conan Doyle's sapient hero, and put our lack of progress down to other things - with results I now relate.

       As Christmas approached a few of us thought that Geoff's anal extravaganzas deserved a little recognition, so, one evening when he'd cleared off early to do some cooking, we built a sort of sarcophagus over his desk from office partitions. Garnished with a few bits of mistletoe (have you ever seen mistletoe wilt before your eyes?), balloons, and a large 'Happy Christmas, Geoff's Arse' note, we sped back to Brockham and awaited next morning's chuckle. But that's not how it worked out. 

    Next morning all was cleared up by the time we got in, and we all got on with our work. At lunchtime I sauntered down to the shops to get some veg, and Geoff came along with me. He seemed rather quiet, and when prompted said 'I've been fired'.

    It seemed that early that morning the boss of the huge American corporation of which the English company we were working for was a tiny part had dropped in on his way to take his wife to Harrods or some similar important engagement. Seeing Geoff's adorned desk, he asked 'who sits there?'. On being told, he said 'Well fire the f**** Limey'.

     This seemed a bit unfair to us. After all, Geoff hadn't even been on the premises when the dirty deed was done, never mind done anything himself. So the perpetrators - two of the three team leaders and the head of integration, who had actually done the job, went in to see the American boss. We said that if he fired Geoff he'd have to fire us too.

     The boss was nonplussed.

    It was obvious he just didn't believe that English contractors would quit a well-paid long-term contract on a matter of principle, and started on about how this wasn't the only thing, Geoff's work was below par, he was being a disruptive influence and suchlike crap. It was then made very clear that this was plain straightforward English blackmail, and he could take it or leave it. Geoff stayed, and after that the Yank bosses were just that tiny bit less arrogant towards us.

Further tales may be forthcoming.



Have you thought that you may have been a bit long winded?

Two or three hours spent thinking and reading documentation solves most programming problems.


May 06, 2017, 12:16 am Last Edit: May 06, 2017, 12:39 am by allanhurst

 It's more of a ( I hope) amusing essay then anything technical. This is, after all, Bar Sport.

And makes a point about management attitudes and team solidarity. Large software teams are a special ecosystem.

 But given you recommend two or three hours reading documentation, I hope it's  not too much of a strain.


edit : the project (about 275,000,000 pounds worth in  the mid 80's) was on time and in budget.


May 06, 2017, 08:33 am Last Edit: May 06, 2017, 09:45 am by Robin2
I think you missed my poor attempt at gaseous humour.

And I am a little concerned at the similarities between the theme of this Thread and your . Help for that sort of mania is available :)

Two or three hours spent thinking and reading documentation solves most programming problems.


In my younger days, in fact my first full time job was with a business that had the service contracts with some of the major automotive spares and service equipment suppliers here in Australia.
Gear such as Engine Analyzers, Electronic Wheel Balancers and Aligners and the various Timing Lights and Battery Chargers.
Our area was basically the western half of Victoria, and some 100km or so interstate.

I was called to go to a transport company 300kms away for a warranty job, the problem was one of their new battery chargers( capable of starting a truck engine with a flat battery) was only outputting low charge current, no matter where the control knob was set.
The supplier was keen to get it fixed as this customer had made a large investment on service equipment, all through them.

I had to allow a day for this job.
When I arrived I was shown the offending charger and how you could turn the knob and the charge current didn't change.
I turned the knob and noticed it didn't feel right, the control was only 270Deg yet this knob just kept turning.
I pulled on the knob and it slipped of the shaft.
The shaft had a flat on it, but the set screw that locked the knob on was missing.
An expensive warranty job, travel-wise, for a simple fix.

I rang the supplier and put him in the picture, he wasn't too pleased but realized that the tightness of a set screw was technically their responsibility.
He asked me to hang around and he would call me back.

10 minutes later there is call for me, its this guys boss, to keep everybody happy, I was to go around every bit of new gear that they had sold and check ALL the knob set screws.
Also check the calibration on the wheel aligners and balancers to save the day and show the customer the excellent service he can expect from 300kms away.

I got payed, customer got great service and supplier looked good, but ALL for a small allen set screw.

Tom.... those were the days... 50,000 to 60,000kms a year
Everything runs on smoke, let the smoke out, it stops running....


A good point, Robin2

Help for that sort of mania is available :)
Perhaps you could recommend an anal-yst



Perhaps you could recommend an anal-yst
I had forgotten that you are fully qualified for a DIY job  :)

Two or three hours spent thinking and reading documentation solves most programming problems.


If you dont mind I would like to share these musings to an ex-pat group who I think will love the originality and extended explanations as much as I do..

BTW ignore the curmudgeon in the corner LOL
It may not be the answer you were looking for but its the one I am giving based on either experience, educated guess, google or the fact that you gave nothing to go with in the first place so I used my wonky crystal ball.


By all means - further tales may be forthcoming.

Hope it amuses them



Thanks Al...Its going down great with them.

It may not be the answer you were looking for but its the one I am giving based on either experience, educated guess, google or the fact that you gave nothing to go with in the first place so I used my wonky crystal ball.

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