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Tacco and the Painters (A Fable for the Nineties)

By Henry Grebler

Henry and I were having a conversation via e-mail, and happened upon a subject of difficult clients. As in many things, he and I see eye to eye on this issue - but he managed to do me one better: while I was still fuming just a bit, and thinking about how to make things go better the next time, Henry sent me this story that captured my (and clearly his) experience perfectly, and ticked off all the checkboxes I was trying to fill. In fact, I was bemused and stunned by how well it did so... but that is traditionally the case with parables. They're timeless, and their lessons endure.

This tale may not have much to do with Linux, or Open Source in general; however, part of LG's function, as I see it, is to educate and entertain - or better yet, to educate while entertaining. For those of you who, like myself, work as consultants, or plan to go on your own and become consultants, I recommend this story heartily and without reservation: read it, understand it, follow it. Someday, it may save your sanity; for the moment, I hope that it at least tickles your funny bone.
-- Ben Okopnik, Editor-in-Chief

"Here is our cottage," said Tacco. "We'd like it painted nicely."

"Of course," said Ozzy. "We always try to do a good job. Our workers are very diligent. I'm sure you will be satisfied."

Tacco showed Ozzy all around the cottage. Ozzy asked the occasional question and made some notes.

"We usually provide an estimate of how long the job will take and charge time and materials," said Ozzy.

Tacco looked horrified. "No! We cannot agree to that!" he exclaimed. "We will only proceed with you if you give us a fixed-price quote."

Ozzy looked uncomfortable. "We might be able to provide a fixed-price quote. But we would need to have everything specified fairly precisely. We wouldn't be able to permit ad hoc renovations once we start the work."

"That's all right," said Tacco.

"And I'll bring in a couple of my estimators so that you and they can agree exactly what the job is," continued Ozzy.

"When can you start? We want this job finished very soon because people will be wanting to live in this cottage in the very near future. We expect to have finished refurbishing in a couple of weeks."

They discussed dates for a while and finally agreed that the painting would be finished in three months, at the end of May. They made an appointment for Ozzy's estimators to go over the cottage with Tacco.

A few days later, Ozzy asked Tacco to go over the cottage in some detail and tell the estimators and Ozzy the details of the painting job: number of coats of paint, colour scheme and so on. The estimators took measurements of the room sizes and layout.

Back in the office, Ozzy pored over the figures to come up with a quote for Tacco. He had his secretary type it up and then he checked all the details. He even had his estimators check his calculations. At last, he mailed off the quote to Tacco.

A few days later, Tacco rang Ozzy to tell him the good news. Ozzy had won the business. Tacco was eager to get the work under way. Ozzy's team of painters would start the following week.

When the painters arrived, Tacco was there to meet them. He led them to a building.

"This isn't the cottage that we looked at last time," said David, one of the painters (who was also one of the estimators).

"No," agreed Tacco. "But its very similar to the one you saw. I'm sure the differences are not important."

David was a bit doubtful, but he was reluctant to appear uncooperative. So he bit his tongue and led his work-mate, Charlie, into the cottage.

"It doesn't look like the renovators have finished this cottage," said Charlie.

"No, they haven't," agreed Tacco. "But they'll be finished by the time you are ready to start painting."

"But I'm ready to start right now," wailed Charlie. "David and I were going to start preparing the walls today."

"Well, can't you prepare the walls in those 2 rooms over there and come back and prepare the walls in here another day?" asked Tacco.

"I can do that," agreed Charlie. "But I was counting on doing all the preparation in one day."

Tacco gave him a look that suggested that Charlie was being most unreasonable.

Charlie and David prepared the walls in the two rooms specified and returned to the office. It was too late to start another job, so they sat around playing darts.

A few days later, Charlie received a phone call from Tacco saying that the renovators had finished all their modifications and so the rest of the cottage was ready.

"When will you be here?" Tacco demanded.

Charlie was in the middle of some work for another customer. But Tacco was so insistent and Charlie tried so hard to please his customers that he agreed to go out that same afternoon.

When Charlie got to the cottage, Tacco's twin-brother Racco was there obviously very busy performing renovations on the cottage.

"How come you're here?" asked Racco abruptly. "I said I'd ring you when the renovations were finished."

"B-but Tacco rang me this morning," pleaded Charlie.

"Anyway, it shouldn't bother you if the renovations aren't entirely finished. There must be other things you can go on with because we finished 4 other rooms yesterday. When you're ready to start work on the new rooms, we will have finished them."

