An executive from one of the world's biggest IT players tried to explain how machine to machine (M2M) communications to me last night. He said they were going to bring our manufacturing jobs back to the UK.
I desperately wanted to believe him - and not just because he'd paid for an expensive cheese and wine tasting venue for this lecture.
The problem was, I didn't have a clue what he was on about and he didn't seem prepared to go 'off PowerPoint'. In despair, I begged him to illustrate his M2M concepts more visually. Raiding the cheese board for props, I laid out five pungent blocks from rural France and northern Italy. “Imagine these cheeses are the computers. The crackers are the comms platform, compatible with anything: Brie, Stilton, Camembert, you name it. The wine is the software and together they talk to your taste buds to deliver a salivary gland solution,” I began, but he cut me dead by shoving his business card at me and promising to send me his pre-zen-tay-shun.
Which was depressing. It just goes to show, even when you share a common language and a common purpose and you're sitting face to face, it's so easy for communications to break down. That's why I'm so envious of the man featured in this story.
In case you missed it, Verizon claims it's uncovered a man who was outsourcing his job to China and taking it easy at work. According to the information gleaned from Verizon's VPN, the dodgy developer spent 10%of his time in online meetings with the Chinese progammers, a couple of hours a day on Facebook and the rest on eBay and LinkedIn.
If that's true (there's no way to verify this story) the man must be a genius. Think of all the things that can go wrong. It's bad enough when a man paid to explain M2M can't make himself understood to a writer paid to understand him. And we were speaking the same language, more or less.
Software projects are a bezillions times more difficult to explain. Frequently (as with any sort of creative work) the person doing the commissioning hasn't got a clue what they actually want anyway. This happens all the time in copy writing, where some buffoons in an agency will use the first three or four drafts as a sort of practice session before they inevitably blame the writer.
Software is infinitely more complex to plan because, unlike prose, in programming projects only one party knows about language limitations.
Then there's the physical distance between the two. If each party is on the opposite side of the world, there won't be many opportunities to get together and iron out misunderstandings. Phone conferences don't work and neither, dare I say it, do web conferences or video meetings.
Under those circumstances, it's a wonder that this man managed to outsource all his work so successfully.
But it gets more complicated. Not only were there cultural differences (there are massive variations across China alone, never mind the chasm between communism and capitalism) there are tricky language problems to overcome. The Hong Kong Chinese have enough trouble communicating with mainland China. How do you think an American will get on?
Ask anyone who has ever outsourced manufacturing to China or anywhere in the Far East, and they will tell you that several trips are necessary before they start making even the simplest widget. A software project? Ha! Good luck with that!
As the Outsourcing Association will tell you, the majority of outsourcing contracts fail because nobody paid enough attention to detail. So if this man truly outsourced all his work, so successfully that it went undetected, that is amazing. If, as the story goes, his bosses were happy with the outcome, what's the problem. That man is truly worth his weight in gold. They should sack all the other developers and make him the head of IT.
Why would anyone want to sack him? Why doesn't anyone snap him up? And what was Verizon doing exposing him? Sounds a bit sneaky. Why didn't HR give him a disciplinary hearing? How come he doesn't sue for unfair dismissal? Where in your contract does it say you're not allowed to outsource your work to China? Or indeed India?
Why didn't they Verizon bring him on board? If you find someone that clever you need to encourage them and harness their skills.
None of this story makes sense.
Unless... someone at Verizon's publicity department....
No, that could never happen.
This outsourcing stuff is all a bit cheesy isn't it?
Wait until you have to trying and start explaining things to a machine!
This was first published in January 2013