The Creature From The Tech Lagoon

I first saw the kid in the corner of a “meeting space” about two months before the end of my contract. Tall, skinny, basement pale, awkward bowl haircut, bewildered look. Polyester slacks. Yellow stripe shirt with these absurd white contrast French cuffs and collar. Two-thirds of a prom outfit from the white-trash site of urban Columbus, really.

The purpose of this particular meeting was to hear a mutual pitch from RedHat and Microsoft, trying to get our department to set up its own little kingdom of servers and “container architecture”. This is a constant struggle in pretty much any major corporation, a battle that’s being fought behind the scenes 24/7. Once upon a time, each company had a mainframe and it was under the direct control of the tech department. Then when minicomputers like VAXen came along, you had individual departments setting up their own systems. When small “servers” came along, the problem got a thousand times worse. Then you got Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA and FINRA, laying a complex web of compliance regulations on all those small servers. So the Fortune 500 companies swept everything back up into one central department. This made life much tougher for all those individual departments, who now had to go to corporate IT and wait a year for something they used to get done in a month. So they started… cheating, setting up their own stuff on the sly.

My ex-wife had a job for a while where she would sniff out these “shadow servers” and even the “shadow helpdesks” set up to support their users. Hundreds of $20,000 computers and hundreds of full-time jobs, all shuffled off the books and reported to headquarters as something else just to avoid the hassle of dealing with central IT and their deliberately difficult processes. Once she arrived in a city to find that the department she was investigating had built a whole server room, a million-dollar operation listed as something else entirely. She tore the place down to the ground like Samson. A couple years afterwards, she heard rumors that it was being set up again. The heart wants what it wants, you see.

Anyway. The company for which I was contracting had spent a billion-with-a-B dollars on a central tech architecture and container platform. But that didn’t stop my sub-department from wanting to spend a million-with-an-M dollars on its own private little playground. So the RedHat and Microsoft people had arranged a meeting to show us all the benefits we would get from buying their products. And that’s where I saw the kid, whom I would later come to think of as The Creature From The Tech Lagoon.


I will confess that I was pretty apathetic during this presentation, which lasted four days. I considered it a waste of time. The best case scenario was that we would spent a year building something that would be shut down the minute someone around the C-suites heard about it. But the Creature was not apathetic. He quickly learned the names of everybody in the room. He made sure to shake their hands at the beginning and end of every session. Apparently he’d been shucked off from another department during a reorganization but he’d managed to attach to ours as a “technical resource” for this shadow-server implementation.

The Creature spoke often in the meetings and when he spoke it was as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. He would begin by saying, “I know that Bob and Jenny have conferenced with Pam and Raja about this”, all those names being important people a few layers up in the hierarchy. Then he would say something that sounded like a bit of the product documentation only it was drained of even the slightest meaning. The Creature had a talent for stringing together buzzwords. I got into the habit of ignoring him.

The week after the presentation I started getting emails from the Creature. Maybe five of them a day. Naturally, they were sent early in the morning and then late at night. The Creature was always in the office. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing. But the emails continued to issue from his electronic cloaca.

Subject: New perspective on containerized artifacts

Hey everybody, I’m excited about Platform9. Platform9 Managed Kubernetes is the industry’s only SaaS managed solution that is infrastructure agnostic, working across public clouds and on-premises server infrastructure. SaaS managed delivery enables on boarding in minutes, without the ongoing operational overhead of 24/7 monitoring, troubleshooting and orchestrating Kubernetes upgrades. Can we all get dialoguing on this right away? I’ve set up a meeting invite.

Five of these a day. I ignored every meeting request. Then the Powerpoint decks started coming. Shortly after meeting him, I’d jokingly explained to him how the H1-Bs liked to put five slides’ worth of content on each and every Powerpoint slide. It was common to get PowerPoints from the H1-Bs where the text had been shrunk past the point of readability. They would take a slide they liked and turn it into the upper left hand corner of a new slide, then repeat the process. I’d meant to warn the Creature about that process but instead he took it to heart. His Powerpoints were astoundingly dense, with as many as ten different diagrams per slide. Most of the diagrams were taken directly from the Internet. Sometimes they would contradict each other. Nobody seemed to notice.

There was a snow day. School was canceled. Most people stayed home. I came in the next day to find that the Creature had kept the whole team updated on his work-from-home progress on an hourly basis. There was a new Powerpoint. And a link to an incomprehensible position paper on meaningless technology. Our boss had responded:

Good job!

