David and Goliath

I cannot associate corporate culture with cultural values
more than the culture of fungi that makes the milk sour.

About the Author

(and His Views)

n most of my life I have worked for small companies or for even smaller, for myself. With a complex occupation of being a systems designer/ developer/ programmer/ QA analyst/ database analyst/ technical writer at the same time, I have operated in a simple and flexible way. I knew my financial limitations and that of my customers, mostly small business owners. Instead of having my customers buy Macromedia's DreamWeaver, Coldfusion Studio or Microsoft's Visual Studio for one thousand dollars each, I developed reusable, open-source codes that functioned the same way as those few necessary features of the heavy-duty commercial software.

Same with databases. Unless the job or the customer required a really big database, I haven't utilized an expensive SQL Server or Oracle. In most cases I could go far without any database or with an inexpensive MS Access solution. Everything seemed simple. When I needed a permission or access to certain resources, I just told my coworker at the next desk to set up the necessary rights for me. He was the systems administrator, the database manager, the network administrator and the web master, without having these titles. He was Joe, the master of his domain. I might have had to mention to him that my problem was that I could read but could not write in a certain folder or in a certain database table. That was it. He knew what I needed and how to meet these needs with a minimal compromise. He lifted the restriction that obstructed me and I could continue my work in a minute.

The first time I worked in a corporate environment, I was shocked to see how difficult the same process could be. The one-minute task to gain write access to a folder or a table took a month; a busy month for many people. I heard the clatter of fire brigades running up and down. I had to fill out lengthy forms, have my supervisors authorize them, and answer questions that I had nothing to do with. The request went through an unclear labyrinth of bureaucrats and semi-educated "specialists". The process was covered by a unit called Help Desk. I could not look behind the desk to figure out who is "helping", i.e., holding me back. The systems administrator did not know anything about databases, the database manager did not deal with system issues and the security administrator had his own pigeonhole, too. Everybody was content with the hard and expeditious work but me. They saw a complex process, I saw inefficiency. Instead of removing the roadblock, they kept tossing the ball back to me. I had to be rude to make myself clear: “A small part of my job is to create new records, but I am restricted to write in my database. I have to do dozens of other tasks to finish my job. You do whatever you must do to solve this well-defined access problem. I don't know and I don't care whose responsibility it is inside the IT department. Just don't return my request to me.” Needless to say that I was out soon. I did not fit in the corporate culture where people were too busy showing how important they were.

The second time when I was employed by a large corporation, I was hired as a technical writer. By that time the PR lingo changed the word corporation to the better sounding organization. Still, disorganization ruled. Departments had conflicting interests and they fought each other, even at the cost of damaging common interests. Our section needed a Web application. We asked the IT department if they could develop it. We got a half-year, six-person, half-a-million dollar offer, which was unacceptable. I mentioned that I could complete the project alone in two months for my regular salary. The IT people who were supposed to cooperate with me in the project did not forgive me for taking their opportunity of easy money making. They set up rules and restrictions for me to fail. I was supposed to follow their unreasonable standards, using their ugly, bloated software tools, their hulking development environment and their over-priced database server. When I agreed to do so, they fell short to provide me with those documents and resources.

While I was waiting for the resources, I created a prototype that did not use anything but a Web browser. My development environment was a text editor, slightly smarter than Notepad. It colored my program with the intelligence level of the Homeland Security alerts. I could only use text-based elements: HTML, CSS, JavaScript and XML. I did not get access to a database or a programming language to write server-side scripts. I could not even have an Internet service, like IIS, Apache or Personal Web Server. After two months I had a working application that did not need server-side scripting or a database. As a matter of fact, it did not need a server at all. It was fully functional and those who had access to a shared folder on the Intranet and had a Web browser on their workstations could run the application. It was fast and smart and low maintenance. Fast, because it did not make a roundtrip to the server at every user intervention as if I developed the app with their standard methodology. Smart, because it could find and display all the information from XML files as if a relational database was running behind the scene. Low maintenance, because it was independent from service providers who needed maintenance. And fast, smart and low maintenance, because its size was a fragment of the similarly smart applications' size that were developed with the usual large enterprise technology.

The malfunction of the big organization made me follow a technology that I have done before as a small business owner and someone who contracted with less resourceful small businesses. The prototype went into production before I got the green light from IT to start the development. I am thankful to this large company for making me prove that the cost-conscious craftsman's approach can be efficient and competitive in a wide enterprise environment, in a relatively large project, too.

Corporations are not and cannot be as customer centric as small businesses. The main goal of all big companies is to please their shareholders with the highest available profit. They cannot act primarily for their clients. It's more profitable to spend on marketing and make us believe that their products and services are good, than to spend on quality improvement. I'm not anti-market, I'm pro-human. We need businesses because we are the beneficiary consumers, too, not only the suffering ones who put up with the marketers via phone, TV, papers, magazines, radio, Internet, bill boards, drinking cups and anything and everything that has a surface, is packaged, is moving or not. In general, while running around the market-driven world, we shouldn't forget why all the Canossa-going, compromise, perpetual back noise of advertisements, and lies-with-smiles are for. Big businesses are for the largest possible market share and not for us, people. They like us if it's profitable and they kill us if it's more profitable.

You may think that I am opinionated. Is the European Commission also opinionated in its March 2007 statement? It says: "... Microsoft has established unreasonable prices for its protocol licensing of its server technology in Europe." The Commission characterizes Microsoft's proprietary server software protocols, which is protected by patent, copyright and trade secret law, as containing virtually no innovation.

I do not hate big corporations. I may dislike them. Not only because I must wear a suit there and shave every morning although I usually spend eight hours with a computer staring at each other in a cubicle without meeting a person. How would a policy maker feel if he would be forced by his own rules to the extremes, to wear jacket and tie in the bathtub where nobody sees him?

I cannot associate corporate culture with cultural values more than the culture of fungi that makes the milk product sour. Nothing is wrong with fungi. After all, we like fungus-produced cheese and wine. Should we like spoiled milk products, too? Corporate-supported process of innovation is like fermentation. The final product can become either delicious or simply stinky. Corporations help innovations if and only if the proper personnel thought that the particular innovation was profitable, regardless if it makes sense. Half of the innovative efforts aims at making products proprietary, i.e., to hide information even at the cost of making the product clumsier. Corporations are not necessarily the champions of progress. It is not true that what is good for Ford is good for America. A man may be respected for his inventive ideas but he should be ashamed of others. Henry Ford might have been a genius but he was also an ignorant, arrogant, and insensitive man. But let's not go in there. I am talking about a technology that enables us to create high quality expert systems without using costly tools during and after development. Does it work for large enterprise projects? In certain cases it does not. However, it works in many projects, where most developers and organization leaders think that a pricier toolset and approach are necessary.

I am not saying that we should always fight a big beast with a stone. However, we should not use heavy artillery when a slingshot would do it. Go David, go!