If programmers were builders  

Yury Nesterenko

Translation: Tania Samsonova, 2015

Translator’s note: this is an old joke which is still very true and extremely funny. I would call it a sad tale that shows the importance of requirements elicitation and management.

1.03. Hooray! We snatched a big contract for the construction of a 12-storey residential building. The team is bubbling with enthusiasm. Polished off two cases of beer to celebrate.

2.03. The customer doesn’t like the expression “as soon as we get around to it”. He demands that we specify the exact dates. He’s a philistine and knows nothing about high technology.

3.03. We discussed the deadlines. Polished off three cases of beer in the process. Petrovich said that this amount of work can be done in 4 months easily. Therefore, actually it will be 8. Finally, we put 12 months in the contract, even though we can barely manage it in 16 months.

6.03. Petrovich collected all the bottles and took them to the store to get the deposit back.

8.03. We celebrated International Women’s Day. There are no women in our company, so nobody interfered with the celebrations.

2.04. Petrovich says that it’s time to start working. Is it a conspiracy? We built a fence around the construction site and decorated it with beautiful posters saying “Construction by AllBuild (www.allbuild.ru)”. Then, with a warm feeling of accomplishment, we went off to play Quake.

20.04. The customer came over and inquired about how things were going. We taught him to play Quake and allowed him to beat us all.

21.04. We held a meeting to discuss the project. Sidorov suggests we use modular architecture and build using ready-made panels. Petrovich insists that everything must be built in the good old way, using brick, not like how lamers do it. The most radically innovative project was proposed by Alex: build a few dozen wooden huts and then connect them with underground tunnels. This is the latest trend. I reminded him that the customer wants a 12-storey building. They tried to resolve the dispute by having a Quake duel. Alex with his huts was offed at once, but Petrovich and Sidorov came even. In the end, we decided that everyone will build according to his own plan and then we’ll try to put it all together in such a way that it does not collapse.

30.04. The first floor is ready! We showed it to the customer. He was surprised that different rooms have different ceiling heights, some bricks fall out of the walls, and there is no entrance to the building so one has to climb through a window. We explained to him that these are the special limitations of a demo version. We left for the Easter holidays, being proud of ourselves.

10.05. Petrovich was the first to sober up and then he started swearing and he kept swearing for a very long time. We thought he was angry that Alex had drank all the beer. It turned out that the situation is much worse: we’ve forgotten about the foundation. Of course it was described in the project specifications, but surely only lamers read them.

11.05. We had to demolish the first floor. It’s a crying shame.

11.07. The construction is under way. Petrovich is close to completion of the second floor, Sidorov of the fifth. Alex has built an elevator well all the way up to the ninth floor, and in a strong wind it swings dangerously. We put wooden props around it for now.

17.07. Alex is building the attic and the roof. On the ground. Then we’ll lift them and put them in place with a crane.

13.08. Sidorov is unable to join the panels. The gap is more than a meter wide. Sidorov called Petrovich for help, but Petrovich said that he is busy up to his ears with his own work, and anyway without the knowledge of the internal architecture it is impossible to do anything with the panels.

14.08. We hacked several panels so Petrovich could study the internal architecture. Petrovich swears and yells that the panels were manufactured by total lamers.

17.08. Petrovich plugged up the gap. As a result, the panels are all askew, but that’s a very minor problem. We had to bring the wiring of the panels to the outside and tie the wires into a knot. Petrovich covered the knot with duct tape and assured us it will work if there isn’t rain.

1.09. A new version of the panels was released! The manufacturer has enhanced the strength and insulation, and the new panels also have prebuilt walk-in closets. However, they are not compatible with the previous version in shape or size and they are also three times heavier. Looks like those panel designers don’t know anything about internal architecture whatsoever.

16.09. Alex is obsessed with an idea. He suggests that we make all the windows in the building resizable. He says the customer will be enthralled. We told him to stop showing off.

