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Matthew Wilson

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Seat for Life

October 20, 2010

In late 2000 I purchased a Herman Miller Aeron. The multinational client for whom I was working had newly started in Sydney and they'd splashed out on decidedly plush offices, including an Aeron for everyone (as many were wont to do in those dot-com days).

For the first time, I was actually comfortable in an office chair while programming, and I had to have one. So I did. The folks at the Sydney branch of Herman Miller were a little surprised to have a purchase request for 1, but were nonetheless very happy to furnish me with one. And for just over ten years it's given sterling service.

A couple of weeks ago the seat cracked. Now, I must concede that I am a little on the large side. I'm 6'1" and about 250lbs (or 186cm and ~115kg): imagine rugby prop and you won't be far wrong. (For my US friends who may not be aware of the rugby prop archetype, I imagine I'd appear as one of the larger members of a grid iron squad, but my ignorance of your many-faceted national sport prevents me from knowing which particular position that might be.) Nonetheless, I refuse to believe that the seat broke because I'm built more like a lumberjack than a desk jockey. It just fatigued after ten years' use, and that's my story.

(Incidentally, wood chopping is one of my preferred holiday pursuits: morning bike ride to catch the sunrise, an hour of wood chopping, then three bowls of Coco Pops! Who could want more?)

Anyhoo, before I kill you with boring non sequiturs: to the point we go!

I ignored the broken chair for a week, because getting things fixed is one of my least favourite thing. I suspect that this is because modern life affords generous opportunities for being on the wrong side of corporate indifference.

A couple of years ago, my ISP - a company with, let's say, national reach here in Australia - decided to cancel my backup dial-up Internet connection without telling me. I found out when I needed it!

Earlier this year, one of my laptops, a certain fruity brand, failed. I'd purchased it from a national "upscale" department store in 2007, and purchased the extra cover for three years. The laptop failed inside of this time. Short story version:

• Take it to department store: they can't help, you have to take it to "Fruity" • Ring up "Fruity": no record of laptop; department store must not have registered sale • Call department store: can't help, have to talk to "Fruity" • Call "Fruity": no record of laptop; department store must not have registered sale • . . . you get the picture . . . days of messing around on telephone and in person finally gets it done under warranty • Swear never to buy anything but Dell ever again. (If only they didn't charge you for an OS you don't always want.)

Apart from the aforementioned Dell, it's my experience that dealing with most large companies leaves one fuming and swearing never to buy anything from them ever again. Furthermore - and here's the bit that I don't get why they don't get it - for many people it also leaves them with a lifelong loose tongue about their negative experiences that they're more than happy to share with anyone else. What's that old marketing maxim: Do a good job and you'll get one positive recommendation. Do a bad one, and you'll get five negative ones.

Well, in an attempt to put the lie to the first part of that at least, I want to tell you about my chair story. Herman Miller seemed no longer operate directly in Australia, so I contacted LivingEdge (who I later learned are owned by HM, and serve as their commercial interface). I rang them up, expecting little: out of warranty, no proof of purchase, yada, yada, yada. To my delight I spoke to a very polite, interested, and informed customer service operative, who informed me that the chair was still under warranty - Yes! - and that all I had to do was send in a photo of the damaged part and the serial number stamp (under the seat). I did as she instructed.

Wow, that was easy. I decided I loved Herman Miller. But wait, there's more:

Even better, acknowledging the photos, she further enquired of me whether there were any other issues. There were in fact - a worn lumbar support, and what turns out to be an exhausted gas bearing thingummyjig (which has absolutely nothing to do with my heft!) - and so after another simple operation with the digital camera I'm getting them fixed along with the broken seat. They even come to me!

Great, you might think. Nice to know; nice to give HM and LivingEdge a plug. But what has this got to do with software/computers?

I read with interest Eric Bruno's recent missive about what motivates programmers to create/join startups. Eric enumerates a bunch of reasons for why one might want to be one's own boss: avoid design-by-committees; avoid office politics; creative freedom; and so on. I'd suggest another: to be small.

In my experience, software companies are like software teams: small is better.

Killing the Goose

The very first job I had out of Uni was with a small company - nestled in the wilds of Yorkshire - that provided ISDN hardware, in the form of cards and standalone devices, along with all the software, including a proprietary preemptive multitasking operating system for x86. Acknowledging that I had at the time the very big eyes of a neophyte, these guys were impressive.

About a year after I joined a US modem company bought them out, with promises of bumper share options for all. In a singular moment of prescience on my part, I eschewed any shares. A week before the vesting date the now parent company sold them, or some such ploy, and no-one's shares were worth anything much to speak of. (I said "prescience", but it could just as well have been "superstitious self-sabotage" had it worked out as promised, so I'm not claiming any great kudos.)

