by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, March 1997

No - this is not a review of a series of videos covering the lives of a bunch of whining, self-indulgent twenty-somethings (which is probably singlehandedly responsible for the bad reputation that this generation has acquired). This is about the real world conditions encountered in the computer industry.

In past columns I have criticized my own little niche (systems integrators) within the computer industry as well as many related fields including mail-order dealers, storefront dealers, value-adder resellers, cable installers, electrical contractors, various packaged software companies, operating systems software companies, custom software houses, and their close cousins vertical-market software companies.

Much of this criticism revolves around various obvious and subtle ethical violations. Obvious violations are those involving intent. If you use your superior knowledge about a specific aspect of computing to put one over on a customer, that’s an obvious violation. If you hurt a customer’s business by your own ignorance, or, more to the point, the inability to admit that you are beyond your depth, that’s a more subtle ethical violation. Either way, my emphasis is on those activities and products which go beyond an arbitrary standard that exists only in my head.

In the real world of computing there are very few standards in the quality of either products or services. Everyone must make up their own standards - both the seller and the buyer. In an industry that moves this fast, nobody is capable of imposing standards.
Certainly the government is not able to keep up with the computer industry. Look at our air traffic control infrastructure. They are still using the same model computers that I first worked on in 1976, when they were already several years out of date.
Professional and trade associations can’t do the job. Many of them actually encourage people to dabble in fields that, on paper, seem similar, but are not really related. Programmers are encouraged to work on computer hardware because they are supposedly "computer" experts as opposed to being programming experts. Copier dealers are encouraged to sell LANs because the sales cycles and prospective customer bases of the two industries are similar.
Even those competent within their chosen field can get away with providing substandard services and products. As long as the customer either does not realize the lack of quality, or, is convinced that the level of service they are getting is standard, they can survive and even prosper.
For example, I have repeatedly worked with customers who were used to having their mainframe systems crash frequently. To them, it was just a normal part of doing business. When their LAN crashed frequently, they just assumed it was business as usual. It wasn’t until their LAN was redesigned and repaired that they realized that system crashes should only be a rare exception.
In the real world outside of computing, nothing works exactly as expected. When magazine articles are written about automobile reliability in terms of the number of defects found in new cars, have you ever noticed that number is never zero? On the better cars, it is usually somewhere around four to six defects per car. You expect that your new car will have an initial period of adjustment before it works just right. You hope that you don’t catch a lemon, with difficult or impossible to fix recurring problems. You also hope you don’t get one with a true design defect. (An exploding gas tank can really ruin your day!) After doing the appropriate research, you must eventually make your purchase decisions based on your personal standards. You choose the risk-benefit equation for both the actual product (in this case a car), and the level of service you expect to get (from both the dealer and the manufacturer).
The same holds true within the computer industry. Even my favorite hardware and software products frequently contain bugs, manufacturing glitches, and, occasionally, even design defects. The best manufacturers don’t maintain a zero DOA (Dead-On-Arrival) rate for their products. For all but the smallest programs, bug-free software is pretty much nonexistent. Indeed, companies who scrupulously avoid unethical actions are populated by mere humans who can potentially get in over their heads accidentally. (I’ll plead No Contest to that one.)
Even reviews are subject to variation in quality. I always get a good laugh from reading reviews of computers, for example, in which the reviewer spells out in gory details how many different incompatibilities a system has, and then goes on to describe the many proprietary (read "even more incompatible and nearly impossible to fix or replace economically") parts within it. The reviewer will then give a glowing recommendation for that system! This is a prime example of having a very low set of quality-related personal standards.
I also get some jollies with software reviews. One example that I remember was billed as a review of "relational" databases, even though it included several products which are inherently non-relational or only followed a few of the rules that define what is relational. (Note that you don’t need to know the definition of "relational" to understand this example. Just be aware that there are standards for this term.) To make up for the weaknesses in the non-relational and quasi-relational products, the main test procedures were reformulated to specifically exclude relational commands. This made the modern, relational databases look artificially bad in comparison with their older competition. The conclusion of the review was that a quasi-relational database and a non-relational database took top honors in a review of relational databases! This is an example of low ethical standards by the journalists involved.
The fact that nothing is perfect shouldn’t cause you to avoid all purchases. It should, however get you to reevaluate your personal buying standards. What level of product quality, service, and support can you live with in a real world situation? Even more important, what ethical attitude can you live with? Careful compromises in the first category may have to be made, lest you end up using only pencils and paper to run your business. Compromises in the second category are not only unnecessary, they are deadly.
I am always surprised when I encounter people who continue dealing with a vendor after being terribly mistreated or being abandoned at a critical time. I’m not talking about occasional lapses in service due to simple human error from a well-intentioned vendor.
I’m talking about people being refused phone support because they declined to purchase a service contract - even for a comparatively trivial question about the disk drive switch settings on one of seventy-five newly purchased computers - and they still purchase from that vendor! Or, people who have had run-ins with bad custom or vertical-market software (as documented in previous columns), but have no plans to attempt to extricate themselves from these vendors’ clutches. If you keep dealing with someone who has a proven lack of ethics (in either of the aforementioned categories), you are asking for trouble.
As I write this article, I am in the final stages of negotiating a vehicle lease for my business. The dealer who is closest to me also has the best service in the area. I know that because I have had the old car serviced there for several years. When I was given a quote by the dealer’s salesman, it was missing all of the underlying numbers. I was only able to get those numbers by repeatedly demanding more information. Later, when I reviewed the information he gave me, I found out that the salesman gave incorrect information as to list price, invoice price, trade-in values, and residual value. His information contradicted not only every other quote I was given, but it contradicted information that had just been given to me by the manufacturer!
Rather than waste my time going back and haggling with this salesman, I will simply strike his dealership off my list and will continue negotiations with those dealers and leasing companies who dealt fairly with me - there are several. (Note that the deal will be completed before this article is published, so don’t bother contacting me with leasing information!) The dealer has already proven uncooperative, at the least, and unethical at the worst. Even if I negotiate a fairer deal with him, how can I be sure he will act honorably in the future? I doubt that he will.
In the same way, if a vendor of computing products or services repeatedly acts inappropriately, or even once acts unethically, take your business elsewhere! I know it sounds obvious, but in spite of the fact that I frequently write about horror stories, there are plenty of vendors out there who are willing to act responsibly and ethically, and, within the limits of human capability, act within the scope of their experience and education.
Meanwhile, does anybody want to buy a really nice used car. It was driven only on Sundays by a little old systems integrator who never exceeded the speed limit or accelerated quickly. (Yeah, riiiiight.)

�1997, Wayne M. Krakau