2.10. Petrovich got as far as the fifth floor. He is very proud of himself. We drew his attention to the fact that his wall is inclined at an angle of 40 degrees. He swore and shouted that we are lamers who know nothing. Then he promised to think about it.

3.10. The customer came over. He asked why the wall is inclined at an angle of 40 degrees. We told him about the Coriolis force. He listened, then said that he, of course, does not know anything about the construction business, but there is an altogether identical building next to ours and its wall stands straight. Damn. Then this idiot Alex blabbed about his resizable windows. The customer, of course, was enthralled and insisted that we implement them. Double damn.

4.10. We asked Alex whether it will be necessary to demolish the entire building to implement his windows. He says that no, the standard panels have such an undocumented feature too.

5.10. Petrovich admitted that there is really something wrong with the wall. He says that a specific brick was installed incorrectly. But to understand which one, exactly, we’ll have to go through them all. It’s much easier to demolish everything and to build from scratch.

6.10. We tried to persuade Petrovich that we don’t have time to build everything anew from bricks. We showed him the calculations on a calculator. Petrovich cursed us and shouted that the calculator was invented by lamers. Eventually he agreed to build using panels and left to drown his sorrows in booze.

8.10. We demolished the part built of bricks. Along the way, we have damaged the part made of panels. The whole building creaks and wobbles alarmingly. We reinforced it with wooden props and left to play Quake.

17.10. Petrovich came back from his drinking binge. The construction is under way.

7.11. We celebrated the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, or whatever they call it now. There are no communists in our company, so nobody interfered with the celebrations.

15.11. We suddenly remembered that our crane is only 8 storeys high. We sent Sidorov to get a new one. In the meantime, we played Quake. Alex has beaten Petrovich. We are proud of our younger team members and their professional growth!

24.11. Sidorov has returned. He did not find a crane but he procured a totally cool excavator. He suggests we dig a pit and build not 12 storeys high but 12 storeys deep. He says that nowhere in the contract it specifies that the 12 storeys have to be above the ground. We barely managed to dissuade him.

25.11. We brainstormed on the problem of the crane. With the last bottle of beer we found a solution. We have hastily abandoned the main construction project and are now building a 4-storey house next to it. Then we’ll hoist our crane onto its roof.

25.12. We celebrated Christmas according to the Western calendar. There are no Western Christians in our company, so nobody interfered with the celebrations.

14.01. I can’t remember anything. My head hurts. Guys, what year is it?

2.02. Well, it seems, we have finally finished building the 12th floor. Tomorrow we’ll fit on top of it the attic and roof that Alex has built.

3.02. Alex is a lamer. The roof is sliding down incessantly. For now, we have propped it using the crane. We’ll think of something.

4.02. Alex insists that it is not his fault. It is just that Sidorov’s 12 storeys are 4 meters taller and 5 meters wider than Petrovich’s 12 storeys. It turned out that they were built of different panels. But Alex is still a lamer, because his roof fits neither of the two. Neither does his elevator well, by the way.

5.02. We patched, reinforced, and extended the roof. Petrovich says it will hold, as long as it doesn’t snow.

7.02. It started snowing.

10.02. We made a roof of plywood, and painted it silver. Hopefully, the customer won’t notice.

11.02. We’ve been testing the elevator. Its stops are located between the floors, but it is still possible to get out. On even numbered floors you have to crawl out, and on odd ones, you have to pull yourself up. Note to self: don’t forget to describe it in the documentation.

12.02. When all’s said and done, the elevator moves extremely slow. Petrovich says we’re all lamers. He is going to do the optimization.

13.02. Petrovich has optimized the elevator. It gained speed, went through the roof and left in an unknown direction. It’s a good thing that the roof is made of plywood and will be easy to fix. After that, the elevator well collapsed. We suddenly remembered that we never replaced the wooden props with something stronger. Never mind. Taking the stairs is good for one’s health.