"But the cottage we first saw had only 4 rooms altogether. It sounds like there are now 6 or 7 rooms. This is no longer a cottage, it's a house."

"Stop complaining," demanded Racco. "The rooms we added on aren't very big and they are basically exactly the same as the ones we showed you."

"I'm not supposed to do any more work until all the renovations are finished," said Charlie.

"Oh well. Since you're here I'll get Jocco to finish these renovations. It'll only take about 5 minutes. Can you wait?"

Charlie felt trapped. 5 minutes didn't seem like such a long time. It would be churlish of him to walk out now.

"All right. I'll wait," he replied.

Charlie tried to go on with some other work that needed to be done. He noticed that some of the walls that he had prepared last time had had some further renovations carried out on them. I guess I had better redo the preparations on these walls, he thought.

Just then Racco came back. "Look, is it all right if I just take some measurements in here?" he asked, and without waiting for a reply began to measure the walls.

Charlie was non-plussed. Now there was nothing he could go on with. I guess I'll get myself a coffee, he decided.

As he was coming back with the coffee, he overheard one of Racco's workers saying, "Those workers of Ozzy's are bludgers. All they ever do is sit around and drink coffee."

She betrayed no embarrassment at being overheard. Charlie was almost in tears and turned away so as to hide his distress. He made a production of drinking his coffee to calm himself.

An hour later, Racco came back and informed Charlie that the renovations were now complete. He gave Charlie a few scribbled pages.

"These are the room numbers and the labels on the corresponding keys," he explained to Charlie. "All the rooms are, of course, locked. Check that each key works in the corresponding lock. Let me know if there are any problems and I will have our Service Department provide a new key."

Charlie looked at the list in dismay. There were 136 keys!

He put the list aside and decided he would deal with that another day. For now, he would try to finish the preparation on 2 of the original rooms.

After half an hour, he had nearly finished the first room. Charlie found it most satisfactory to divide a room into sections. Each section consisted of an area of wall 2 metres wide, from floor to ceiling. He was just starting the last section when he heard a crashing noise and found that the plaster sheet had fallen to the ground and smashed to pieces.

He went to see Racco. Racco was very annoyed. "You must have hit it with a sledge hammer - our plasterers guarantee that our walls can withstand normal wear and tear."

They went to inspect the damage; all the while Racco muttered about incompetent fools. "I'm going to have to get someone to rebuild this wall," he complained.

"Look how strong these walls are," he announced, banging on another section with his fist. "They're all built to the same standard," he continued, banging on another wall. This time he banged a little harder. "We've been guaranteed that they can withstand even the heaviest pounding by the strongest fist. Of course, they're not intended to withstand a sledge hammer."

Proudly, he banged on each panel in turn. Suddenly, there was a loud crack, and the panel disintegrated. Racco swore loudly.

"Those bloody cretins in Building Maintenance," he yelled, inspecting the underlying frame. "I told them to check the frames and replace any rotten ones. It's not our fault. We only attach the plaster. If the frames are rotten, the nails don't hold and the plaster falls off. It happens all the time.

"Shouldn't bother you though. You can continue working in one of the other rooms. They're all the same so it shouldn't matter which room you work on next."

Charlie tried hard to regroup. Things seemed to have gotten completely out of hand. When had this exercise first left the rails, he wondered. Which was the exact moment when things had started to go wrong? It was an impossible question.

He left the building, thoroughly dejected.

The next day, Charlie and David went back to the house. "I'll start on some of the new rooms," said David. "You see if you can't finish the 2 original rooms."

Charlie started mixing paints. This is better, he thought. He wasn't too keen on preparation, although he understood the need for it. He felt there was little to show for an awful lot of hard work. But painting was dead easy, and the customers were always cheered when they saw how nice a room looked once the painting had been finished. They never seemed to understand the connection between fastidious preparation and a stunning final result. But Charlie understood.

As he worked, he started to hum and his spirits soared. Then David came into the room where Charlie was painting. He looked pale.

"What's up?" asked Charlie.

"I've just tried the doors on half-a-dozen rooms," replied David. "None of the keys fit!"

"What do you mean?" asked Charlie. "You must have to jiggle them a bit. Keys get stuck sometimes."

"No," cried David. "The keys DON'T FIT - I can't even get them in the keyhole! They're the wrong sort of key for the lock!"

