Paradigms lost, or mis-applied?


It was sometime around the middle of 1999, during the dot-com boom. The project at one of the big companies, was being handled, by one of the Big-Five consulting companies. Initially this project was handled by another big-five company, but after a big struggle, they just managed to come up with a single page architecture document. So the other company had to go, and this new one (which will be referred to henceforth as “a big-five company”) was brought in. The rates were high, $300/hour for the senior mangers of the consulting company. The freshly minted interns used for testing the application for bugs, had rates only slightly lower, $250/hour.
There were other consulting companies, who dealt directly with the client, and the consultants from these companies charged the client $175/hour or more. The client was sold a fancy term, “time-to-market”, which meant that the first one to implement an idea, will get the most customers, and hence will be profitable. The competition, will be stuck at the starting gate. The client was getting into a segment, which regulations, previously restricted them from entering, so as to not create a monopoly. But now that things were relaxed, they were heading into it, full-steam, with highfalutin consultants. Many of the big-five consultants, would work fifteen hours a day, sometimes more, for four days a week, and then fly elsewhere for a 3 day weekend. The others, may also work for 15 hours a day, and a few clever ones, even managed to average 80 hours a week, for an entire year.

Not all consultants, had it good. Many IT coolies, were on H1B visas, and couldn’t easily switch. They also had too many layers between the client and them, so they saw a lot less money. But on average, the IT coolies were raking in money. The client was burning the money real fast. Estimates of the total spent, varied from a minimum of 30 million to a hundred million, in a little over two years. Which even during dot-com days, was lots of money.

The project had lots of Americans, and as usual, lots of Indians. But interestingly, the client had at least one Indian, in a high level post, directing the project, and the big-five company had an Indian at the top. There was a talk, in the beginning of the project, that there was high level corruption. It was mostly white Americans, who made this accusation.

There was this Pakistani guy, who a little senior, to the others, was usually approached for advice. So I walk over to him, and ask him – “Is it true that there is corruption, hidden dealings ?”.  He just lifts his left hand, puts it under his nose, sniffs, says “Smells good”, then lifts his right hand and does the same.

It takes me a while to realize that what he is talking about is the “street-dog paradigm”. One dog sniffs the rear, “smells good”, the other dog sniffs the rear, “smells good”, and they go to the next step of social interaction. Here was a guy, in elite (and polite) society, in an expensive project, working for a big company, during the hey-days of the dot-com boom, referring to the “street-dog paradigm”!

If Trump is to be believed, even democracy has this weakness. Because he is going to redeem it, from special interests, and restore it to the people. Eunuch A meets eunuch B, and we have a new set of laws and regulations, and zero tolerance for any opposition!  Such control by special interests, is apparently how great democracies have been working.

There is a fundamental problem with democracy. To see that, one has to go back to a feudal setup, which has a king or emperor or pharaoh as the head of society. A king represented an ideal, an ideal of handsomeness and manhood, an ideal of a good family man, an ideal of a person well-versed in the arts and sciences. But somewhere along the line, things got corrupted, and hermaphrodites, or bastard children, insecure, narcissistic, and weak-minded, but supported by crooks, working behind the scenes, became kings.

Peoples’ need to see an ideal in their leader, either a king, or a democratically elected leader, was always there. The need for a conceptual king as an ideal, never went away. People, in their right minds, always sought to have a strong leader, his or her strength, visible in the successful business they did, in the happy families they raised, and in their health, intellect and judgment. Even in a democracy! We need a strong leader, who can stand up, to the powerful but corrupt, rather than make the weak subservient, to powerful special interests. So essentially democracy, is to elect a king, and not need democracy, at least until the next elections.

There was another concern, in India, after the colonial hangover, that democracy, would let a million eunuchs override a single wise man. So democracy can’t be good for the nation. This is actually, another way of saying the same thing. We hope the man on the street is not fooled, we really want a king to rule over us, who represents an ideal of good things. If people wanted a king, how is it they always end up with puppets to hidden interests? There have been quite a few cases, where people with strength of character, real strong leaders, did come up, through democratic elections. Will Donald Trump be one of those strong leaders? Or will he end up, characterless, like Obama? And all great decisions, like for e.g. Obamacare, be made using the “street-dog paradigm”? Not subject to criticism or review!
Speaking of street dogs, there is another paradigm, a saying in Tamil

நாயை கண்டால் கல்லை காணும், கல்லை கண்டால் நாயை காணும்

(naaye kanda kalla kaanum, kalla kanda naaye kaanum ). When our Tamil teacher, mentioned this, decades back, he used to make an action of picking up a stone. We all laughed. Those days, boys on their way back home from school, when they see a dog, take a stone, and try to hit the dog. It probably has something to do with education, being cooped up, and controlled by the teachers for most of the day. Those who didn’t get educated, had lots of empathy for the street dogs. Anyway when you make an action of picking up a stone, the street dogs immediately fled. The easy but comical interpretation for the saying is that, “when you see a stone, there is no dog (to hit it with), and when you see a dog, there are no stones around”. This paradigm is actually about worship. It means, if you see the God in stone (statue), you don’t notice the stone. And if you notice the stone, you don’t see God.

This paradigm may be useful in life, see the good, ignoring the evil. We don’t want to go after evil, the hidden elites, or whatever, one thinks is suffocating human progress. This actually reminds me of a story by Somerset Maugham, called “Rain”. An intense missionary, crosses path with a “loose” woman, who has been “corrupting” the sailors. He takes on the impossible task of correcting the impertinent woman, to make her morally sound. And also make her accept imprisonment for her “loose” life. The story ends with the missionary dead, having committed suicide. And the woman, when asked by the narrator of the story, a doctor, what happened, says simply “Men are pigs”! All of us, if not forced by circumstances, would want a good life for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Back to the project. There were some critical failures, in deciding who would do what, so when the time came for the client to decide “go-or-no-go”, the contracting companies were alarmed, because the crucial piece of functionality, the raison d’etre, didn’t even get designed. A war room was assigned, people were brought together for brain-storming, and a few weeks later, with lots of late-night hours, that piece got implemented. Client said ok, and the rest of the project continued for another two years.
A few years later, I ran into the architect. He said, don’t you remember that big project, real time ordering, and all the hard work we did to get it running? It’s all gone! 30 or 100 million dollars down the drain. The client took the loss, ditched “time-to-market” hysteria, and went with a simpler alternate system.

There were too many backend systems to be integrated into the order processing and provisioning workflow, that transient failures, were preventing the orders from being provisioned. The architecture did not have a proper retry mechanism for transient errors. Highly paid consultants were pushing the orders manually. Even if the customer account remained with the client, for the rest of the customer’s life, the client wouldn’t recover a fraction of the cost spent to acquire it. The Pakistani was perhaps right, the whole thing broke, because the street-dog paradigm cannot be the basis of business decision making. But by then, the consultants had made their money, and flown off to their next “time-to-market” assignment!


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