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'OK,' I say finally. 'Let me absolutely clear on what the requirement is. You want us to create a web front end to a legacy application running on an elderly Pentium II server. You want users to be able to access this application in real-time over a dial-up VPN connection. You would also like the front end, which should be Internet Explorer, to be able to query a stock control system on a different server and to provide an integrated view of the data.'
The boss grins. This is music to his ears. 'That's right,' he explains excitedly. 'When I scroll through records from the time sheet system I'd like to see the corresponding sales figures for the sales-person.'
'And you want this when?' I ask.
'Next week. At the latest.'
I start to laugh but realise that I'm on my own. The boss and his flunkey aren't laughing.
'So that's a yes then,' the flunkey suggests hopefully.
'So it's a no then,' the flunkey concludes wisely. He's smart this kid, the money the company spent getting him an MBA was a wise investment.
'Where's the problem?' the boss demands. 'We've put web front ends of other apps before. Where's the problem?'
'You've already said that,' I point out, trying to buy time.
'You said 'where's the problem' twice,' the flunkey points out helpfully.
'Damn it! I can say where's the problem as many times as I like,' the boss snaps. 'I'll do it again: where's the problem?'
I take a deep breath and respond with remarkable calm: 'The P2 box will have crap response times. The system crashes at least once a week and we're forever having problems with the database corrupting. The stock control system doesn't have sales records on it it has stock records. The VPN is creaking along because half the users are swapping MP3s and porn movies.'
The boss pauses for a second. 'OK, you know that when I said stock control I meant sales ledger. You know that we're not touching that P2 box in case it explodes. And I'd like to know which users are misusing the VPN.'
I smile. 'If stock control really means sales, what does sales mean? The list of VPN abusers, should I include the CEO, CFO and your office or not?'
The flunkey looks pale. I guess he's been naughty with the boss's computer. Either that or he knows that the boss has been downloading dodgy content off those specialist web sites again.
The boss pauses. His eye narrow while he thinks this one through. 'What about if we use XML?'
'You've never heard of it?' the boss asks.
'Half the systems we write these days use XML in one form or another,' I point out. 'I just don't see how it helps us here. Can you explain it in a bit more detail?'
The boss leans forwards and is about to launch into it when he realises he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. 'I'm not doing your job for you, Joe,' he tells me.
'So you want me to create a complex multi-tier application across distributed databases with a web front end and state of the art network access. And you want this next week?'
'Why next week?'
'I think an aggressive target is necessary.'
He's looking cagey. Then it hits me. 'Isn't next week when you get your pay review?'
'Unconnected,' he lies.
I relax. He's looking for something to justify the pay rise he's looking for. 'I don't think this project is a good idea to be honest,' I say, my voice dropping to a friendly whisper. 'If it goes badly wrong then it'll take out the entire infrastructure of the company. Once the time sheet system is down it'll bring the entire company to a grinding halt in a matter of minutes.'
He looks dubious. 'How? That's not possible.'
I shrug. 'Are you ignoring my advice? I'd like that in writing please.'
'But, Joe,' he tells me reasonably. 'we both know that the time sheet system is isolated from everything else.'
'But you want it connected. If we start this project today the company will be doing nothing within a couple of hours. Probably. The CEO won't be able to download his personal content from the internet...'
'What do I do?' the boss asks despondently.
'What you need is a handly little application that I knocked up for the tech support group. You enter a user name and it will tell you what smut they've been looking at and how much has been copied to a local hard disk. Works for any user name. Including the CEOs.'
The gears turn slowly but the boss suddenly smiles. 'Can I have a copy of this useful little utility?'
I lean back in my seat. 'Sure,' I say, 'straight after my own pay review.'