Review: The Deadline

The Deadline
The Deadline
Tom DeMarco
New York: Dorset House Publishing, 1997

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — September 8, 2000, 2:26 p.m.

When is a choppy, hackneyed piece of fiction concerning international intrigue something that shouldn't be missed? Three reasons: when it's hilarious, when it reveals truths, and when it's hilarious because the truths it reveals are so familiar.

Tom DeMarco's novel, The Deadline, conjures up some hokey story about Webster Tompkins, a project manager in a large company, being kidnaped by a secret agent from the Nation State of Morovia. Morovia wants to become an international software power, and it believes Webster to be just the man it needs to lead the effort. Yes, the feature set is too large. Yes, the schedule doesn't allow enough time. At least Webster's boss is easy to work with — until, of course, his boss is replaced by some hard-nosed maniac who shortens the schedules and imposes all sorts of hindrances, making the impossible even less likely.

From the beginning though, it's evident that the novel intends to have fun with everyone in corporate America has learned first-hand. When Webster suspects that Lahksa, the sneaky spy from Morovia, intends to try to harm his company by kidnaping an employee, he tries to guess who that would be:

"I suppose you could just pick the most prominent person within an organization. Wouldn't it be as simple as that?"

"Get serious. If I really wanted to harm this organization, for example, would I pick the most prominent person? The CEO, for example?"

"Oh. Well, certainly not in this case. I guess if you removed the CEO, the company's stock would probably go up about twenty points."

"Exactly. This is what I call the Roger Smith Effect, after the past chairman of General Motors. I was the one who decided to sabotage GM by not removing Smith" (8).

Lahksa's kidnaping of Webster is not to harm his company, but to help his country, and Webster quickly settles into pulling off his difficult task. Webster isn't all-knowing, of course, so along the way other experts from around the globe stop by (or are kidnaped, if only temporarily) are brought in to help Webster. As only one example, Dr. Winnipeg describes how to diplomatically trim down groups when too many people are present.

"If people are feeling a little unsafe and a meeting is called with no agenda, they have to attend," says Dr. Winnipeg (270). Even with an agenda, it's sometimes necessary to get a smaller group. His advice is to declare the value of releasing one or more people from the group, get the group's approval, and then give reasons why those people should not have their time tied up in the meeting. "They could be meeting alone to work out some of our key protocols. Freeing them from this meeting would be invaluable," for example (272). Then, the person(s) leaving makes a parting statement, and then the group signals their approval.

Webster keeps all of these tips in a notebook which he updates throughout the book — a fancy way of putting a summary at the end of each chapter. Some of his advice is that promoted by many others in the software industry:

Risk Management

I don't agree with all of DeMarco's advice (will good design always do away with the need for code inspection (287)?), but it's likely that they were all derived from experience, and those with experience should be listened to. It's also likely that anyone would find some of DeMarco's experiences matching their own. Into his story of experiences DeMarco places events and settings that will cleverly sound familiar to anyone in the computer industry: from a quiet Twinky-eating tyrant named Bill who bought the whole country of Morovia (40) which brings obvious resemblances, to the crazy IPO madness reminiscent of the late 1990's.

Anyone with any software experiences, either as a manager or a developer, will find a lot of fun — and a lot of good advice — in The Deadline. DeMarco's main character Webster seems to have a knack for finding the right way to do things — or at least finding someone else who knows. Even Webster's intuitiveness isn't infallible, though, and I'm a bit suspicious of Lahksa's explanation of how Minister Belok got his uncomfortable, er, setback (277, 278). Perhaps Webster should be a little careful in those royal apartments (310).