I shouldn't be a jerk but...
August 10, 2009 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Should I be a jerk and blow Dude's cover?

A few years ago I bought a cool Widget produced by small Company A. Company A was a scrappy startup and was basically run by one technical wizard, Dude. Dude wrote Software that one needed to operate Widget.

Software was barely out of beta and not 100% functional with Widget when Dude sold Company A. Dude told us Customers that the tech was being discontinued, but he would try and release a final version of Software. Dude declined to reveal the new Company B he was going to work for.

Dude then fell off of the internet and has not been heard from since.

We Customers started our own forum to keep in touch and try to figure out how to use Widget and Software.

I have Goolged Dude's name many times over the past few years with no luck. Today I Google and discover the top hit is a little bio for Dude at Company B.

My first instinct was to pass the link along to the forum of Customers. But then I wondered if that would be kind of a dick move, as I suspect an electronic lynch mob of Customers would send lots of rude emails to Dude at Company B. But then again, Dude left us with buggy Software and a Widget that doesn't work to the specs that we paid for.

What to do? Pass the link along, or not?
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you could contact Dude directly and ask.
posted by The World Famous at 6:25 PM on August 10, 2009

There's an option between release a shitstorm of internet hornets on this poor guy, and do nothing. Why not contact Dude yourself and get the story directly from the source? Maybe he had some kind of financial disaster and just needed a real job with health insurance. Tell him he has all these people wanting to use his Widget and ask for advice for how to move forward. Then go back to the forum and tell them what's up without giving out Dude's contact info.
posted by amethysts at 6:27 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Listen, anonymous, the Dude abides.

I vote for you contacting him directly, without unleashing the mob, and without making any threats to.
posted by exhilaration at 6:30 PM on August 10, 2009

Maybe I should say more.

What I think is clear is that you, and your fellow victims, are hoping that the guy might be convinced to work on the software and fix it.

What you have to realize is that he cannot. He doesn't own it anymore; if he were to do so he'd be violating copyright. That's one of the things he sold when CoA was sold. The new owner owns that software, and Dude would have to get a license for it before he could start working on it again.

Your complaint isn't with him anyway, it's with whoever bought CoA and then didn't support the products previously sold by CoA. Hassling Dude would be wrong.

No, don't post the link. Don't reveal anything you've learned about the guy.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:31 PM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

I admire your restraint, anonymous, but if Dude is turns up as #1 for "buggy widget dude", someone with far less decorum than yourself on the forum will post his coordinates, and people will start to pester him.

So don't blow his cover.
posted by scruss at 6:42 PM on August 10, 2009

I'm with Pickle. Your only chance of your stated desired outcome (to get the buggy software improved) is from dealing with the owner of CoA. They own the IP. If you can rationally convince OwnerCoA that the cost/benefit ratio is better for releasing their purchased Widget-related IP as open source than for sitting on it indefinitely, and then find some developers among the user community to contribute, that seems like the best-case scenario to me. You miiiiiight be able to get advice from Dude on this but approach Dude verrrrry casually. If you get a forum to dump on Dude then all you accomplish is alienating your only resource.

This outcome is, in my experience, unlikely. Companies these days tend to regard unused engineering IP as an asset to be held like cash. And even when they might release IP freely, it's often shot down internally as not worth the hassle. I agree that this is not awesome but, having worked for several orders of magnitude sized companies, it's the way companies think.

Second-best outcome is that OwnerCoA is working behind the scenes on more fully productizing the Widget in some way, but who knows if your early-adoption Widget will interoperate with whatever they eventually release.

I am a software engineer.
posted by mindsound at 6:44 PM on August 10, 2009

Dude worked for Company, which owns the profit & liability for the product.

Dude has moved on and no doubt prefers to keep it that way.
posted by @troy at 6:49 PM on August 10, 2009

Your only chance of your stated desired outcome (to get the buggy software improved) ...

Where does anon say that this is the outcome they want?

Contrary to everybody else, I've got no problem with anon passing the info along. It's not like there was a professional relationship between anon & Dude, such that exposure could be considered betrayal or commercially impolitic; anon would merely be passing on a connection made from publicly-available info. And Dude "... left us with buggy Software and a Widget that doesn't work to the specs that we paid for", i.e. screwed people over.

Maybe my opinion has been coloured through years of buying sometimes quite expensive stuff where the promised functionality is coming "real soon now" or "in the next version", and being shafted when the 'promised' update & functionality never appears.

Dude has moved on and no doubt prefers to keep it that way.