There was a reorganization. I was told that my contract was not renewing, which was a relief. The Creature, however, was now assuming a new capacity as an architect of sorts. Could I help the Creature learn something — anything! — about computers before I left? It was critical. He was going to be leading the department into its future shadow-server environment.

I reluctantly accepted a meeting invite. The Creature had invited people from across the globe. Literally. India and Ireland, those two low-cost English-speaking outposts of the tech support universe. The purpose of the meeting was to explain the next-generation architecture as he imagined it. The Creature opened it with a sustained monologue that was a masterpiece of incoherent disconnection. “Any questions?” he huffed.

“Yes.” It was an English accent. “You need to understand that it doesn’t work that way. The connections you’re talking about… they don’t exist. That’s not how we build software. You’re talking about two products that interfere with each other. Would you mind figuring out what’s really going to happen before we have a meeting like this again?” There was dead silence, thirty people all doing a solid impression of a mute button. I stifled a chuckle. I heard the Creature draw breath. His response was calm, measured.

“Well, clearly you need some time to get comfortable with the new ideas. I’ll try to arrange for you to get some coaching.”

“That’s not what I’m saying—”

“Like I said, let’s get you some coaching. Alright, most of us will reconvene next week.” And with that, the Creature killed the call.

Two days before the end of my contract, I saw him in the hallway. He was now dressed identically to the H1-Bs, untucked flannel shirt and jeans. A cluster of them were following him and he was talking nonstop about container strategy container methods java struts spring boots. When he saw me he allowed an imperial nod to tilt in my approximate direction. Later on that afternoon, I found out that the funds had been allocated. A long-term vendor engagement was beginning. It would be supervised by the Creature. Nobody knew exactly what it would be. But it would be expensive and it would take a year or more. The excitement was palpable for this future boondoggle. It was tacitly understood that RedHat would send three people to be “supervised” by ten of our guys. A lot of hours would be billed.

On my way out the door I dropped off my keys to one of the senior people on the team. “We would like to have you back. There will be opportunities on this team thanks to the new engagement. You should talk to…” and here he named the Creature with no small amount of audible respect, “…maybe see if he can envision a role for you in all of this.”

“Thanks but… no thanks,” I replied. “I think it’s all a bit, ah, deliberately complicated.”

“Oh yes, it is very complicated,” came the response. “It is so complicated and it will take so long. We are lucky to have Him.”

32 Replies to “The Creature From The Tech Lagoon”

  1. E. Bryant

    And yet another real-world example of the Gervais Principle in full effect (the Creature here is an underperforming Loser who is taking a gamble in order to move up to the Sociopath level). If you’d stuck around long enough, you’d get to see whether the kid has the personality traits required to pull this off. My guess is that he doesn’t, but that sort of tragic underestimation has cost me dearly at two previous jobs.

    Reply
  2. E. Bryant

    I should add that the Creature’s technical skills don’t factor into his success at all; it’s all about social skills. The fact that he stuck a shiv into someone with superior technical skills, and didn’t immediately get smacked down by someone else (silence by others doesn’t count here; only a humiliating defeat will do) suggests a higher probability of success than I’d first thought.

    Reply
  3. -Nate

    On the one hand, a pathetic loser who’ll never get laid unless he pays for it, has managed to make him self a decant paying contract job and if he’s sharp he’ll be able to roll the pay into good investments .

    On the other hand, Nature used to cull these types .

    Well written and interesting .

    I wonder how many startups fail because they don’t see the $ rabbit hole they allowed and encouraged in this manner .

    -Nate

    Reply
      • -Nate

        Oh boy ~

        That was bad .

        OTOH, those who never try will never fly with the eagles, right ? .

        Good thing I learned how ignorant I am early on and was able to have a nice little Blue Collar Life that included lots of super rich friends who occasionally took me to see how they do things….

        I’m of the ‘wast of time ‘ camp on that but I love this Internet thing so _obviously_ once again I’m wrong .

        -Nate

        Reply
      • Hogie roll

        “By some measures, Juicero is very much on trend. Soylent, a liquefied meal replacement, is already popular among single-minded coders too busy to eat”

        GTFO! Surely this peak bugman.

        Bugmen sitting in their ant farm eating bug food.

        Reply
  4. rich

    I worked in big tech consulting firms for years. They are full of people like this guy.

