I was innocent to the ways of WTF (non-code)



  •  Ah, 2004, those heady days.  When I was young & innocent.  In those 12 months I said WTF so many times the words lost all meaning to me.  But I learned a valuable lesson about taking a long hard look at who I'm about to jump into bed with.  This is the story of just a few months of that year.

    It started with a job interview much like any other.  The recruiter hadn't been able to tell me much, just that they were an up-and-coming new media company that needed a web developer.  The commute wasn't great but this was the first time I'd even got an interview in the four months since leaving my previous position, so I was desparate to make a good impression and land the position.  I located the corporate headquarters in a Victorian-era residential street, rang the bell, and removed glasses to wipe them.

    My glasses broke clean in two.  It was an omen and I should have turned around and RUN, there and then.  But sadly I didn't.

    I was led to the top floor of this house and found myself squinting at Pearl and Jerry, the company founders.  They told me how they had built the UK's #1 sports gambling website (with tens of thousands of unique visitors a day, wow!) and were now starting up a new site focusing on "paid academic research", which I assumed to be bringing together researchers in academia with people working on similar areas in industry.  (As I later learned, you should never assume, you should always ask what these things mean.)  I was introduced to 50% of their staff (the graphics artist; their only coder was off for the day) and showed them some of my previous work.  They seemed impressed, which was good because I was focussed on impressing them and getting this job.  I wasn't sure I could face another month sitting in my house trying not to spend money.

    I now know that, in love and job interviews, sometimes it's important to take your eyes off getting the prize and think about whether the prize is something you even want at all.

    A few days later I get a call from Pearl and the job is mine!  The first day starts well, my new co-workers seem cool people, and so what if I don't have a desk or a workstation - they're installing a laptop for me to use in the couple of weeks before they move into the more spacious offices downstairs.  Most of my work will be scripting on the webserver anyway, so all I really need to do is edit files.  The laptop will be fine for that...  even if they are logging onto some Korean website to get a Windows serial number...

    Oh.  RED FLAG, RED FLAG, unrecognised as such at the time.  A few days later I meet a new graphics artist who was just joining the company - and never see him again.  Apparently he went for a bathroom break on his first morning and never came back.  That's totally what I should have done.

    To my surprise, my first task is to work on the company's main website, the UK's #1 sports gambling site.  What an honour!  I hadn't really looked at the site before taking the job (another lesson learned), and it's...  just a load of news stories copied from the BBC and Sky Sports websites.  I'm shown how to copy-and-paste stories from these sites into ours, and how to find images to go along with them...  using Google image search.  I take a proper look at this website - and it turns out that"the UK's #1 sports gambling website" is nothing but a page about how spread-betting works, some banner ads for online casinos, and a huge pile of stolen sports news.  My co-worker shows me the site's web stats - apparently the '1' in "the UK's #1 sports gambling website" is the number of daily hits the site gets.

    One of the things that persuaded me this site was a big deal at the interview was that the were running a promotion to give away a free car to a website visitor.  And in some ways that was true...  it's just that the promotion had no closing date, and the 'winner' would of course never be drawn.

    A few weeks later a contractor writes a script that automatically scrapes news stories from the BBC's RSS feed and I'm freed to work on the "paid academic research" site I was hired for.  "Paid academic research", of course, meaning "a place for the boss to sell the essays she wrote for her degree, so that current students can plagiarise them".  So I knock together a basic online shop.  The boss also wants to build this site into a leading portal for UK students, so she can really make money off banner ads, so I add some interactive functionality and even write a few articles for it.  Of course, they're doing no promotion for this site, so it also had no visitors, and her essays were so expensive no-one would ever buy them anyway.

    And now the boss has a brainwave.  She's going to start up a distance learning university!  Yes children, WTF-U really was a reality for a short period of time.  She's going to sign deals with every university in the UK - no, the world! - to allow her students to use their libraries and sit exams in their halls.  She has no professors, no content, no courses - oh wait, she has an answer to that last one, and has me copy the prospectus information from some Brazilian business college into a new website for WTF-U.  If anyone were to actually want to take one of these courses, she has no way of delivering it, but fortunately that never happened because they didn't do any marketing for this website either.

    By now I'm wondering how this company is making any money.  They have three websites, none of which get any hits or have worthwhile content.  They do almost no marketing; they employed a marketer (a great guy, as was everyone I worked with at this company other than the bosses) for about three weeks then fired him.  I suggest buying some advertising space online but they want to find a cheaper alternative.  The boss is trying to cut a deal for students to hand out fliers for the websites which will come with entry codes for another bogus competition, but for some reason nobody is interested.  Finally, the boss hits upon the solution: SPAM!  She buys a big list of email addresses off a spammer and tells me to write a program to send adverts to these addresses.

    I refuse point blank to do this, so of course I get shouted at for failing to perform my duties and forcing the company to buy a spam-bot off someone else.  Naturally, this big spamming run fails to generate any traffic for the websites...