Charlie went back with David to check. Sadly David was right. They went to see Racco.

"I'm not responsible for keys - that's Security Services. We have no control over keys and locks." Racco paused for a moment. "Look, the renovations are finished. We'll get Security Services to cut new keys. They shouldn't take long. You'll have the new keys and you can try them out," he concluded with some satisfaction.

"Gimme a break," cried Charlie. "Are you expecting me to try 136 keys?"

"Well, I'm going to arrange to get them cut!" shouted Racco. "You don't expect me to test them as well, do you? Look, by the time you need to start work, all the keys will be done. Just tell me which room you want to start work on and I'll get that key immediately. I can't be fairer than that, can I?"

On their return to the office, Charlie complained to Ozzy, who rang Racco. The response was staggeringly quick: there would be a Meeting. Not just a meeting or a Meeting, but in fact A MEETING.

	There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around...

	...So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
	All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
	Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
	For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
	And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

		'The Man from Snowy River', A. B. Paterson

Everyone from Tacco's organisation was at THE MEETING. David and Juliette were the only two representatives from Ozzy's office.

David tried to explain the situation.

Racco jumped to his feet. "That's bullshit!" he shouted. "It is not our fault. Those guys from Ozzy's office don't know their job. They do everything wrong. They couldn't even cut the keys for the locks. We had to do that!"

Flacco was Tacco's boss. When she heard this outburst from Racco, her eyebrows shot up. She seemed to be in a conciliatory mood.

"I suggest that Ozzy's people give us an Impact Statement," she proposed. Turning to Juliette, she continued, "Produce a list detailing things like the time the plaster fell off the walls, and how much time was lost. We'll look at it."

Back at Ozzy's office, the staff went into a huddle.

Finally, Borodin spoke.

"We are not going to produce a detailed Impact Statement. Here is the impact. We were asked to start this job in February. It was understood that for us to do our painting, the renovations had to be finished. It is now June. The renovations are still not complete. The impact is the total time from February to June.

"Further, the impact continues until the renovations are complete. That means 'completely complete'. Not complete in these 5 rooms and 80% in the remaining 10. We want to go in on one day, start at one end and finish the preparation all the way through to the other. Without bits of plaster hitting the floor. Without discovering that the keys don't work on Friday. Without discovering that the 7th of July is a Buddhist holiday.

"We reject entirely the question, 'But isn't there something you can go on with?' The issue is not whether some part of the building can be accessed. The only issue is whether the building is completely accessible. If it isn't, if renovations are still being performed, people cannot start occupying the building, let alone us painting it."

He folded down a second finger.

"We were asked to give a fixed-price quote on painting a four-room cottage. We were shown one cottage; we are being asked to paint an entirely different cottage. And it isn't a cottage any more. It's been renovated into a 16-room bloody mansion! And the renovations have still not been completed.

Borodin brought down a third finger.

"Further, there does not appear to have been any design involved in producing the mansion. The reality is, that we have been the guinea pigs: when we have pointed out a problem, like the fact that there were 4 bathrooms upstairs but no toilets, they have gone away, scratched their heads and come up with a "solution". Which is why there are so many extra rooms now. The building has grown, but it was never planned.

"So we have no guarantee that it will ever be finished. Because I don't think anyone knows what the building is meant to do. Since there appears to be no definition of "finished", how will anyone recognise the endpoint if it should ever miraculously appear?"

Borodin reached for his fourth finger.

"There is a serious problem to do with size. Tacco's crew are hoping to accomodate 120 people in that mansion. But we have checked with council. They will not permit more than 46 people on that block. We have pointed that out to Macco. He says he knew there was a limit. In fact, his understanding was that there was a by-law limiting occupancy to 32 people.

"What is Tacco's response? Is there any point in us painting enough rooms for 120 people when only 46 can be accommodated? We could argue that that is Tacco's problem. But, ..." Borodin left the thought hanging.

He opened his hand and took hold of his thumb.

"We have told Tacco that we expect to be able to finish the painting in eight days. Originally, we quoted 39 days. Tacco might say to us, 'How can you claim an impact of the entire time when you originally quoted 39 days and now you claim you are only 8 days from finishing?'

"The answer is simple. We are claiming an impact of the entire time because we cannot claim an impact of more than the entire time. If we could, we would. The real impact is in fact 90 days (or thereabouts): from February to June. That is the time we have wasted due to Tacco's incompetence. It may show that we were remiss in our estimation: we allowed 31 days for Tacco's delays; there were actually 3 times as many.

