“Environment,” says my Dad.
“You need to learn what it’s like working in a professional environment; take responsibility, meet deadlines – it’s a useful life skill.” It occurs to me, of course, that meeting deadlines, managing staff, prioritising and generally having to cram as much work into fixed office time as possible is exactly what I was doing in Swaziland. But clearly he means something about which I have no knowledge – some higher level of professionalism which has so far eluded me out in the sticks of Southern Africa, where, of course, no serious business ever gets done.
“Of course, Dad. Well, I am trying to apply for a permanent job.”
“Good stuff; you can always set yourself up as an independent consultant once you have serious experience, you know.”
A month or so after this conversation, I’ve landed a job reworking Motor World’s car parts and accessories website. My second interview is on the eighth of January, and I’m offered the job the next day. I promptly go on the pop until Sunday, when I’m supposed to accept. On Monday, I stall for Britain and finally call up to ask for another 24 hours to think about it. I spend Tuesday househunting and land a classy houseshare with a wine seller called James. Wednesday I accept, move my stuff up to James’s and meet the third flatmate. Thursday I start work and on Friday I am given a hire car and told to go to Bradford for Monday morning. I spend the weekend with Trisha and Monday with the mail-order department of Motor World. Then I spend a night in a hotel and it’s Tuesday morning. And it’s on Tuesday that I start to wonder exactly what the hell it is I’m doing.
The website, as those of you who are reading this before I get my hands on it will concur (and hopefully those who aren’t will not), is a bit weak on many fronts; for one, the design is a little off – the colours aren’t consistent, the layout has irregular spacing between elements, there are a couple of HTML errors such as the ‘back’ button having two outlines – and the search is unreliable both in efficacy and presentation of results. Backstage there are more problems – orders go missing for no apparent reason before they can be shipped and all record-keeping, bizarrely for a digital business, is done with sheets of paper and ringbinders. I am intrigued to find that Motor World hired an outside consultancy to produce their site and wonder exactly why they’d taken (from what I hear) an extra four months to produce.. well.. fairly amateurish bilge. On Tuesday I am scheduled to meet Web Design Lab, the company responsible for the site as it stands. Although many at Motor World (especially those who actually had to work with the site) are keen to criticise, I am warned to keep an open mind by the mail-order department boss. I compile a list of technical queries and brace myself to be proved wrong.
I navigate for the head of IT while she drives both of us over to WDL, which turns out to be a home business – something that both pleases me (non-commuters are better for children and the environment, kids!) and worries me – how few people are working on this site anyway? Am I doubling the workforce? The door is answered by Kevin, an early thirties, unshaven guy in casual clothes. He holds back a very excited dog from the door.
“Come in, come in,” he says, with an almost affected look of busyness about him. He’s clearly keen to get down to business. Or is he? His wife, Tess, serves tea and a three-way chat between the Motor World IT boss and the two WDL representatives ensues. This chat is so extended I later clearly recall having a staring competition through the kitchen window with the dog. Eventually the two women leave because Kevin reckons they would be “bored” by his and my “technical chatter”. That he says this of the head of IT disturbs me. At any rate, we ascend some precipitous stairs and sit down at a bare desk with two G4 Macintoshes on it. It is 11:30am and we’re starting work for the day.
Kevin, it rapidly emerges, knows nothing. He and his wife have hired two Ukranians to write all the PHP for the site, and he knows so little about it that when I asked him about a variable declaration (as in, why is the $section string undefined?) he takes this as a cue to start calling me an “expert”. He admits, slowly, that he laid out the site in huge Photoshop images because he doesn’t have a sufficient command of HTML. If he had his way, apparently, he’d do the entire thing in Flash – but of course has no idea how to mate that up to a database. In fact, he seems a little shaky on what a database is. He declares CSV files a “nightmare” because they’re always full of “random full-stops that confuse the system”. My offers to write a script that filters them out is met with derision. “If you want to get involved mate, you go ahead but my advice is to leave well alone.” I feel this is rather like a man who owns a bike but uses it as a rose trellis warning me that somewhere is “a pretty long walk” away. I ask him about getting some support with understanding the existing code but he is reticent, sure that the Eastern Boys, or whatever they’re called, won’t talk to me directly. He’s also pretty sure that the partner they had who actually wrote all the code has left and that they, too, are just hacking in whatever they can.
