December 6th, 2000 by Clark Humphrey

WHEN LAST WE LOOKED IN on our new batch of fictional alter egos, Benny Bucks was scrambling to keep control of his start-up Internet company, RevolutioNet.

RevolutioNet’s various PR documents and mission statements proclaim it’s “nothing less than the singular force that will shatter all previous paradigms,” “providing scalable, fully integrated technology solutions,” and “empowering the individual toward greater success in the age of the New Economy.”

Its business-magazine ads (a TV campaign has been in the works, depending on closing the second round of funding) depict various historical “revolutionaries,” from public-domain portraits of Isaac Newton and Gutenburg up to newly-staged photographs of generic ’60s radicals and ’80s punk rockers. (Benny wanted to add shots of Bob Dylan and James Brown, before his attorneys told him he’d need permission.) The ad copy announced “Yesterday’s Revolution” above each of these images, and “Today’s Revolution” above RevolutioNet’s logo.

None of the ads mention what RevolutioNet wants to sell, who it wants to sell to, or how its product would revolutionize anyone’s life. Benny’s original idea was to spend money on brand awareness prior to launching any product.

This shtick also gave Benny a chance to change his entire product strategy, twice. Originally, he was going to offer an online shopping site; then a search engine covering other online shopping sites.

Now, he’s listened to the CNBC pundits and switched from a business-to-consumer scheme to a business-to-business scheme. Now, RevolutioNet is to be a portal site for the vendors of business-related products and services–office supplies, accounting services, domain-name registrations, and the like.

Every time Benny changes his business plan, Pratt has to throw out most of what he’s done and start over. Pratt’s the chief software architect at RevolutioNet. He is, or was, one of the best code-wranglers in the business. Now he’s working 60 to 80 hours a week on routine database hacking.

Pratt and Benny have come to a healthy mutual loathing.

Pratt is trapped with Benny by massive salary deferments in the form of pre-IPO stock options, whose value peaked eight months ago and continue to dwindle.

Benny is trapped with Pratt by miles of code written in Pratt’s own customized jargon of Linux, and which only Pratt can keep tweaked and debugged. (Benny’s tried to have Windows NT programmers work the code; every one of them gave up in disgust.)

Of course, Pratt’s currently trying to explain to a newly-hired underling in the coffeehouse next to RevolutioNet’s office. A great piece of code is like a great work of art. You can’t take a house painter and expect him to fool around with a Rembrandt without turning it to crap.

The kid programmer (a man-aged boy, all scrawny muscles and booth-tanned skin and loud “casual office” clothes) isn’t getting it.

It’s not art, he says; it’s just a job, a piece of a business. As long as it works well enough, why bother with anything else?

Pratt shakes his head almost violently. His double-chinned beard continues to move for one second after he stops. Pratt adjusts his glasses, takes a deep breath and a sip from his coffee, and continues.

There was a time, Pratt half-condescendingly lectures, when programming was a matter of pride. When guys like me worked and pondered and rewrote every line by hand; all to fit the most functionality into limited memory, limited storage, limited processor speed, and limited bandwidth.

We wrote a line of code to be like a line of music. It said what it had to say, did what it had to do, simply and elegantly. A complete routine, a good one, was like a song. It fit a whole universe of possibilities into a few hundred K or less.

You don’t have to be so stingy with space today, but the same principles apply.

Software, when it’s done right, isn’t just some quick piece of grunt work done to changing whims and impossible schedules of some business hustler who doesn’t even know how to read a line of C-Plus-Plus.

It’s a masterpiece of logical progression and systematic construction, with every routine working in concert and with nothing extraneous or superfluous.

The kid stares at Pratt’s pot belly for a second and then blankly says, So?

TOMORROW: Whatever happened to the Japanese threat?


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