Cast of Wonders 390: The Tale of Descruptikn and the Product Launch Requirements Documentation
The Tale of Descruptikn and the Product Launch Requirements Documentation
by Effie Seiberg
Once upon a time there was an associate project manager named Jaime. She knew she was lucky to have this job – so many others in her graduating class were still juggling nanny gigs and catering gigs and tutoring gigs and so many side hustles they could’ve been a dodecahedron.
It was at a small company that ostensibly helped foreign students find scholarships for American colleges, but actually if you looked closely you could see that the company didn’t do much and was just a vanity project so the founder could say he was innovating and disrupting and other such nonsense buzzwords. Considering how little the company actually accomplished, Jamie was astonished that she was the one hundredth person to join the team.
Jaime wanted to like her job, but it was hard. Her boss had the sort of privileged white dude entitlement that comes of an upbringing full of nothing but other privileged white dudes. He was singularly unqualified for his job, but since he and the founder had been frat brothers in college, his position was unshakeable. And her colleagues were mostly cut from the same cloth.
One day, her boss came into her small gray cubicle.
“Jaime, check it out,” he said, putting an elbow on top of the cubicle’s half-wall and leaning. “The website launch you’re working on? We gotta get it out in a month. You’re good for that, right?” He brought out an apple and gave it a noisy crunch. A droplet of spit and apple juice splatted down onto a pile of papers on Jaime’s desk.
“Um, why?” she asked. “I thought we had three more months for it. I mean, we haven’t even gotten everyone to agree what needs to go in the website, and coding it up will take a few weeks on its own, and we haven’t even started on design yet.”
“Yeah,” he said through a noisy mouthful, “but now it’s gotta be next month. You can deliver, right? I’m countin’ on ya. Or yanno, if you can’t then we aren’t really getting the project management we’re supposed to be getting from you, so…” He gave a half smile and some finger guns, and left.
This was a disaster. There was no way she’d be able to pull this off in one month with everybody squabbling, especially without the clout she needed to get people to listen to her in the first place. And if she was fired…the job market was dire for recent grads, and she didn’t have the five-plus years experience every entry-level job paradoxically required.
With a sigh, she set up a meeting with all the stakeholders for the next day, and started the product launch requirements documentation. Perhaps if she used a Gantt chart, broke everything that needed to happen into the minutest steps, and gave each of them a deadline, they’d make it on time. And maybe a genie would pop out of her laptop, pay off her student loans, and give her a pony.
She searched for “Gantt chart template”, but couldn’t find one she liked. “Easy Gantt chart template” and “Thorough Gantt chart template” didn’t give better results. But when she searched for “Gantt chart template for participants who are egotistical morons”, her phone buzzed with a text from an unknown number.
“So u got a proj mgmt issue & some idiots,” it said.
It had to be from someone who overheard the conversation with her boss. Her Google searches were that insecure. But she’d made sure not to give out her cell number to anyone at the office…
“Who is this? How’d you get my number?” she texted back.
“Look down,” came the reply.
Uneasily, she looked under her desk. There, sitting on the power brick for her laptop, sat a small troll-like creature. It sort of looked like a ball of cottage cheese with skinny limbs and a pointy hat, and it was uniformly greenish-brown. Sort of like a bad choice of khaki, which made its bulbous nose look like a tiny pickle. The creature waved.
Jaime looked around to see if anyone was watching, then crouched under her desk. “Who are you? How’d you even get in here?”
It reached into its cottage-cheesy flesh and pulled out an employee swipe card. “You folks should really tighten up your security. Anyway, never mind all that. You need to spin these meetings into gold and I’m just the person to help you.”
“Why would you help me? What do you want in return?” Jaime had learned very quickly that nothing was free in corporate America – it cost your soul to enter, and then the rest of your life, all for a chance at semi-subsidized healthcare.
“Tsk tsk, so distrusting!” it said, shoving the card back into its side. Its flesh absorbed it soundlessly. “But yes, I do want something in return. I’ll make tomorrow’s meeting work beautifully… in exchange for your annual dental exam.”