    At this point I've been at the company for a little over three months and the penny has finally dropped that I should be thinking about getting out.  The boss comes into the office, just before the end of the month, and announces that her children are sick, and could we work from home for the next week while she's looking after them?  No problem, it's a relief to not have that commute...  the bosses keep giving me new tasks on MSN for the next few days.  Then I notice that my salary hasn't been paid into my bank account.  They tell me it's just been delayed a couple of days due to the boss' son's illness, but will be paid in soon, and they give me a few more days work to be getting on with...

    I never saw Pearl or Jerry again.  Phone calls went unanswered...  it eventually transpired that they'd skipped town, leaving behind a ton of unpaid rent and owing a month or more of salary to their current - and former - employees.  I eventually took them to an industrial tribunal, and got a judgement for 2 months wages when they didn't show up to defend the case - but against a limited company that had never earned a penny and would certainly have had no assets.  The main company turned out to be registered in the Seychelles and I would have had to travel out there to take action against them.

    Looking back, there were so many omens and red flags and points where I should just have said: NO!  And left.  I know better now.  And as they say, experience is an expensive teacher.






  • @Jim Lard said:

    But I learned a valuable lesson about taking a long hard look at who I'm about to jump into bed with.
    I learned a similar lesson thanks to some really painful sores on my genitals.



  • So you're okay with plagiarizing and creating bogus websites, but you draw the line at spam. Good to know.



  •  Look on the bright side.  At least you got some pay out of it.  It kept you off the unemployment for a little while. 



  • Yeah, I know I don't come out of this story covered in glory either.

    I did raise the plagiarism issues with my bosses, who assured me
    it was all legal (in some cases covered by fair use, in others because
    they claimed to have agreements with the content creators) - looking back, of course, none of these explanations added up and even at the time I wasn't entirely convinced. But I was young and had this foolish notion that the bosses knew what they were talking about better than I did.



  • @SuperAnalyst said:

     Look on the bright side.  At least you got some pay out of it.  It kept you off the unemployment for a little while. 

     

     

    That's true.  Although working all November and half of December for no pay did put a bit of a downer on Christmas that year...



  • @Jim Lard said:

    @SuperAnalyst said:

     Look on the bright side.  At least you got some pay out of it.  It kept you off the unemployment for a little while. 

     

     

    That's true.  Although working all November and half of December for no pay did put a bit of a downer on Christmas that year...

     

    Hardly.  A good story is a gift that keeps on giving (to you that is).  I assume everyone liked the homemade ashtrays?



  • Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm baffled by this whole scheme. At first it seems like your former employers were pulling a classic "take the money and run", except...there isn't any money. What were they hoping to get out of all of this?



  • @Jim Lard said:

    That's true.  Although working all November and half of December for no pay did put a bit of a downer on Christmas that year...
    I got the impression from the story that you never got paid, and that you had done all this within the span of about a month.

    Did you ever actually move down to the spacious offices downstairs?  Or get that company laptop?   It's hardly a decent trade, but that laptop is yours now, even though it was probably 4 years old when it was handed to you.



  • @Jim Lard said:

    That's true.  Although working all November and half of December for no pay did put a bit of a downer on Christmas that year...

     

    Lesson Learned: Never work more than 2 weeks in arrears when you're on salary.  Especially if your company expects to make money from spam.



  • @belgariontheking said:

    I got the impression from the story that you never got paid, and that you had done all this within the span of about a month.

    Did you ever actually move down to the spacious offices downstairs?  Or get that company laptop?   It's hardly a decent trade, but that laptop is yours now, even though it was probably 4 years old when it was handed to you.

     

     I worked there for about three and a half months.  I was paid normally the first month. for the second month I was paid a few days later than I should have been (which is one reason I didn't panic when the salary for the third month didn't arrive on schedule.)

     The company laptop I wasn't able to keep, unfortunately - I moved onto a desktop machine after they fired the previous lead coder for what sounded suspciciously like a list of every sin under the sun.  And no, we never did move into the more spacious offices downstairs...  for the first couple of months they claimed they were just waiting for the builders to finish refurbishing them, and then the subject was just dropped.  Given I later spoke to the landlord and found that they owed several months of back-rent on the offices they were using,  I wouldn't be surprised if he'd just put his foot down and wouldn't let them move until their account was up to date.



  • @Someone You Know said:

    Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm baffled by this whole scheme. At first it seems like your former employers were pulling a classic "take the money and run", except...there isn't any money. What were they hoping to get out of all of this?

     

    Good question, and I've often wondered this myself.  One possibility is that they were just really really stupid & naieve and thought they could make money out of these crappy websites by the magic of banner advertising, or were trying to build them up and make them look successful to sell them to some schmuck - I remember seeing a marketing document for the sports gambling site, which had all kinds of demographic breakdowns of the thousands of visitors who supposedly came to the site every day (but who somehow didn't show up in the website's access logs).  They also had a "weekly" (they put out one edition, ever) email newsletter for which they claimed TWO MILLION subscribers (in reality: 14, over half of which were employees or former employees). 

    Although it would be stange, it's possible some of the banner ads were placed for an up-front fee, as I overheard the bosses arguing that these ads had received tens of thousands of impressions (which the advertiser's statistics weren't showing).

    Another possibility is that they were scamming some guillible investors, and needed the sites to actually exist to make it seem as though there was a viable business thereso that the investments kept coming.

     

     


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