15.02. The finishing works are under way. For some reason, painters and plasterers keep disappearing. We arranged to have more workforce sent to us.

17.02. It was found out that due to an error made by Sidorov the doors on floors two through six only open to let people in. As a result, an amazing number of plasterers and painters was amassed there and now they can’t leave. Sidorov promised to fix everything. In the meantime, we pass food through the window to feed the painters and plasterers.

20.02. Alex finally completed his resizable windows. We tested them. It was found that when a window is resized the glass in it breaks. Furthermore, there are a number of side effects. For example, the toilet and bathtub from one apartment can suddenly emerge in the living room of the one next to it. Also sometimes doors disappear and balconies crumble. We tried complaining to the panel manufacturers but didn’t get anywhere – they say that we shouldn’t have used undocumented features.

21.02. The customer came over. He asked whether it is possible to make a few small changes to the project. In particular, instead of a 12-storey building, to have a village of wooden huts connected by tunnels. He heard on social media that this is the latest trend. We neutralized Alex before he could open his mouth, and politely but firmly explained to the customer that he is wrong to suggest such a thing.

22.02. The balconies continue to crumble, even though we never touch the resizable windows now. Apparently this is some sort of independent glitch. It is too late to investigate it, so to be safe we have just ripped off the remaining balconies. Let’s try to explain to the customer that this is done for the sake of optimization.

23.02. We celebrated Soviet Army Day. There are no military people in our company, so nobody interfered with the celebrations. We have no women either, so no one gave us gifts. It’s a shame.

25.02. Alex tried to complete his windows. As a result, half of them shrank to zero size and would not expand back. I told him to stop showing off, or it will be even worse.

27.02. We suddenly remembered that we have forgotten to make a proper entrance after all. We discussed whether the building may collapse if we cut a hole now. Sidorov said it would be better not to risk it. Petrovich called him a lamer and agreed. Note to self: don’t forget to say in the documentation that entering through a window is not a bug but a feature.

1.03. It’s March 1 already?! What?! How is it possible?! Yesterday, it was just… Damn. Who knew that this lame month of February has 28 days? It means that the commissioning date is not a week from now but the day after tomorrow!

2.03. We declared a state of emergency. We work 24 hours a day, without waking up.

3.03. We convinced the customer that we need another day for the final testing. Oh boy, did we work yesterday… But when all’s said and done, it’s not too bad. Well, if you overlook the fact that some of the doors are in the floor or ceiling, or open from the tenth floor directly onto the street, some of the apartments are not accessible in any way, several bathrooms are combined with kitchens, half of the building has no running water, the other half is not connected to the power mains, there is no plumbing above the sixth floor, and instead of the stairs between the eighth and ninth there is a rope ladder. The main thing is to take the customer inspection around the building using the right route. And we still have time till tomorrow to hang pictures of landscapes in the place of the missing windows…

4.03. Yes! Yes! We did it! We’re now celebrating the commissioning of our building. I’ll drink just a little bit – I must keep my sobriety to leave in time before the damn thing collapses…

The only Russian textbook you’ll ever need

Daily worries

Just got news from British Centre for Literary Translation that they are not going to sponsor my trip to Netherlands because I live in Canada and not Russia, even though I work on the Russian translation of the book. (It does not seem fair, as Canada is much farther and my travel expenses will be even higher than if I traveled from Russia, but that’s international bureaucracy for you. My publisher certainly will not sponsor my trip, and the money I get for the entire book translation are hardly going to cover the cost of the trip.) Now I’ll write to Canadian Council of the Arts and the Ontario one too. I’ll get to Leiden anyway, it’s just that it would be nice for a change to get someone sponsor the process of global cultural exchange.