"We have actually worked (or tried to) during that time. We have expended more hours than we budgeted. We have been prevented from painting other houses. It has cost us even more than it appears on paper. It is one thing to wear travel time of one hour if one actually performs 6 hours of useful work at the site. How does one account for the travel time if one goes out, discovers that one can't work usefully and comes back an hour later? What about the case where one goes out, performs 6 hours of hard work doing preparation on a wall, only to discover the next time we arrive at the site that the wall has collapsed in the meantime, has been rebuilt, and has to be prepared again?"

He paused and looked around the room.

"None of what I have said up till now helps to fill the biscuit tin.

"Today is the first day of the rest of the project. We are basically at the start of the project. There is a difference: usually, at the start of a project, we don't know how well we can work with the customer. We tend to assume that the customer will be moderately co-operative and moderately competent.

"We have now had 3 months' experience with the customer. We know him to be below par in competence and co-operation. We know that he attributes absolutely no firmness to deadlines. Worse, he announces deadlines and, in the same breath, assures us that these will NOT be met.

"Whatever estimates we made 3 months ago, we now know them to be naively optimistic. Back then, we expected to be finished in 39 mad-, er, I mean, man-days. Consequently, we can expect this job to take much longer than another 39 man-days.

"My guess is that it would be better value for us to cut our losses. We were barely making money when we quoted 39 man-days. We sure in hell are gonna lose money if the job takes another 39 plus, say 30%, ... what's that, um, ... 52 man-days.

"Can we expect the job to go better from now on? Let me tell you, guys: I can't see it; I just don't think that it's likely.

"However, I think there is one slim possibility (even though I can't see it happening). If, somehow, it can be arranged that someone important from Tacco's place is in a position where his rooster is on the solid piece of wood, there might be a chance.

"Then, there might be some resources allocated to this project. So that, when we come into a room and discover that a wall has fallen down, we can find someone to tell; and that person has been given the job of keeping us going as his highest priority; and he has the ability to either fix the wall himself or he has the resources at his disposal to get the wall fixed.

"So that, when we get a little lost because there are so many rooms, we can ask someone to help us navigate around the castle.

"So that there is a full-time person whose responsibility is to learn how we prepare and paint rooms and who can help us to prepare and paint rooms. Not because we can't do the job without him - on the contrary, we can do the job much more quickly without him! But, the existence of such a person serves a number of goals. First it shows a commitment on Tacco's part. Secondly, it causes Tacco to feel some of our pain when things get bogged down (because his person is also out of action until the project is finished). Finally, one of Tacco's requirements was that he wanted his staff to be able to perform touch-up painting after we had finished.

"At the moment, we are the only one's whose roosters are vulnerable."

He stopped. Was there anything else?

"It's a huge shame, really. We started this project with a number of technical concerns (could our painting machine handle some of the tricky shapes in Tacco's cottage?). We passed all those tests with flying colours. We adapted our painting machine and it is now bigger and better than it used to be. It turns out that we haven't been able to paint the cottage-house-mansion-castle because it isn't finished. Technical problems were overcome with breathtaking alacrity.

"So, the last issue is: how will we look if we walk away from this job? I can't answer categorically. I do know that we have walked away from other customers who were unreasonable and it doesn't appear to have hurt us. Generally, it has had a therapeutic effect on our sanity! Because customers like that mess with your mind. They create the suspicion that we have not given our all. They attempt to drag us into the same pit of mediocrity and incompetence in which they lurk.

"My vote would be to call it quits.

"Can we take anything away from this debacle? I think so. I think there is a lesson here for us for next time.

"Moral: Everyone must stand to lose a rooster."


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Henry has spent his days working with computers, mostly for computer manufacturers or software developers. His early computer experience includes relics such as punch cards, paper tape and mag tape. It is his darkest secret that he has been paid to do the sorts of things he would have paid money to be allowed to do. Just don't tell any of his employers.

He has used Linux as his personal home desktop since the family got its first PC in 1996. Back then, when the family shared the one PC, it was a dual-boot Windows/Slackware setup. Now that each member has his/her own computer, Henry somehow survives in a purely Linux world.

He lives in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.

Copyright © 2010, Henry Grebler. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 176 of Linux Gazette, July 2010