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Users From Hell

By David Poole,

Most of the non-IT people I deal with are a pretty fair-minded bunch. We have differences of opinion but generally they are as good in their field as I am in mine Like me, they are curious as to what goes on outside of their departments, particularly when it can affect them.

To these 99.99% of users I say hail fellow, well met.

This leaves a tiny minority who raise the suspicion that the legend of the changeling children may have had some basis in fact.

Over the years I have developed a classification system that I should like to share with you.

The Black Hole

The black hole is a user who will set through every meeting and every requirements gathering in absolute silence. They may occasionally blink, but this is an evolved behaviour to prevent people accidentally burying them alive.

Even attempts to involve them directly in a requirements gathering exercise will yield little or no response. Torquemada couldn’t extract information from them with all the resources of the inquisition.

Alcohol is wasted on these people even in the form of Sodium Pentathol so save your money.

Unfortunately these people are likely to be the only holders of information that is crucial to the success of the project. This is revealed either towards the end of UAT starts of worse, after go-live when they are suddenly reborn as an extremely vocal Nostradamus. "I foresaw that this wouldn’t work because blah blah blah.

The expert

This person feels bitter that the world hasn’t yet recognised that their talents far exceed the combined might of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison.

They will sally forth on their chosen subject with their mouth swinging between their ears like a skipping rope.

In an attempt to prove their knowledge they will explain to your finance director why the quote you gave for upgrading your server was grossly inflated. You will find yourself having to argue that the parts catalogue from the local computer shack (the sort that are in business until the first bills arrive) isn’t really suitable for you high-end server.

It is death by a thousand custs as their attempts to shine will have you justifying even your most basic decision.

A close relative of the expert is the "expert by proxy". This person has a son who has just had his first computer studies lesson and therefore knows more than any mere prole who has been working in IT for 20 years.

The evangelist

You may argue that the evangelist is merely the expert, or expert by proxy who has discovered religion. Personally I’ve found that the evangelists tend to be pretty good with whatever technology they have become evangelical about.

This is their weakness because no-one in authority listens to anyone who knows anything about IT.

The evangelists chosen "religion" tends to be *nix, OpenSource, PHP, MySQL etc. At this point I should like to say that I have nothing against any of these but they (nor any other technology) are NOT the cure for cancer. They are A solution not THE solution.

In the world of the evangelist Bill Gates is the devil and Microsoft is a manifestation of his evil. Any one who mentions usability is damned as a heretic and an ignorant one at that.

They tend to disregard any formal IT policy as being the preaching's from a false God that does not apply to True Believers. That is why you will find a strange machine on their desk running BeOS. They eschew monitor stands in favour of something more substantial such as "The Hackers Bible".

The Time Lord

The time lord is the reason why your 3 year old won't speak to you because "Mummy says I shouldn't speak to strangers"!

The time lord has no concept of the constraints that time places on mere mortals. They rant about the urgency of "their" project and how crucial it is that it be delivered yesterday, although anything after the day before would be a failure as far as they are concerned.

A typical saying might be, "if I wanted it tomorrow I would give you my requirements tomorrow"!

They supply information on a piece meal and need to know basis. Precisely how they decide the basis of "need to know", and when you need to know it is something that doesn’t seem to follow any particular pattern. The only common trait is that they decide to deliver the knowledge after you actually needed it.

The timelord is the reason why the collective noun for project managers is a "lateness".

If your kids ask "why do you keep coming to our house mister ?" then you are probably working for a time lord.

The chain puller

This person expects you to be at their beck and call 24/7, and to give a fully detailed written account of everything on their project.

To demonstrate their power over you and to test your commitment they will call to drop project bombshells on you at 5:55pm on a Friday night.

Part of their strategy to hammer home the fact that they are important is to make sure that they are absolutely never available should you need to speak to them.
A typical telephone conversation would go like this.

"Hello, could I speak to Mr Smith please"?

