Middle Men

What are Middle Men? They're that boggy, intractable layer of obfuscation and stupidity between the people who want the work done, and the people who are doing the work. They are incredibly frustrating to work with.

A reasonable scenario is that the guy with the problem sits down with the guy who can do the job, and they discuss the problem and possible solutions. The guy with the problem steers the guy with the answer in his direction, and the guy with the answer explains why x is impossible, or y is a better solution or whatever. And eventually they agree. And (one would like to think), if there are unforeseen problems, the two guys sit down together again, and discuss it some more.

But here is how working with Middle Men works: The guy with the problem sits down with the Middle Man, and outlines the problem. The Middle Man, who doesn't really even begin to understand the problem, obviously cannot discuss alternative methods or solutions because he doesn't really know what he's talking about. So he says "yes, we can do that" and he makes up a quote of how much it will cost to do it.

Actually, 'makes up' is not entirely fair. This figure is calculated by a rigorous formula. First, you calculate the cost of the slave labour required to actually do the job. This is usually about $20/hour, for 40 hours per week from now until whenever you've said you'll have the job done by. Then you add on the lease payments on the BMW over that period of time, the cost of running the office over that time, a wear and tear figure on the expensive suit, and some left over for yourself. And round up to the nearest thousand, or to the nearest ten thousand on a largish job.

Now, everything over the cost of the slave labour is called "Margin", and this is a sacred object. Without it, the Middle Man will die. There are two other sacred objects to the Middle Man: "Contract" and "Deadline". I have listed these sacred objects in order of importance. Deadline can be extended. Contract can be broken. But only in order to save Margin.

Next, the Middle Man has to find the slave labour. He has calculated $20/hour, so he will try to find someone willing to work for $10/hour first. When all else fails, he will pay the price he has calculated. Only very reluctantly will he go over this price, because that will threaten Margin.

In choosing slave labour, the most important things the slave can say is "I can deliver this on time at your price". These things don't have to be true, they just have to be said. They are an echo of what the Middle Man told the guy with the problem, and he likes to hear his own words repeated back to him.

And now the slave has to do the work. But he cannot discuss the work. He cannot discuss it with the Middle Man, because he is a clueless moron. And he's already told the guy with the problem that he would do it the way he first suggested. To go back now with an alternative solution would be to risk yet another sacred object "Credibility". And anyway, he couldn't explain it very well. The problem must be solved in the manner promised by the Middle Man to the guy with the problem.

And, of course, the slave cannot go to the guy with the problem to discuss it, because there is the risk that they might wonder exactly what it is the Middle Man is good for. No, what little communication there is between the guy with the problem and the guy with the answer must pass through the "Layer of Obfuscation". The slave is unlikely to attempt this more than once or twice, as he is usually a well educated person who quickly learns not to bash his head against a brick wall.

In the end, the guy with the problem goes home with an inadequate solution, the slave goes and celebrates his meager income at the local Chinese take-away, and spends sleepless nights thinking how much better the problem could have been solved, and the Middle Man lives happily ever after. Ignorance is Bliss apparently.

Actually, that's a bit of a fairy tale. In real life the Middle Man suffers from ulcers from long hours spent worrying about Margin.

Patrick Jordan

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