What’s the most pointless work I’ve done?

In the 1980s the Soviets used to buy factories, lock, stock and barrel, from the West, particularly from Finland. They would buy the walls, the ceiling, the machines, the lifts, the windows, the storage crates, the kitchen, everything, with one big contract.

‘Everything’ also included the software to run the factory and, of course, the computers to run the software. And that’s how I found myself in Zelenograd, 40 km from Moscow, in the Autumn of 1988.

The MRP system I was implementing in Hungary, was the final tick in the final box that completed the contract and triggered payment to the Finns for an entire floppy-disk unit factory.

Zelenograd was then the ‘silicon valley’ of Russia, though its shabbiness suggested ‘silicon wasteland’. Wikipedia says ‘Before 1989 Zelenograd was a de facto closed city in some aspects: it was prohibited to take photos in the central parts of the city, near the plants, teaching and research facilities, and foreigners were not admitted into the city.’ But that’s not true. I was there.

zelenograd

The problem the Finns faced was that they couldn’t find a system that could easily be sold to the Soviet Union (export rules being what they were in those days). Unless they delivered a system they wouldn’t get paid. But because our MRP system had already been sold to Soviet-bloc Hungary, it qualified. (There were no packaged MRP systems native to the Soviet bloc at that time.)

It was actually a fascinating project, and when we won the order I approached the project with enthusiasm. Not only did we have to adapt the software to deal with overlapping manufacturing processes, but we also had to provide an interface to clever (Finnish) shop-floor reporting devices placed next to each of the machines involved in the process. The machine operators would report  completion of each stage of the manufacturing process using these devices.

The Finns appeared to be grateful for my enthusiasm and in due course, after we’d trained the factory’s staff and finished all the adaptations, the final box in the contract was ticked. The Finns got paid and we got paid. And that appeared to be the end of the matter.

We went out to a very smart Moscow restaurant to celebrate.

So, when do we start loading real data into the system?’ I asked.

‘We’ll let you know,’ they said. ‘But probably not immediately.’

Of course, the system was never actually used, and I realised, as we celebrated, that it was never intended to be used. Even the clever shop-floor reporting devices were empty of their components, long since ransacked by the factory’s electricians for domestic use.  And in any case the five-inch floppy disk units were already obsolete. Perhaps even the factory was never used. I never heard anything more about it. But I’m sure it made some people wealthy, and I don’t just mean the Finns. That’s how things were.

You might think that getting paid for a project, even if it came to nothing, means that it couldn’t have been pointless, but I am old-fashioned, and I like to think that my work has some direct value.

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