At What Cost?

© 2002 Esther Derby, www.estherderby.com

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, July/August 2001

Not long ago, I reread a discussion about Internet Time on Jerry Weinberg’s SHAPE Forum (www.geraldmweinberg.com), and it got me wondering: Now that many dot-coms have become dot-bombs, have we heard the last of Internet Time?

I’m afraid not. Internet Time has been with us for a long time, and it will probably be with us for years to come.

I first encountered Internet Time in 1985. It just went by another name; in that time and place, it was “Wall Street Time.”

Back then, I worked for a mutual fund complex. Every afternoon, as soon as the New York Stock Exchange closed for the day, we went on Wall Street Time. We worked in a frenzy to get all the mutual funds priced and send the prices to The Wall Street Journal for publication the next day.

No one step was particularly complex, but the process required a coordination of effort and had to be completed in a tight time window. If we missed the cutoff, the funds showed up in The Wall Street Journal the next morning with no price.

Our managers constantly exhorted us, “We’re on Wall Street Time here! Don’t miss the cutoff!” Making the Journal was important and urgent.

Most of the time we did make the cutoff. Once in a while something went wrong—transmission problems or a program crash—and we’d have a mad scramble of fixes on the fly, manual workarounds, and high stress to make the cutoff. And a couple of times a year, we’d miss it.

Every missed cutoff was followed by a failure review. The big shots would gather us in a room at 7 A.M. for a recounting of the chain of events that led to the failure. The mood was usually dour and the blame flowed freely. “It costs us when we don’t get a price in the Journal,” the head of the department would say in a vaguely menacing tone.

One day, I worked up my courage and asked, “What’s it worth? How much does it cost if we miss the cutoff?”

It turned out that the answer was “Not much.” As long as we fed an accurate price into the programs that calculated shareholder value and got the holdings valued by start of business the next day, the costs were intangible—a possible loss of confidence and reputation. No one could point to an actual cost or an instance where a shareholder dumped her holdings after seeing a fund wasn’t priced in the paper.

On the other hand, if we transmitted an incorrect price to the shareholder valuation program that ran late at night, there were high tangible costs.

Clearly it was important to have a price in the Journal. But not more important than sending a correct price to the valuation program.

If you’ve experienced the joys of sixteen-hour days and living on pizza, or snagging three hours of sleep under your desk so you can release a product fast-fast-fast…you might want to ask the same questions. How much is it worth to make the date? How much do you lose if you make a slightly later date? How much will it cost to deploy something that will need to be patched over and over? And how much will a mistake cost besides the cost to fix it?

Internet Time, Wall Street Time…there are a host of similar phrases. Phrases like these stop us from thinking about tradeoffs and what it’s really worth to make a date, accept lower quality, and give up our personal lives. They create a sense of urgency that isn’t always justified by the true costs and benefits.

I don’t know what the next phrase will be—but you’ll recognize it when someone uses a slogan to gloss over the need to take a little time figuring out the real value of making a date or the real cost of accepting lower quality. STQE

I wish to acknowledge contributors to the “Internet Time” discussion thread on Jerry Weinberg’s SHAPE Forum (http://www.geraldmweinberg.com/shape.html), especially Shannon Severance, Bill Seitz, and Jerry Weinberg.

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