As the minutes wear on, I give up on trying to learn anything from Kevin and quietly accept that neither he nor his partner have any real expertise. They appear to have the standard level of design skill, as bestowed on all of us with normal eyesight, and of course the Macintoshes make them feel terribly important in their pleasingly empty, faux rustic yuppie home. The dog, I later learn, is the daughter of a Crufts winner.
When Kevin starts lecturing me on the virtues of ditching a major client such as Motor World to chase other contracts, I cut him off. I’m spending 10% of my time hearing, “I don’t know” and the other 90% listening to justification of that ignorance. Eventually, Kevin burns 200Mb of data onto two CDs. I get the feeling he triggered the first one before checking he had everything on it just to prove he wasn’t totally useless.
Downstairs, he fires up a gargantuan, stainless steel fan oven and, due to incomprehension of its superior cooking power, burns a pizza for our lunch. Appreciative in the face of my contempt, I admire his trendy black plates.
“What are they made of?”
“I don’t know, really.”
My plate is scratched and is quite obviously black enamelled clay. I don’t bother to inform him of this. Kevin starts telling me that they moved from Brighton because the market for (shit) web design dried up. Apparently he and “all his friends” were going out “once a month” because they were earning so pitifully little. I would get out the violins but I’m too pissed off with the guy. He starts lecturing me about the evils of unscrupulous property developers who have ruined the demographics by pushing prices up in Brighton, which now “does not work economically”. I inform him I used to live there and disagree, saying plenty of people are making money there. He looks uncomfortable and says, “not in IT.” Oh, no, wait, he does know one mate of his who made a killing out of the property boom – “but not deliberately, right, just by accident!” I tune out and stroke the dog.
When Tess walks back in with my manager I am bubbling under. Despite shedding no further light on the project, Tess, unlike her husband, is unintimidated. She laughs about the site’s problems and bangs her head theatrically on the desk when I mention the search program.
“Is that not working again?”
“According to the mail-order people, it never worked.”
“Well, I don’t understand it at all so you’d probably be best off to rewrite that. From scratch.”
She is clearly blissfully unaware that this is a clear admission that she has not done the job for which she was hired.. and paid. It’s a similar story with the disappearing orders.
“Yeah, we know about that.” (YOU DO??) “We fixed it a while back but then there was a hacker..”
“Yeah, a hacker,” interjects Kevin, to remind us all he’s still there.
“..who broke in and deleted a bunch of stuff so we restored from an old back up and the problem came back.”
”Tell me,” I say, resigned to a crappy answer. “Do you have any record of what it was that fixed the problem first time around?”
”Oh, no,” says Tess, as if not backing up after a vital patch is perfectly normal. “I can’t remember at all.” She looks at Kevin, who also makes noises.
I am now somewhat livid. I’m being told, effectively, that vast swathes of the site must be rewritten and that I will be afforded absolutely no help with decompiling the existing code. I am also suffering from a terrible feeling that I should be doing what these guys are, ripping off companies that are scared of IT. Except I’d be doing it properly and getting recommended, instead of weakly tooting my own horn on my website.
“Webdesign skills include: ASP, PHP, SQL, Flash and good old HTML” says their website, and that says it all. To draw a parallel, it would be comparable for BMW to put out an ad saying, “Our cars are designed with air con, power steering, leather seats.. and good old wheels.”
Rachel, the IT manager, was reticent about her opinion of WDL but she was clearly disturbed by my cagey, brusque comments. I think she feels seriously compromised by accidentally trusting a pair of shysters and is very worried about letting on to the finance department how bad things are. Web Design Lab (sorry, “webdesign:Lab”) I hate you. I have never felt so sorry for a woman old enough to be my mother in my life. If I thought it would do anything useful I’d persuade the finance director to take out a lawsuit demanding a large sum in lost profits – after all, they cannot prove that orders have not been lost and we can prove that at least 40 nearly were – and we only heard about them from the credit card company.
I think the most depressing thing, and the reality of the situation, is that neither Kevin nor Tess bear anyone any ill will. They think this is a job well done. They have no shame in taking thousands of pounds from a real retail company, sinking it into stupid shit from Ikea and calling it being part of the economy. What did they learn about professionalism after 5 years in Brighton? Less than I did on my own in 18 months. What did they get for it? I don’t know, but I’ll wager it was several times what I would have asked for in Swaziland.
I am disturbed that two people who were, no doubt, the irritating, unreliable losers from high school, who approach their work with as much commitment as they afforded the school newspaper, are earning so much more than I am.
Turns out my Dad was right.. but wrong in this case. I’ll be interested to see what you all have to say over email.
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