    Now I’m older I work mostly alone, directly for clients. There’s less money but at least I have the satisfaction of building real solutions that clients run their businesses on. I doubt if one in a hundred projects these big tech firms do ever goes live, despite, or likely because of, the millions spunked on them.

    Reply
  5. Dirty Dingus McGee

    I have heard it explained as “the Peter Principle”;

    An individual will rise to the level of their own incompetence.

    Reply
    • Lucas

      I briefly thought about the Peter Principle when reading this article, but I think there is a difference. IIRC, the person in the Peter Principle typically actually *did* excel in a prior or even multiple prior positions, they just eventually wound up in a place where they are no longer competent. I think the difference here is that the person has never excelled in anything other than bullshitting others on their way up the ladder.

      Reply
  6. Kevin Jaeger

    If you think this species of tech Creature is bad in large private companies you should see what they are like in large federal government projects and defense projects. The ability, and even incentive to waste everyone’s time and money with strategic BS and buzzword bingo exists on an entirely different plane when dealing with government budgets, planning cycles and the inevitable security requirements and policy approvals.

    Dealing with these Creatures is not fun but it’s a living.

    Reply
    • kvndoom

      I have seen one person cost my employer millions in unproductive time, pet projects that went nowhere (“let’s buy this $25,000 piece of equipment, test it once, then shelve it until the end of time”), and loss of experienced personnel. He was the #1 reason, sometimes the sole reason, that some two dozen people either left our department or left the company altogether. His name was mentioned (and not in a good way) on more exit interviews than probably anyone else ever employed by us.

      He brought in two female engineers who he coddled because he felt like they were “his daughters.” They got the lion’s share of the raises and promotions, while doing nothing to earn it. They got credit for everyone else’s work on his team. Combined, they probably do about 2 week’s worth of real, error-free, work per year. It’s not a surprise that they lasted longer under him than most. I’m not being sexist in the least… our company has some truly incredible lady engineers and my hat is off to them, but these two are Shaggy and Scooby if anyone ever was.

      My lab’s previous supervisor, whenever he calls my current boss, always asks the same question before getting into conversation: “Is he dead yet?” I’m not even kidding.

      But nothing was done. Ever. All the waste, all the complaints, well over 100 years’ worth of experience quitting, led to nothing. Only degrading health finally took him out of a position to do our department any more harm. Now he’s off to the side instead of being a rung on the ladder. But the manager taking over his duties has a hell of a job cut out, to fix all the shit that’s been swept under the rug for almost 2 decades.

      And the “daughters” have been looking for other jobs since the day he was assigned out of management. Big shock. I heard last week that one just found a new gig, which she will probably fail at, but her former boss made sure she has a star-studded resume that is sure to impress.

      Reply
  7. Robert

    I’m so glad I work for a small tech company that would promptly go out of business if we attempted even 1/10th of a boondoggle this ill advised. Living hand to mouth forces a certain level of pragmatism. If anyone on my team sent emails like that, I’d promptly deactivate their account and show them the door. Meanwhile, we’ll be lucky to get our fleet of 10 year old physical servers virtualized in-house this year.

    Reply
  8. -Nate

    B.T.W. :

    THANKS AGAIN for the amazing, comprehensive and FREE education I get here and from you alls who comment .

    -Nate

    Reply
  9. Justin Styer

    If you’re ever in Austin… you can drive a budget built 2500 lbs / 320 hp 993 and I can share my two year foray in the “big-data” world. I just had PTSD reading that google power point, tech-con attending, buzz spewing dumpster fire.

    Took me about 3 months to re-calibrate my BS meter from the world of mechanical engineering to the world of software engineering after I took that job. Shouldn’t have wasted my time. Turns out the meter only needed one setting: bullshit.

    Reply
  10. Q

    I’m surprised anyone spoke up.

    The days of saying “that’s a bad idea, and here is why” are getting rare, now morphed into something that affirms the bad idea and sends the person on their way, unchallenged and less likely to successfully problem-solve in the future.

    Reply
  11. Jim

    I cracked up reading this. This week I had a meeting with some vendors and the PowerPoint was exactly as described here. Very dense with 12 slides worth of data per slide and the top left was a snapshot of the second slide. Low and behold the presenter was a H1-B.
    I have ran across guys like the creature and you have to give them some credit for finding a flaw in the system and exploiting it. I just steer clear and do honest work.