Yeah, snake-oil salesmen often work that way...
posted by Pinback at 7:14 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm going to buck the trend and say post the link. If his name is "the top hit is a little bio for Dude at Company B" there is no cover to be blown. He has publicly outed himself as working for that company and you are doing nothing wrong by passing that information along.
posted by afu at 7:15 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are asking whether you should take an action which would not benefit you in any way whatsoever and which clearly wouldn't benefit your prior acquaintance (referred to by you as 'Dude'.)

Now, the only possible reason you could have to wade in and reveal this person's prior business actions which would accord with an ethical or moral view would be to warn his current customers of possible dangers. This can only be the right thing to do if you really and truly suspect that these current customers are in danger; and nothing in your post indicates that they are. Keep in mind that they'd have to actually be in danger; you can't just rationalize it loosely to give yourself the excuse. It doesn't even sound as though this person is really very much in power at the new company he's at; he doesn't run it the way he ran the old place, so his faults and inadequacies are almost certainly compensated for at the company he works for now.

So the answer is pretty clearly: no. You'd be doing this merely to get revenge, and that's not a good reason to do anything at all whatsoever; it'll only make you more bitter, and, far from taking away the annoyance you still feel at being left out in the cold, it'll make that annoyance worse by forcing you to relive it and by making certain that you never get the software support you'd hoped for.

This is the moral view of the question, I think: that it would be wrong for you to start spreading ugly rumors around, regardless of their truth, when spreading them around doesn't serve any purpose beyond revenge.

By the way, as a software-specific aside: the situation you're describing is by no means a rare one, and certainly not one that illustrates a spectacular ill will on this person's part. It's not even really his fault; his startup went in a certain direction, he sold it, he said he'd try to keep it up in a certain way but failed - it's pretty clear that he at least wanted to be of service, but sometimes the world doesn't work that way. It's not his fault, really; he tried to do what he could, but everybody has to eat, and having to eat tends to direct the professional efforts of all artists and designers, even software developers.

Do you want my advice for this situation? Get in touch with Dude; say, 'hey, I really loved this widget, but I can't freaking use it because the software was in beta when it was dropped! Thanks for going as far as you did with it, but I'm wondering; what would I have to do to get it to go farther?' He might say: 'oh, hey! I've been working on that! I'm glad you got in touch; in my spare time, I tried a few new things. Here, I'm going to email that stuff to you.' Or - he might say, 'I'm glad you reminded me - I'd meant to get back to that.' Or he may also say 'hey, I don't really have the time to work on that kind of project, but I'm happy to try getting in touch with the new owners of my old company and see what they can do.' In the worst case scenario, you might very well be able to convince the new owners of the company to open the source code of the widget's software to the public so that anybody can work on it; and, even if you're not likely to write/maintain code yourself, nowadays it's possible to ask somebody to do a little coding for you for a small fee.

There are really all kinds of solutions to this problem, which I assure you is a common one these days.
posted by koeselitz at 7:24 PM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

By the way, the tone in which you speak of this stuff indicates to me that you are speaking as the representative of a company rather than as a private customer. In which case it might very well be very worthwhile to email Company A, tell them: 'hey, can we have the source code for the software for the widget you guys never pursued? It'd be very helpful,' and then hire a dude for a couple dozen hours' work to develop it up to the specs you need. Seriously, this is done all the time, and all it takes is a careful phone call; what are they getting out of source code they're not developing or selling?
posted by koeselitz at 7:28 PM on August 10, 2009

Finally, for future reference: if your question begins, "should I be a jerk and... ?" then the answer is almost always no.
posted by koeselitz at 7:29 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's up to you - I've been in a similar boat once (learned alot - should have asked for royalties, plus a support arrangement).

CompanyA hired me at a fixed price to build a software/hardware integrated product.

CompanyA then sold dozens (if not hundreds) of this very unique product. I never heard from CompanyA again.

CustomerC of CompanyA contacted me about 2 years later - asking if I could fix and add modifications to the original software.

I told them I could not, as I did not own it and had worked "for hire".

I did tell them that I could re-write it, using a completely different programming language and gave them a fixed-bid price. I re-wrote it, and they were able to continue using the hardware for several more years before the inevitable made this solution obsolete.

If someone came shouting across the internets (10+ years now) about how I am a bad guy because I won't do updates for XYZ, I would simply explain the concept that I do not own the copyright. I might be a little miffed - but hey. Customers are fickle - back in my Shareware days, I had people demanding support for products they never purchased...

