Beware the techie who takes things literally

'If it works already, why pay' says the boss... because of course he does


Who, Me? Time bombs and shareware feature in today's edition of Who, Me? as a boss's big spendy vehicle leaves a coder out of pocket.

We start the week with a story from a reader Regomised as "Frank", and a confession from his second job following a disastrous first foray into the IT world.

Frank and a freelancing friend were working for tiny company that sold mobile data collection equipment. The company liked to punch above its weight. "On the phone we had to act as if we were at least 20-people strong," he told us.

This was a pain because every ring of the phone meant an interruption to coding.

While this was annoying, it wasn't as annoying as the boss's approach to finances.

"I had to write a demo program for showing the usefulness of those mobile data units," he said. "Basically collecting the data and showing it on a PC."

This being the end of the 1980s, the demo was coded in Turbo Pascal. However, reading and writing to the device had to be done via the RS232 interface, something the out-of-the-box Turbo Pascal of that era was not entirely suited (at least, not in the way Frank needed).

Shareware to the rescue

The shareware in question was distributed via floppy disk. It consisted of an assembly routine that could be accessed by Frank's Turbo Pascal code and did pretty much exactly what was required. The catch was the requirement for payment should the code see commercial use.

It was a one-time fee of £10 ($13.60).

Frank didn't see a problem. His boss, who had just taken delivery of an expensive new car and not been able to sell his old one, did. Pennies needed to be pinched.

So, there was no money to spare, said Frank.

His boss's take: "Works already, why pay?"

A refrain familiar to all too many open-source authors today.

Frank was an honest chap and confessed the situation to the shareware author. The author was understanding.

"He said OK. I should limit the lifetime of the software that uses his routine to a year and it would be OK for him."

So that's exactly what Frank did. After one year his app would stop working. To be absolutely sure of staying compliant, he also ensured his app would delete itself and remove all its source code.

Time passed. The boss's old car remained unsold, and as a further money-saving exercise it was suggested that perhaps Frank might like to switch from being a permanent employee to freelance? Taxes would be saved... but Frank refused.

And so, with just three months on the clock, he was unceremoniously fired.

And there the story might have ended. His former boss tried the same stunt with Frank's colleague, only to come seriously unstuck when the tax office demanded five years of back payments ("That's how long my former colleague had been working there," Frank said).

But for Frank it was on to pastures new. Even when the boss called up a year later: The company was bigger now, and perhaps Frank might like to come back?

No chance.

"He also said that the program I had written had really been a great demo at CeBit and they liked it very much," Frank recalled.

"Just that after two days of the trade fair it mysteriously disappeared from the disk and its backup did not work either."

"And they had to shut down the demo."

"Oooops."

Did Frank do right or wrong? Software stopping working after an evaluation period is, after all, the way of things.

But was the scorched-earth policy overkill and a little ethically dubious? Have your say in the comments and send us your confession in an email to Who, Me? ®

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