    Reply
  12. T Daley

    Nice piece, Jack.
    The frightening thing is that it’s all to easy just to walk away and let them suffer under the likes of the Creature. (I’m not criticizing your response, just acknowledging the recognition of a disfunctional situation that just isn’t worth it)

    The hidden department that your wife treated like a Philistine temple: How do these get set up and how can they be hidden in dept. budgets? Their finance systems must be laughable

    Reply
    • rnc

      My girlfriend essentially has set up an entire second department of contractors and freelancers, without them being called such or even known about, they are run through a vendor with excess funds allocated for that vendor, just as long as the money is budgeted, finance/IA could care less (and like avoiding central IT, the goal here was to avoid central purchasing*, just as convoluted as central IT (but both really do serve a purpose)

      *The 8-9 people she needed right then/right now, would have been about a 6 month to a year bidding/vetting process through purchasing while giving her a whole lot less control of them all while ending up costing significantly more.

      Reply
  13. scotten

    After 20 years in IT, this story hurts. At one point I enjoyed technology, but now it’s just slogging through corporate and IT bullshit.

    Reply
  14. Danio

    The ability to spin bullsh1t trumps raw technical skill every time. The thing is, upper management is rarely involved with the day to day mechanics of what drives their business. It’s easier to listen and take the word of the person who spins the best story. I’ve been caught in this a few times. Recently, I had to take a decision that someone else in management made, and turn it around. Because it was wrong. He took it as a personal slight and tried to convince the whole company that I was serving my own interests and was a corporate backstabber etc. Luckily I have friends in engineering that were able to back up my decision with real technical data and it was shown loud and clear that he was indeed wrong. Failing to ensure I had backup, it could have been a career damaging disaster because of how far he would have taken it. He’ll stick around because it’s just too much effort to get rid of him.

    Reply
  15. George Denzinger (geozinger)

    Just wanted to say that I like your choice of music for this post. I didn’t know that many people under 50 really followed Fagen’s post Y2K music all that closely.

    Sunken Condos seemed to be a bit of a departure for him, as most of his other music is pretty mellow and just occasionally creepy. This one seems bitter, like the result of failed affair(s). “Slinky Thing”, “Planet d’Rhonda” and “Out of the Ghetto” seem to recall a particular woman or women. “I’m Not the Same Without You” and “The New Breed” seem to be the angriest or most wry songs on the album. Definitely something different from Donald Fagen.

    Reply
  16. Disinterested-Observer

    I once volunteered to man the desk at an internal “trade show”. We weren’t even really selling anything to the other branches. I have no idea wtf it was for. I did get to meet someone who will probably be my boss one day if I stay at this company. She was very young, but a powerpoint master and able to spew out all sorts of bullshit with a straight face.

    Reply
  17. Eric L

    So that’s how it starts, huh? Terrifying.

    I’m trying to hire two full-stack software engineers (No H1B nonsense). One candidate, on the phone interview, started talking about shards and artifacts when I asked him what his preferred deployment method was. After he spoke for some time, I interjected a “I’ll be honest with you; I have no idea what an artifact is.” There was an awkward pause, then he frantically tried to backpedal from whatever strategy he was outlining.

    My goal is to never have our technology solutions be complicated enough to warrant some horrible engineering humblebrag blog post about it.

    I’ve stayed far away from Kubernetes, but I did install Docker on my Fedora machine last week, to run a different candidate’s solution to a take-home exercise. It didn’t work. I can’t be bothered to learn how to troubleshoot its virtual environment. Oh, well.

    Reply
    • Disinterested-Observer

      You know the joke about waterboarding at Guantanamo sounding fun if you don’t know what either of those things are? Installing Docker on Fedora sounds really lame if you don’t know what either of those things are.

      Reply
  18. Spud Boy

    In my 33 years in Tech, I’ve come across creatures like that: Weak underlying technical skills; says all the right things in meetings; fails upward in a dysfunctional organization.

    Luckily where I work now, management is way too competent to be bamboozled by losers like that.

    Reply
  19. Kevin Jaeger

    If you want to see a nice scam of $250 million of Canadian taxpayers’ money, check out https://aisupplychain.ca/ . With a nice dollop of government dosh they promise to deliver an “AI-powered supply chain innovation supercluster” . They are “Committed to collaborating on innovative projects that will bolster Canada’s economy”.

    I challenge anyone to extract any tangible meaning from their website or the government announcements, other than that they will be collecting government cash to do whatever it is they’re doing.

    Reply

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