Is there such a thing as an over engineer?

Sanity Clause

I fear the information technology industry is guilty of over engineering systems. (By “engineering” I use the word in the vernacular sense, not the P. Eng. sense; I really don’t want those e-mails.)

A good example of over engineering was found in the July 12, 2002 ComputerWorld Canada article about the NHL draft pick process using computers to track trades instead of humans running around with bits of paper. The lengths that were taken to make systems interoperate when they were never designed to talk to each other made me wonder what’s wrong with a bit of exercise?

Take golf as another example. I had the opportunity to analyze online booking for golf tee times and soon ran for the hills. Many analysts do the arithmetic and see dollar signs. If in summer you have 12 hours you can golf a day, and you have 4 foursomes every hour, that’s 12 x 4 x 4 x 30 x $50 = $288,000 per month if you charge $50 per person. That’s assuming you fill every tee time. (Now you hard core golfers out there are already laughing your guts out; shut up and let the other people enjoy the story.)

As a result of these dollar figures, anyone who has ever written a line of code thinks they can code this thing. I mean, how hard could it be? The system starts to get nasty once you’ve realized that the prices change based on the time of day (i.e. twilight times are less expensive), if the person is part of a tour, or a club member, or a religious figure, or has cool hair or whatever.

Naturally you’ll build this system to work all over the world, right? Cool. Well, geography matters. If the golf course is right beside a mountain, twilight might come earlier than what your geosynchronous satellite data might tell you. Twilight is what the golf course owner says it is.

Assuming you get the system built and have a reasonable Web enabled interface for both the back office functions (e.g. assigning prices based on dates and time of day) and the consumer booking process, you will realize that you face problems. Your testing likely was limited to the golfing public and the owner of the course testing the admin functions.

Now you meet Doug. He’s the guy in the pro shop with the pencil and big sheets of paper. The owner kept you away from him, assuring you that he was on board. In fact, Doug wasn’t told a thing because Doug is a sociopath. Doug thinks that pencil sharpeners were a bad idea, but now he has realized the efficiencies (and lack of gouges to his thumb) of not using a jack knife to sharpen his HB pencil.

The owner hoped that Doug would embrace a completed system, which leaves you well and truly screwed. Pray that you did not build the thing on spec.

Your system will be accepted and used once Doug has met with a hideous accident because people like Doug never age and they never retire and they never change. And why should they? Theirs is the power of golf. They control everything; Tiger Woods kisses this guy’s butt.

And worst of all, you realize that your system is over engineered. Golf prices, times and who tees off at those times are all based on a whim. And money isn’t even a motivation. What motivates Doug and the owner? Golf. A game invented by bored Scottish sheepherders.

The best you could have done was buy Doug a mechanical pencil.

Ford is a consultant in Vancouver. He apologizes to anyone named Doug and any persons who were offended by the humorous application of the word sociopath. He can be reached at [email protected]

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