by Phil Factor
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Published on Fri, 09 Apr 2010 16:01:00 GMT Indexed on 2010/04/09 16:23 UTC
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It was a while back, whilst working as a Technical Architect for a well-known international company, that I was given the task of designing the architecture of a rather specialized accounting system. We'd tried an off-the-shelf (OTS) Windows-based solution which crashed with dispiriting regularity, and didn't quite do what the business required. After a great deal of research and planning, we commissioned a Unux-based system that used X-terminals for the desktops of the participating staff. X terminals are now obsolete, but were then hot stuff; stripped-down Unix workstations that provided client GUIs for networked applications long before the days of AJAX, Flash, Air and DHTML. I've never known a project go so smoothly: I'd been initially rather nervous about going the Unix route, believing then that Unix programmers were excitable creatures who were prone to indulge in role-play enactments of elves and wizards at the weekend, but the programmers I met from the company that did the work seemed to be rather donnish, earnest, people who quickly grasped our requirements and were faultlessly professional in their work.
After thinking lofty thoughts for a while, there was considerable pummeling of keyboards by our suppliers, and a beautiful robust application was delivered to us ahead of dates.
Soon, the department who had commissioned the work received shiny new X Terminals to replace their rather depressing lavatory-beige PCs. I modestly hung around as the application was commissioned and deployed to the department in order to receive the plaudits. They didn't come. Something was very wrong with the project. I couldn't put my finger on the problem, and the users weren't doing any more than desperately and futilely searching the application to find a fault with it.
Many times in my life, I've come up against a predicament like this: The roll-out of an application goes wrong and you are hearing nothing that helps you to discern the cause but nit-*** noise. There is a limit to the emotional heat you can pack into a complaint about text being in the wrong font, or an input form being slightly cramped, but they tried their best. The answer is, of course, one that every IT executive should have tattooed prominently where they can read it in emergencies: In Vino Veritas (literally, 'in wine the truth', alcohol loosens the tongue. A roman proverb)
It was time to slap the wallet and get the department down the pub with the tab in my name. It was an eye-watering investment, but hedged with an over-confident IT director who relished my discomfort. To cut a long story short, The real reason gushed out with the third round. We had deprived them of their PCs, which had been good for very little from the pure business perspective, but had provided them with many hours of happiness playing computer-based minesweeper and solitaire. There is no more agreeable way of passing away the interminable hours of wage-slavery than minesweeper or solitaire, and the employees had applauded the munificence of their employer who had provided them with the means to play it. I had, unthinkingly, deprived them of it.
I held an emergency meeting with our suppliers the following day. I came over big with the notion that it was in their interests to provide a solution. They played it cool, probably knowing that it was my head on the block, not theirs. In the end, they came up with a compromise. they would temporarily descend from their lofty, cerebral stamping grounds in order to write a server-based Minesweeper and Solitaire game for X Terminals, and install it in a concealed place within the system. We'd have to pay for it, though. I groaned. How could we do that? "Could we call it a 'post-processing module?" suggested their account executive.
And so it came to pass. The application was a resounding success. Every now and then, the staff were able to indulge in some 'post-processing', with what turned out to be a very fine implementation of both minesweeper and solitaire. There were several refinements: A single click in a 'boss' button turned the games into what looked just like a financial spreadsheet. They even threw in a multi-user version of Battleships. The extra payment for the post-processing module went through the change-control process without anyone untoward noticing, and peace once more descended.
Only one thing niggles. Those games were good. Do they still survive, somewhere in a Linux library? If so, I'd like to claim a small part in their production.
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