Literary joys

I have completed translation of Terry Pratchett’s Nation (it is now being edited), and have started The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt. It is huge – 600 pages, about the same size as Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil which I have translated last year. The Children’s Book was shortlisted for Booker prize. Translators from half a dozen countries are working on it right now, and I have been included into a mailing list for The Children’s Book translators worldwide, with participation of A.S.Byatt herself. By the way, this Wikipedia article says that A.S.Byatt was actually influenced by Murdoch, and that the novelist Margaret Drabble is her sister, which  I did not know before. I read something by Drabble and I thought she writes, in fact, very much like Murdoch, but more… drab. The pun is intended. In my opinion, The Children’s Book is not like anything by Murdoch at all, at least I very much hope so. I will not survive another 600 pages of dark and depressive stuff like The Philosopher’s Pupil. The Children’s Book story is not all roses either, but at least it’s less… existential? and more lifelike. The work on it will be pure joy, anyway. Life is good.

It’s Ada Lovelace Day!

It’s a special day today: Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging about women in technology. I wanted to write about Grace Hopper but then I thought there’s too much written about Granny COBOL out there already.

I’d rather write about women I know.

My mother, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and has been working full-time as a researcher, together with cooking, cleaning, mending, standing for hours in lines in grocery stores, sewing and knitting for the family of four, for as long as I remember.

My mother-in-law, who worked all her life in a Soviet-style classified IT institution and still tries to teach my kids some assembler (over the phone, from Russia).

Maya Pavlovna Zimina, who headed the summer archaeological expedition, herding myself and about 10 other unruly digging teenagers throughout our most difficult ages, from 13 to about 19 when most of us were admitted to universities and at least half of us got married. Archaeology is not exactly technology, but still, she was a great role model.

My university mates. I was in the Computer Science faculty, and, strangely enough, about 90% of the people in my year were female. It is easily explained, though: university students used to be exempt from the mandatory Army draft, but a year before I entered the University the exemption was canceled, and boys flocked to the four institutes that still granted the exemption. The University was not among them, so we got only those boys who already served in the army and those who got exempted for health reasons. About 20% of all students, in total. The few that still got to serve were plucked from our ranks within the first year, and for the next 5 years we had to study in an environment resembling a nunnery.

Elena Sergeevna Ventzel, a math professor, doctor of technology, author of widely known textbooks on probability theory, scientific papers and popular science books. She also wrote great novels under the pen-name of I.Grekova (from “Igrek”, the Russian name of the letter “Y”), full of bitter truth and of praise for the glory of life and of the woman as a creative element.

My female IT colleagues in Russia. They got used to seeing job ads starting with “A programmer wanted, male, under 35 y.o.” They got used to talking to receptionists from recruitment agencies, “Er, you know, I hold a degree with honours in computer science, and I just returned from abroad where I worked for a major IT company”, and to hearing the abrupt response, “Our client asked for a man!”, followed by hanging up. I could not deal with it. It was easier for me to immigrate to Canada and build my life and career from scratch here.

My second cousin, a P.Eng., a professor in Durham College and a mother of three.

The wife of my other second cousin, a laboratory chemist and also a mother of three.

The effervescent Sacha Chua who taught me everything I know about networking, loving one’s work and being in love with life.

… I could probably go on, but there’s only 15 minutes left to midnight. That’s all folks! Or else Ada Lovelace’s day ends before I post, and my blog turns into a pumpkin.

Terry Pratchett’s Nation

Yay, I got an offer to translate Terry Pratchett’s Nation into Russian!
Crisis or no crisis, people still read good books.

Bad translation is bad for your business

A Little Help From My Friend — Mr. Dell
By Michele A. Berdy

Помощь: help, aid, assistance

Oh, boy: there’s a spring thaw in U.S.-Russian relations. Folks are meeting and talking more often. Good thing? Absolutely. Guaranteed to be successful? No way.

This seems like a good time to revisit the exchange between Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Davos earlier this year. It’s an excellent example of the perils of cross-cultural and interpersonal communication and the limitations of interpretation.

Read further: http://www.moscowtimes.ru/article/1016/42/375124.htm