Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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The value of my garage sale

June 10th, 2007 · No Comments

DJ1.0, Contributing EditorDJ1.0 is a contributing editor of We don’t know much about DJ1.0, since he participates in the dark side anonymously. We suspect DJ1.0 is a “he” since he refers to a wife in an early post, but then again, maybe they’re from Massachusetts… Either way, you can reach DJ1.0 at

At first blush, this may seem widely off-topic. I promise it is not. The core of these blogs is about helping IT make better decisions. Some focus on empowerment and training of people. Others, like me, believe a cultural effect is the solution. Others tend to gravitate towards process improvement. Then there are some –probably masochists – want to change all three. What I observed yesterday at my garage sale provides some common anti-patterns that often plague IT decisions.

A quick tangent: Because of how I grew up, I don’t like used things. I don’t like the uncertainty of used items. I don’t like the idea of taking other people’s stuff. I don’t even like used cars, let alone socks. In my long career of conducting two garages sales, I am wholly overmatched by what I can only imagine are CIA trained garage sale ninjas. These people are pros. They stick and move. They travel in packs. After the siege, I have an empty garage and only $1.37 in nickels to show for it. I’ll be ready next time

Value is as value does

Me: “This diamond encrusted ceremonial toilet bowl lid who given to me by JFK himself in Dallas, right before…well you know.” Buyer: “I’ll give you 50 cents.” Value is defined by the buyer, not the seller. In IT, the business defines the value. They are the ones who commit to a price which they are willing to pay. Therefore initiatives like services, refactoring, performance tuning have to be sold in terms they want to purchase. Don’t be surprised if they don’t value it as much as you do.

Value has a ceiling it never reaches and a floor it sinks right through

I don’t know what it more depressing, buying a $600 diamond encrusted HAM radio or selling it for $10. Like most things in life, when I make purchases, I have great plans in store. I sell these great ideas to my wife and CFO who approves the budget. I even convince myself. Invariably, I don’t get near as much value or use as I thought I would. This is especially true in IT. Refactoring may be both needed and necessary, but will almost never return your investment – especially not as much as promised. Most of the time, it is a red queen problem. We are not trying to stay ahead; we are trying to stay afloat.
Conversely, the value of your IT initiatives depreciate almost the day you deliver to production. Business and technology change to fast. The system you thought would give you at least ten years before replacement, looks soggy (a new phrase I’m trying to introduce) within two years. My $600 turned into $10 is less than three months.

Never count your money while you sitting at the table

Ok, I didn’t write line – nor did I invent delicious slow roasted chicken – but Kenny Rogers was on to something. Never count the money in the pot – it’s gone. When surveyed, people seem to understand this concept. In practice however, as Las Vegas will attest, people don’t act that way. A bad bet doesn’t get better odds just because you put money in. (And don’t be difficult and bring up “pot-odds”). Similarly a bad project doesn’t get any better just because you already spent millions. In fact, it gets worse.

I kept thinking about all the money I spent on my diamond crusted combination garlic press / DVD burner. It would be silly to sell it for $5; I spent so much on it already. But, that money is already gone. It is counter-productive to keep holding on because of that. Plus, if I pass on the offer, I’ve lost another $5.

When opportunity costs knock

After three humiliating hours of having total strangers manhandled, undervalue, insult and demean my possessions, I have almost $6 to show for it. For those who didn’t buy my diamond encrusted graphing calculator, that’s only $2 / hour. Some would consider that low.

There is such a thing as lost opportunity. (My wife for instance had the opportunity to NOT marry me. She didn’t take that opportunity and now she is stuck with me. Sucker.) While conducting my garage sale, I was unable to do other things of value. I could have been writing or painting or finding something else to encrust with diamonds. Therefore, I was losing my time and the opportunity to invest time somewhere else. In return, I was getting paid $2 / hour. It wasn’t worth it.

This is a very familiar business concept, but poorly practiced in IT. Opportunity costs are a killer. Every time you fix a defect in production, because you “saved” time in testing, you are actually costing yourself time. (You are actually costing yourself more time because of the nature of the fix required.) Now while your developers are busy fixing this defect, they are not having the opportunity to write new enhancements or improve testing. This creates a time crunch, which in turn leads to counter-productive time saving measures. These measures, of course, drive up defect rates. To keep the analogy, we lost $10 worth of productivity, paid $2 for it and think we saved $8.

After the delivery matters

One last thing, after the garage sale is even worse. There is clean-up, repacking everything, hauling the remainder to Goodwill, making room for the cars in the garage. It wasn’t over even though it was over. In fact, there are some people coming buy today to pick up my washer and dryer. (Who would want that – it’s not even diamond encrusted?) Not to mention the mental shift to move onto another task. Just because something has been delivered, there is still follow-up work to do. Care and feeding of a system – beyond fixing defects – should never be treated as a “once-and-done”.

Well that’s my garage sale for this year. I can’t wait for next year when I can punch myself in the face again. You know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed, then your odds of failing again are actually higher the next time.”

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