Gravytrain

Early last decade I was brought in to help rescue an internet banking project, along with two other consultants. The three of us worked well together and, despite the horrid mess, managed to make substantial improvements: little things like being able to support 3000 concurrently logged on users, rather than the 3 it was previously able! Also there were numerous - no fixed number could ever be determined - "consultants" for two big-name accounting/consultancy/professional-services firms (one of which is no longer in business, as an indirect consequence of one of the US's largest company bankruptcies some years ago …)

These "consultants" were in name only. In reality they were all recent graduates, who were flown in for the weekdays from another of Australia's major cities, put up in five-star hotels, and charged at an hourly rate that you would pay a good developer in 2010. I don't think it's being unkind to suggest that none were stellar, and the great majority of them were useless. One guy had checked in something that didn't even compile, and if fixed to compile would be a significant defect. He did this an hour before leaving the project, having been assigned to a different client by his employer.

As fate would have it, he was back to us within four weeks, the other client's project having been cancelled. Naturally we tackled him on his erroneous check-in. His unabashed response a phlegmatic: "I didn't think I was coming back!"

These are but a sample of two from a much larger pool of war stories, almost all of which have a common theme: large companies not behaving intelligently/honourably: vendor lock-in; overcharging; underbidding; some simply not fulfilling a contract. Poor software quality and sharp business practice contribute to the general diminution of the value of our profession from within, and its perception from without.

Craftsmanship

I'm not perfect: my client success rate is certainly not one hundred percent (although it's closer to that than to fifty). I'm pretty ordinary when it comes to the marketing and business relationships side of things. I'm also given to optimism in what can be achieved and how quickly, usually resulting in a lot of stress for me. But I've never deployed a production system that has failed. And I don't intend ever doing so.

It's not because it's an impressive thing to quote to potential clients, although I'd be dishonest to say that doesn't help. But regardless of the business side of things, it is important to me that my software works, and I'd find it a personal affront to have deployed a faulting system. I feel like I'm a craftsman, and I believe all good programmers are, and crafts(wo)men love and take a pride in what they do. As Eric says, "You need to love what you do, and not just do it for the money."

I've owned a large number of mountain bikes in my time, some good, some bad. All were mass produced. None were brilliant.

By contrast, I've owned only three road bikes in more than twenty years of cycling. Each was hand-built. And the quality and craftsmanship of each was greater than its predecessor. As was the cost. My second bike, a striking white/pink 531C framed beastie, I owned for 15 years. In the last few years of its life it was definitely getting tired, the steel frame saggy. Three years ago I finally retired it, and replaced it with a Seven hand-built titanium frame, from Steve Hogg, a friend, bike position expert, and proprietor of the Cycle Fit Centre. For the first time in my life I'm riding a bike that feels perfect: it fits me perfectly, it rides comfortably, and the frame transmits every watt of power into forward motion. It cost me a lot of money, but since I'd been saving up for 15 years, it was readily justified.

When I bought the bike, I upgraded my shoes. Unfortunately, there was some confusion in the ordering, and the wrong size were ordered. I rode them for a couple of weeks, but they weren't right. Despite losing hundreds of dollars because he would not be able to resell them as new, Steve replaced them without pause.

Because of my aforementioned heft and the super-stiff frame the back wheel, as the weakest part in the drive chain, takes a heck of a pounding. Every 9-12 months the wheel starts to go and then it's a spoke a week until it's rebuilt. Again, Steve doesn't charge me for the bitty stuff, only the rebuild.

Why does Steve give this level of service? It's not a cynical ploy to get free advertising on programming websites. I don't think it's even a conscious business practice, to ensure favourable word-of-mouth. I think it's just because he's a craftsman. As a cyclist himself, he cares about what he's created. When I tell him that, three years in, I'm still riding a perfect bike, it's a smile of righteous pride I see on his face. Who doesn't want that?

When I talk to clients who've selfishly not paid me to fix no problems with my software, I don't think about the bank balance or wistfully imagine all the remediation costs I could have charged, I just smile. A smile of pride that I've done a job well.

My pleasure that Herman Miller were so ready to fix my chair and so proactive in seeing to its other issues that I'd not even raised comes, I think, from the fact that I believe that somewhere within that company resides a kernel of design craftsmen who are proud of their work, and that that pride percolates through the rest of the company, and manifests in great customer service. When I expressed how impressed I was with the service to the customer service operative, she was just as delighted as me.

The very antithesis of the big company experience that we all hate.

What do you think? Pride in one's work undoubtedly exists within large software companies at the levels of the individual and team, but does it thrive within big software companies as a whole? If/where it does, does it percolate throughout and manifest as great customer experience?In 2000 I purchased my office chair. A couple of weeks ago it broke. I was pessimistic about getting it fixed quickly/easily/under-warranty. I couldn't have been more wrong.

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