“You want… like how? Like you want to have it instead of me?”
The creature nodded.
Jaime shrugged. “Eh, why not.” Her teeth were fine, and she could hold out another year.
“Good!” crowed the creature. “I’ll text you the contract.”
The next day, Jaime’s meeting went smooth as butter. People came to agreements. Decisions were made. There was no bickering, only collaboration. Her insurance even confirmed that her annual dental exam had happened and been paid for. And for a full week, every single deadline was met.
Until things started to slip again. Stakeholders bickered, decisions were held up in endless loops of debate, a legal snarl showed up, and everything stalled.
Jaime went to her boss’ desk. “Um, I don’t think we’re going to make the website deadline. We can’t legally say that we’re going to get people into American colleges, and the immigration lawyer we’re working with just went on maternity leave with nobody to cover her. It’s going to take a little while to find a new lawyer to review our material. Can you let the CEO know?”
Her boss grudgingly looked up from his online poker game. “Jaime, you’ve been working here for what, a few weeks now?”
“Right. You’re in the big leagues now. Nobody’s going to hold your hand through your job, or do your homework for you.”
“No of course not, I didn’t mean-”
“So this lawyer who went on maternity leave, she’s been pregnant for a while, yeah? So it’s your job to know these things and prepare. See the risks that are coming and fix them before they’re a problem.”
“Sure, but she had an emergency iss-”
“Her emergency is not my problem, and you should know that.” He turned back to his screen, which was now flashing a countdown for how long he had left before he automatically folded his poker hand. “Just find a way to get it done, Jaime. Freakin millennials.”
Jaime nodded and calmly walked to the ladies’ room, where she shut herself into a stall and burst into tears. There was no way she could possibly control every little thing that could go wrong with this launch. Certainly no way she could’ve prevented the car from hitting the lawyer, who had to have an emergency early C-section to save the baby, and who was fortunately now recovering with her (now healthy) child.
It wasn’t fair. But neither was the world, and she still had a chance to salvage things. Boss wanted her to do her homework? Fine. Homework she would do.
Jaime dried her eyes, splashed cold water on her face until she looked refreshed, and calmly walked back to her desk. Some quick internet searches for immigration lawyers led to a series of calls and “we’ll get back to you”s.
And once again, the creature showed up under her desk.
“Soooooo, how’s it going?” it asked with a smug smile.
“You know damn well how it’s going,” snapped Jaime. “Can you fix it?”
“Of course! All it will cost you is… your annual medical exam.”
She’d actually been looking forward to her annual medical exam because she thought she had a good chance of getting a referral to a therapist for her raging anxiety and depression. Both had increased dramatically since she’d started this job. But, she reasoned, if she was out of a job both conditions would get even worse, and perhaps she could hold out a little longer without getting treatment? Maybe? Surely there were some online listicles that could help keep both issues at bay a little bit longer.
“Fine,” she said. “Take the annual medical exam. But I want things to work for more than just one week this time!”
“Of course, of course!” said the little creature, using the same tone that one would use to soothe a toddler crying about something silly. “I’ll text you the contract.”
“Condescending little shit,” muttered Jaime under her breath as it left.
But yet again, her meetings were spun into gold. Despite the previous delays, everything got back on track. Her lawyer emailed from the hospital about the text changes they’d need. The design team and the web front-end team were working side-by-side. Even the back-end engineers were collaborating with the front-end.
Jaime’s insurance sent her a note that said that since her annual exam was done, and she was declared healthy, they would not be paying for anything else short of an ER visit. That was fine. She’d get through this launch, try the new mindfulness exercises Buzzfeed had recommended, and just hold out for another year…by which time she could get a new job and new benefits. Maybe.
Everything was going swimmingly two weeks before the launch, and then one week before the launch, and then….
On the day before launch, it turned out that the site didn’t work on iOS because a big feature on the front page was using a third party API, whose update in the last hour broke everything on the platform. An issue that was genuinely outside the team’s control.