In future - ensure any software-based Widgets come with source-code.
posted by jkaczor at 8:13 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Caveat Emptor. It goes for software. You purchased it. If it didn't perform to spec, you should have deleted it and demanded your money back. You chose to continue to use it and depend upon it. The dude's only bad act, if it can be described as such, was selling it in the first place. Once you accepted the software, any and all liability for its continued use fell on you.

You can out the Dude, but it's your karma, not his, being hurt.
posted by fatbird at 8:37 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You should probably contact him directly to be nice and because being nice gets more results than being a jerk*. However, you found the information through Google. You are asking if you should hide the identity of a man with a storefront on main street. It's not like you hired a private detective to hunt down a wanted man.

* You may get excellent results by hiring a jerk (lawyer).
posted by chairface at 9:03 PM on August 10, 2009

Mod note: This is a followup from anonymous.
I have decided not to reveal Dude's work info to the forum. My overall aim would be to obtain a better version of Software but I don't think outing Dude would achieve that goal.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:03 PM on August 10, 2009

I'm a professional software engineer - have been for 20 years. At one point I worked at a start up that produced a high speed 3D graphics engine that did some pretty incredible things with the hardware of the day. With current technology, it could do the truly amazing. If one of our customers found me and asked me to fix bugs in the beta that was released, I would kindly decline. There is no legal way I could do that. When the company closed up shop, the ownership of the software and the patents went to VC's and are no doubt sitting in a drawer in a file cabinet somewhere in Palo Alto.

Were I to risk that, the possible repercussions are beyond what I could afford to defend. However, if I still had contact with the current owners, I'd be happy to suggest that maybe it should go into open source at this point. In my case I can't imagine that my request would have any weight, but the Dude may have that pull.

If I got a pile of hate mail from people who think I'm beholden to them to fix what is out of my hands, I'd be pretty pissed off. Then I'd block everything that came in, meaning that you'd get nothing.
posted by plinth at 9:14 PM on August 10, 2009

jkaczor: In future - ensure any software-based Widgets come with source-code.

I want to underline this excellent point, as it's one of the biggest lessons we can learn from this kind of thing. When you work for a particular company, and you're negotiating to purchase software from another company, make absolutely certain that included in the negotiations is a copy of the non-distributable source code. If the company you're negotiating with laughs and says 'we can't do that, it's under our license,' then you should say as clearly as possible: 'we're happy to sign anything you like saying we will not redistribute this source code or sell it; and we're happy to sign anything you like saying that as long as your company is in existence we will grant you the first option of being the maintenance people we go to for help. You will be our #1 service resource, and we'll happily pay you for that privilege. However, let's be realistic: lots of strange things happen in business, and if, a year from now, you guys either are no longer around or no longer want to waste your time supporting the software we're paying for, we want to know that we can still support it ourselves if we have to; if not, it makes no sense for us to pay for it.'

That's why the commercial enterprise-support model that so many software companies have adopted today makes so much sense: because it means that companies no longer have to deal with painful issues relating to abandonment of support or disappearance of the original support firm. Look around, and you'll see a whole host of companies that do this now, for example Sun Microsystems and Canonical Ltd.

In fact, if the original poster would like, he might be able to go back and renegotiate a deal with the company from which he originally bought the software which includes something like this kind of clause.
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have to second koeselitz on the last comment.

While it may seem radical to many, it is very often very cost-effective to license the source from smaller/mid-size companies to your custom "Widgets".

I have recomended over and over that larger business take this into account when purchasing software.

Great example; a little utility purchased by a company with ~8,000 users (this was about 10 years ago as well) for about $5,000 USD for a site license. The purchasing company negotiated an "in-perpetuity" source-code license for an additional $20,000. It sounds like alot, but when you consider what it would cost to find a competent consultant/contractor/outsourcer to rebuild the functionality from scratch, it was literally peanuts...
posted by jkaczor at 10:46 PM on August 11, 2009

it was literally peanuts...

Note: It was not literally peanuts.
posted by The World Famous at 11:41 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am the original poster of this thread. I put up the question anonymously because in the past I had posted an AskMe related to the Software for Widget, and I didn't want that to turn up in any searches under my username.

Two days after I submitted my question here, "Dude" (the developer) was outed on our user forum - but it was not by me. The overall reaction barely caused a blip on the forum. Maybe, after two years of dealing with Software, the users have either gotten used to it or have moved on.

Some additional stats for the morbidly curious:

Company A = Reel-Stream
Widget = Andromeda mod, pipes out uncompressed 8/10bit video from a Panasonic DVX camera
My Total Cost for Widget System = ~$5000
posted by shino-boy at 5:23 PM on August 25, 2009

« Older Bitten by the New York comedy bug, but out West   |   Portland, OR restaurant recommendations Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.