The Fishtank and the Habitrail

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A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time — I think it was 1998 or early ’99 — there was a company. In the offices of this company there was a gigantic fishtank, filled with delicate aquatic plants, dramatic structures built from rocks and coral, and beautiful, brightly colored fish from oceans around the world. This fishtank, of course, was maintained by the company’s Technology Department.

One day a Business Guy walked over to a Technology Guy, and said, “hey, tech guy — we’ve figured out that we really need a Habitrail. I know that the Technology department already has a lot to do, what with the fishtank and all, so we’ve already gotten finance approval to get consultants to install and set up the Habitrail. Your guys won’t need to worry about it at all, but I just wanted to give you a heads up anyway.”

“That’s great,” said Technology Guy, “what are you going to do with the Habitrail?”

Business Guy smiled and held up a hand.

“The Habitrail will improve sales productivity, in ways that are impossible to accomplish with the fishtank. It’ll be really good for the company,” he replied, “but you really don’t need to worry about it — we want to avoid putting even more work on your plate, so we’ve already gotten everything worked out with the consultants.”

Technology Guy and Business Guy chatted for a few minutes about that week’s episode of Frasier, and how rich they were going to be when their options vested, and then went their separate ways.

A few months later the consultants installed the Habitrail. It was stunning. There were three nautical miles of shiny plastic tubing in a rainbow of Web-safe colors, it formed a ten foot tall double helix next to the water cooler, and it even had a hamster-scale replica of a Bavarian village that sat beside the office coffee pot. The resident hamsters were trained to do a little welcoming dance when people came into the office every morning, and an army of hamster-sized robots cleaned and polished the Habitrail every night.

Everyone was overjoyed.

About two weeks after the installation, Business Guy paid another visit to Technology Guy.

“Hey, bizman,” said Technology Guy, without looking up from his monitor, “how are you liking the Habitrail?”

Business Guy grinned.

“It’s everything I hoped it would be, and more. Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about…we’ve had the Habitrail for a couple of weeks now, so I just wanted to check in and see when you thought you’d be able to get the fish moved in there.”

Technology Guy paused his game of Half-life and turned around.

“I’m sorry — what’s all this, then?”

“The fish,” explained Business Guy, “we need to move them into the Habitrail. Since the Habitrail offers advantages that the fishtank doesn’t, it just makes sense to use the Habitrail for everything, rather than the fishtank. I thought that was obvious from our discussion last quarter.”

“Interesting.”

Technology Guy paused, with a thoughtful look on his face.

“Very interesting, indeed. I would have thought it was obvious that if we put the fish into the Habitrail, a few different things will happen.”

He started counting off items on his fingers.

“First, most of the hamsters will immediately drown as we pour the water and fish into the Habitrail…next, as the water slowly drains out because the Habitrail isn’t watertight, all the fish will die…after that, the few remaining hamsters will feast upon the corpses of the fish. And probably on the hamster corpses, too. Hamsters are like that.”

Technology Guy stopped for a moment, blinked, and then held up one more finger.

“Oh yeah — there’s a chance that we’ll all be electrocuted because of the water that will be filling our office up above the level of the electrical outlets, too. I’d estimate that it should end up about knee-deep.”

Business Guy stopped smiling.

“This isn’t good,” he said, “seeing all those fish swimming around in that big tank is really distracting to the sales force. Unless we can find a way to get the fish into the Habitrail, we’ll have to go back to having somebody walking around and poking the salespeople with a sharp stick every few minutes.”

Here endeth the lesson.