Jaime had done her homework. Hell, she’d done many other people’s homework too, much in the spirit of any group project. This wasn’t anything she could’ve foreseen.
She poked her head into her boss’ office.
“If you’re not here to tell me that everything is perfect and on-time for tomorrow, so our founder can show off the site at the big networking event at his country club, I don’t want to hear it. Honestly, how entitled can you be, Jaime?”
She nodded, and without another word, dragged her feet back to her desk and started to pack up her things. Why bother sticking around another day to see the axe drop? They could fire her whether she made the commute in tomorrow or not. At least she could get unemployment benefits if they fired her.
But as she reached under her desk to unplug the power strip she’d brought in from home, the one that was there because there weren’t enough outlets for her company-mandated electronics but for which they refused to reimburse her, there again was the little creature.
“What the hell?” she shouted, this time not caring if anyone heard her. “I read the contract, it said the launch would happen on time!”
“Ah ah aaaaah, the launch can happen on time!” It moved to block the plug of the power strip. “I guaranteed your team would produce the needed requirements on time. I gave no guarantees about third party tools. And I have delivered! Everything your team needed to decide on and do, they did.”
“But we still can’t launch if nothing works on iOS! If the founder’s going to demo this at some country club with potential investors, every single one of them who wants to check out the site will pull it up on an iPhone.”
“Not my problem,” said the creature, “unless… do you have something else to trade?”
Jaime sat back in her seat, dejected. “No, nothing else. I have no other annual exams, and nothing else that’ll be paid for unless I essentially get hit by a truck.”
“Oh but that’s not true!” The creature rubbed its hands together. “You have signing power for the company, right? They gave you that so you could sign the API contract so things could keep moving while all of management was at Burning Man. So all you need to do is sign over your next big product launch. And then everything will launch tomorrow, on time, functional as can be.”
“What… what does that even mean, signing over the next launch. Like you’d have the rights to the new product offering?”
The creature giggled. “You could say that, yes! Come on, what do you care? You need to meet this deadline, the website isn’t a product anyway, and if nothing else this’ll give you more of a buffer to find your next job. You will get hired or fired in no relation to whether what you produce makes money or the company gets screwed over. And they sure won’t hesitate to screw you over too.”
Jamie thought about it. She thought about her friend Shayna who was babysitting third graders instead of working as a third grade teacher. She thought about her friend Joji who was driving for Lyft and designing company logos for five bucks a pop instead of having an actual full-time graphic design position. She thought of her friend Arden who still lived with his parents along with five other grown siblings, all stuck in the same house. She thought about her friend Mara who’d committed suicide last year after her depression was left untreated for too long.
She needed this job. It would only take one unexpected bill, one car crash, one tiny hiccup to put her right where her friends were. Even if it was just to tide her over until the next job. Unemployment benefits weren’t great, and she didn’t know when she’d get another chance as good as this one, for all that this chance was looking like a real shit sundae.
“Damn it. Fine.”
“Good good good!” cried the creature with glee. “I’ll text you the contract.”
“But this time we’re putting in something bigger. I don’t want just this website to go out on time. I want a career. That means you help me land the next job, and the next one after that, until I get a really successful product launch. Then you can have that one.”
The creature sniffed, annoyed, but then nodded.
After this, Jaime’s career flourished. She got the website out on time, worked that into a promotion and a raise, and worked that into a better position at another company. Soon she was a product manager, not a project manager, a job with a better path for growth and responsibility, and soon after that she even had a team of her own.
Things were good. And she’d almost forgotten about the strange little creature she’d made a deal with two years ago.
But of course, as these stories always go, the bill always comes due. Your word needs to be your bond, a deal’s a deal, and all that other folksy whatnot.
So the night before Jaime’s first big launch as a Director-level Product Manager, when she was working late in her office (her office, not just a depressing cubicle) making sure every last detail was indeed taken care of, her phone once again buzzed with a text.