"I’m sorry, but he’s just gone into a meeting, would you like to call back later"?

"No thank you, it is really important that I speak to him about his project, do you know when he will be available or can he be interrupted? I’ve already called 17 times this week".    And it’s Wednesday.

And so the game is played.

Mr Smith (and just as often Mrs Smith) is never available, will never return your calls or e-mails and will eventually vanish into the ether.

"Hello, could I speak to Mr Smith please"?

"I’m sorry, he is on holiday at the moment".

Must have been the stress of all those meetings. "Do you know when he will be back, I really need to speak to someone about his project"?

"I’m sorry, but he is on a 3 months sabbatical hiking in the Cashmir region of Northern Pakistan, is there anyone else who can help you"?

Eventually you will speak to an underling who has no idea who you are, what project you are talking about or who within their organisation would be able to fill in the blanks.

Just when you thought you could safely archive Mr Smith and his project to the dustbin a very irate Mr Smith will give you a phone call that will blast the wax out of your ears. Where is his project, why hasn’t it been delivered?

The doppelganger

Save all your correspondence if you come across a doppelganger!

The doppelganger will call you up with a support problem, which takes hours to diagnose, but I eventually pinned down to some sort of unauthorised alteration to the system. Whether this takes the form of direct access to the database, software configuration change and/or registry hack it makes no difference.

Once diagnosed the doppelganger will swear on their life, the life of their mother, father, favourite aunt, children, the existence of God, Allah whatever, that they did not make any alteration. A quick trawl through any auditing or security logs will reveal that whatever broke the system was done by the doppelgangers evil twin who has gleaned knowledge of their username, password and where they keep their stuff.

A really shifty doppelganger will try and blame you for the alteration hence the need for that correspondence.

The consultant

Actually I’ve included the consultant for reasons of petty jealousy. They tend to be better paid, better looking, better with the opposite sex and (worst of all) younger than I am.

The consultant’s supreme gift is get the boss to listen to things that mere employees have been saying for years as if it was a brand new insight. They will then charge handsomely for advice that the boss has been told a thousand times before and could have had for free.

I know of one consultant who took a several hundred-page report that my colleagues and I had written, put a watermark on it and dropped it into Acrobat Distiller and charged a huge sum for the result. Not bad for 10 minutes work, 8 of which were waiting for his laptop to boot up.

It really is a quandary. On one hand your message finally gets through and acted upon. On the other the consultant has just taken the credit and been paid the price of a BMW convertible for your work.

The brain-donor

Those stories about the CD drive being used as cup holders?  The person who rang tech support because their PC would not work in a power cut?  The person who asked if humans could catch computer virus's?  They are all true!

In IT terms these people will respond to SPAM and copy you in on it, open EXE attachments, write their password on post-it notes and stick it in a prominent place.

Bereft of common sense the brain donor requires detailed instructions in order to sit the right way on a toilet seat. 

I know of a bloke who tried to put oil in their car by pouring down the tube that the dip-stick goes in.  This in a car with a bright yellow oil cap with a picture of an oil can on it and the word OIL in big capital letters.  I am dying to see him fill up the fuel tank.  Heaven only knows which mechanical orifice he will assault in the process.

And finally... the visionary

"What the world needs is an inflatable dart board" the visionary will declare with messianic fervour.  

Of course it appears like this in hindsight but at the time it sounds so wonderfully plausible.   You will find yourself being swept along together with a dewy eyed evangelist, a nodding black hole and a consultant who can smell the chance of some serious money.

The only problem is that the vision is a little short on the actual detail and, as lead developer on project "chocolate fireguard" it will fall to you to fill in the blanks.

Chances are you will find that, whilst brilliant as a concept, the vision requires technologies that either don’t exist or are prohibitively expensive.

Unfortunately, if you point this out you will be seen as unimaginative, a stick in the mud and a block on the progress of the company.

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