The Promise And Reality

Every once in a while I take on a “real world” project, writing some press releases or marketing materials where (unlike the situation here) someone else controls the agenda and the result.

I don’t just do this for the money. (OK, that vacation to ClickZ’s Andover offices still isn’t fully paid for.) It’s also important, when I’m sitting here dissing the results of “carefully” laid marketing plans, that I should sometimes witness how these Titanics reach their icebergs.

My first adventure in this area came 15 years ago, when I helped write the manual for what became Harbinger Corp.’s EDI system. (I’m praying here that the “statute of limitations” on that corporate secret has expired.) Of course, it wasn’t an EDI system at the time – I didn’t then (and don’t now) know enough about the innards of Electronic Data Interchange to document it. I was merely asked to write about the front-end application.

That application was (believe it or not) home banking and home shopping. We’re not even talking here about XTs, folks, but home banking on circa-1984 PCs with twin floppy drives and X.25 networks running at 300 baud. Everyone was very sincere in discussing customer benefits, and how screens would work together. No one had a Clue that we were about 15 years early on this thing. No one asked basic questions until the product, dubbed “The Promise,” laid a big egg in the marketplace. We were just lucky that the CEO knew how to make lemonade from our lemon. In time, the company prospered.

I’ve been at magazines launched for no good reason, and worked on software whose niches closed before the product could get out the door. I’ve seen plenty of angry debates between idiots who shouldn’t have been seen outside a padded cell, let alone inside a boardroom. And in that time I’ve learned one important lesson.

It’s always the same. Whether the result is a hit or a miss, the process by which it comes to market is always the same. There’s incredible inanity, an intense picking of nits, some anal-retentive power-tripper playing mind games in the corner, a host of missed deadlines, and lots of sitting-around-and-waiting.

The first time I witnessed this (it was with Harbinger, actually) I was outraged. I was taking some incredible sum of money on retainer and being given nothing to do, until one day I was supposed to work 36 hours in each 24, and 9 days out of each 7, to get the thing out the door yesterday. Were that I knew then what I know now. That’s normal. No matter how incredibly Clueless the people around you may seem, they’re no worse than the crew in the office tower down the street.

If you’ve got one guy in authority with the brains of a Tycho Howle, things will probably work out. If not, you can always get a laugh out of Dilbert. Scott Adams, I finally learned, really is just writing documentaries. And while the web has promised us much, it still hasn’t changed that basic reality.

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