“Here 2 collect,” said the message, listed as coming from “Weird Blob Guy”.
And sure enough, down by her foot sat the creature, a big grin going from side to side of its whole head.
“So,” it said, “what’re we launching? And don’t give me the whole ‘oh no, this launch is my baby, I couldn’t possibly’ crap. We both know what you signed.”
“Hm,” said Jaime. “I’m not sure that’s true.” She twirled her stylus and went back to her very large touchscreen monitor. Two years of therapy had left her much better able to manage tense situations.
“Do you need me to spell it out for you? Because actually, I know a great deal more than you about what you signed, and I can use very small words to explain why the rights to this launch are all mine. And if you don’t sign them over right now, you’ll have a very unpleasant patent dispute starting tomorrow which will tank the company’s profile. I’ll extend it out for years, extracting every dollar the company has on the series of lawsuits I’ll throw at you. Your company will be ruined, and with it, your reputation as a product manager who can catch such things before a launch.”
“Hm,” said Jaime again. “What a nice theory. But if you’ll excuse me, I’m quite busy.” If this new launch hit a million downloads, she had a bonus waiting for her. It would be enough to invest in Arden and Joji’s new business, which would get Arden out of his parents’ house and Joji out of their Lyft gig. The marketing for this launch was due to hit in about an hour, and the first press release out in two.
“You stupid little girl, playing at being in business!” shouted the creature, stamping its foot. “Pay! Attention! To! Me! I OWN YOU.”
Jaime sighed and turned her chair. “You’re a patent troll, a real parasite on society. But the trouble is, while you’re making your scammy little deals, you aren’t even very good at them.”
“But we have a contract! You signed it!” it shrieked.
“We don’t have a contract. First of all, the initial contract was invalid because I don’t have the rights to this product myself, and thus I can’t transfer them to you. I suppose it might be valid if I ever own the company and the rights to a future product, but that’s unlikely because of point two. Which is that the initial contract was with a company called Rumple, Inc. And just like with any good project management, I did my homework and actually looked into what my risks and liabilities are. Rumple, Inc. is owned by a series of shell companies that ends with one called “Descruptikn to go here”, which I can only assume meant it was set up with a typo in its name. And that one is owned by you, a person banned from owning or controlling any patent enforcement company by a 2009 US Patent and Trademark Office ruling after your previous patent trolling companies were deemed too abusive. Meaning that the contract is void and unenforceable.
She turned her chair back to her screen. “So I don’t owe you anything, and if you don’t disappear I’ll call security on you. Not to mention it seems as though you’ve been pulling this same trick with countless other people, based on what I’ve heard from other folks’ in my community. I’m sure the FBI’s fraud division will be delighted to get a good long description of everyone’s case. And of course I’ll give them the photo of you I grabbed the first time we met. So if you don’t mind, I’m very busy.” She turned a few more cells in her Gantt sheet green, clearing the elements for launch.
“You can’t do that!” it shrieked. “I made you! You’d be nothing without me!”
“Sadly for you, that’s just not true. I’m an excellent product manager, and you know why? Because I do. My. Homework. There’s nothing you’ve done or can do that can take that away.”
The little creature screamed and stamped its feet until it disappeared in a cloud of poorly-researched vitriol and strawman arguments, and was never heard from again.
And so the moral of the story, because fairy tales and fables always have morals, is to read your contracts before you sign them, and to never ever feed the trolls.
About the Author
Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Galaxy’s Edge, Analog, and Fireside Fiction, amongst others, as well as on PodCastle and Escape Pod.
Effie lives in San Francisco. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. You can follow her on twitter at @effies, or read more of her work at effieseiberg.com.
About the Narrator
Emily E. Smith
Emily E. Smith is an anesthesiologist by trade and is now enjoying the unique experience of training new anesthesiologists when she isn’t raising a small child or narrating podcasts or reading or listening to audiobooks or gardening or building things or repainting the house. She is always busy but always has time for one more story.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.