Profitability Analysis (ProAm) Windows Desktop Application

This is a story I love telling about how big corporations can sometimes work.


I was asked to make a desktop application while working as a contractor for a now defunct public telephone (payphone) company. It was to be called Pro-Am which was some kind of abbreviation for "Profitability Analysis." I don't remember why there is an "m" in there instead of an "n", but that what it was called. The idea was to pull in data from dozens of sources to see if any particular payphone was profitable with all kinds of sorting and filtering options.

I need to say that this was way back before cell phones displaced payphones. It was happening but had not completely happened yet. The management thinking before the cell phone era was that payphones did not have to be profitable per se, because they were also a way to advertise the parent phone company brand. The idea being that the advertising value was good enough to justify the pay phone installation and any money actually brought in by the phone was a bonus. The challenge was that the parent company had recently spun off the public communications arm of the company and it now had to fend for itself. Suddenly, for the first time management was concerned about the actual profitability of each payphone.

To my great surprise, the company had no way of knowing if a phone was profitable. The main reason being because it was difficult to pull all the information needed together. It included installation costs, rent, maintenance, taxes, and most of all usage. This information was stored in a variety of different databases spread across systems throughout the company.

The Task

My job was to sort all this out and put it in one desktop application that management could use to quickly and easily lookup exactly how profitable any group of phones were for some time period. The requirements included a lot of "lets shoot for the moon" thinking, with regard to the slicing and dicing capabilities of the application, with the presumption that the actual product would be limited by what was possible. Since the company had upwards of 200,000 pay phones this was a reasonable assumption.

My task was to develop the whole thing, soup to nuts, including the interface, and figuring out how to access and gather all the data. I was in a room with eight other contractors, but this was in the days when most development shops had a talent situation where one guy did 80 percent of the work and everyone else stayed out of their way. In this shop, I was that guy and so my boss gave me the whole job even though it was a big assignment.

Infinite Scroll

With so many phones and/or phone categories, to report on, the output could be lots and lots of rows. At that time none of this team's applications had infinite scroll, so I though this would be a good time to make one. It was as simple as keeping a cache of 300 or so records in the display, when the user got close to the bottom, or top, adjusting that cache with additional data fetching and discarding to keep records coming as the user scrolled. I did this and when I demo-ed it to my boss it caused a bit of a shit storm. As soon as I showed it to her she called in a few other team members saying "You told me this couldn't be done!" If I had known about this claim (it happened before I was hired on) I would have given them a heads up.

The Deliverable

Looking back the whole process was not that hard and I managed to get the thing delivered ahead of time, and with every feature they asked for included. There was a lot of business logic to figure out, as I had to work with stakeholders to decipher how to apply costs and revenues accurately. The other challenge was how to present all the different sort and filtering options in an interface that was intuitive and understandable with no training.

One Big Surprise

One thing I did while testing the deliverable was to run the profitability report for all phones. The product idea was the reporting would be done by region, salesman, market segment, etc. and these reports came back in a few seconds. But doing the report on every phone in the system took a while, about 10 minutes if I'm remembering correctly. We were using Oracle databases (mostly) and the big holdup was the calls database which contained every call made or received and had hundreds of millions of records, which was a lot of data back then.

The results of doing the report on every phone was that only about thirty-plus percent of the phones were profitable. I though this was a little strange and talked with my boss about it. We reviewed the logic and the conclusion was that it was correct.

Well, this was a bombshell. Literally no one in the company had any idea what percentage of phones were profitable prior to this application. It didn't spell good things for the company, especially considering how rapidly cell phones were taking over. The management was used to "big phone company" thinking and now that they were spun off from the bigger phone company they didn't know how to process this information, as far as i could tell.


So I completed the deliverable. All features were there and seemed to be working perfectly. I was done.

A couple of weeks later I had not heard one word about Pro-Am. As far as I knew my boss and her boss where happy with my work on this project. I was busy with other projects that were the best gigs the team was working on. Out of the blue I asked my boss how Pro-Am was going? She said something like "I'm so sorry. You did a good job on that project, and I wish people could have known that." "That was weird and cryptic" I thought. Well after probing and asking around I found out the project was canceled because of "technical problems." Technical Problems as in we couldn't get it to work.

Apparently the knowledge of how un-profitable the company was, was so toxic that management choose to bury it, by blaming it on indirectly on me. "Crazy" I thought.

On this job I was a working as a contractor. My boss was also a contractor. All my coworkers were contractors. So I didn't think it was my place to champion exposing this falsehood. I let it alone and continued to do my work as instructed. I didn't even mention this to other co-workers.

I did get a darkly funny story to tell out of the deal though, and now that enough time has passed, and the company is long since defunct, I can finally tell it.


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