Samizhdat Publication


 Samizhdat Publication

In the old Soviet Empire all publishing outlets were owned by the Party, and dissidents were reduced to circulating photocopied versions of politically dangerous books. They called it Samizhdat , which apparently means self-publishing.

I knew about this, I never thought it would happen to me in England.

It was many years ago, at my first job. We used to produce device drivers, which got sent out to sites all over the world. First line support for the users was provided by Engineering Support. They were bright lads with a screwdriver and oscilloscope, and they’d even taught themselves to hack a bit of code, but they weren’t programmers. As a result any problems in new software got referred back to us faster than a politician ducking responsibility.

It was a definite pain to us. We were interrupted almost every day with minor queries. So over teabreak one day we decided that it would be useful to pass our documentation over to Support. It would help them to do a better job, and we could get on with new work without being rung up every five minutes. So we suggested it to Them Upstairs.

“Of course,” They said, “good idea. Just give it to Tech Pubs, and they can lay it out properly, and make sure it’s right.” (They would probably have said BS5750 as well, but Quality hadn’t been invented then.)

We couldn’t quite see how Tech Pubs could check technical accuracy, but we didn’t mind. After all this was before the days of word processors, and most of the documentation was handwritten, and mildly scruffy, so we sent over the documentation for the latest batch of drivers. That was the first mistake.

The new software went out on schedule a couple of weeks later, but with no documentation.   The stuff we’d sent to Tech Pubs appeared to have disappeared into a black hole. Meanwhile Eng Support struggled on with our new software, and the usual series of phone calls to us.

Then one day, several months after they had finally cleared up all the problems with the new drivers, the boss from Eng Support came over to see us. He was carrying a pile of beautifully produced booklets.

“Have a look at these.” he said. We looked.

It was our documentation all right, and very pretty it looked as well. Unfortunately they had improved it.

The text wasn’t usually too bad, although it had been reorganised into something less obvious. The real wooden spoon winners were the diagrams. They had changed them round, altered labels and put the descriptive text in the wrong positions. They were actually worse than useless, because they were positively misleading. We spent several hours going through it, getting slowly more irritated. Eventually we passed it back to Eng Support, with a verbal recommendation on how they could use the documentation most effectively, and save on their expenditure on toilet paper at the same time.

We tried to explain to Them Upstairs. We might have saved our breath.

“Obviously you don’t understand the manual, after all it has been written for Engineering Support, not for Development, or else you must have given Tech Pubs the wrong information in the first place. They are the experts, and they know how to present this properly, you’re not.”

The only consolation was that at least our manager had the grace to look apologetic about this answer as he gave it. He knew it was a stupid response, but he had no choice about it.

We thought about it carefully, then took out our documentation and carefully removed all names and identifying marks from it. Just for fun we replaced the authors’ names with a few choice quotes. My favourite was one by Dante, from the Inferno (“There is no greater misery than the memory of happy times in the midst of misery”).

The next day we waited until the bosses had all gone for their dinner, then we sneaked over to the photocopier (outside the bosses’ office). One of us chatted up the secretary, while the other frantically copied away.   Half an hour later two of us wandered across the yard, looking carefully casual, in our biggest and most bulky overcoats. Five minutes later we wandered back, looking rather slimmer.

We carried on that policy for the rest of my time there, for all the new software. The manuals ended up being referred to (unofficially) by the quotes on the front covers. The quotes themselves ranged from the silly to the subversive. Eng Support thought we were wonderful, we got less interruptions, and the users got a better service. What Tech Pubs thought of it, we never asked.

If anyone asked any questions, we just denied all knowledge. It was obvious that Eng Support must have done the documentation themselves, certainly we hadn’t, pity no-one could remember who’d actually done it though.

The real payoff came years later, after I went freelance. I was at an exhibition when a voice suddenly called my name, it was the old boss of Engineering Support. He had his own company now, a small software house. He needed someone to do some programming in one of these new 4GLs, and had no-one free to do it. He knew I was competent, he trusted my work, he remembered what we had done for him in the past. Would I be willing to teach myself the new software, and write his system for him. You bet I would!







 Posted by at 10:53 am

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