The Feature Creep
3 months ago
“Yo, Franco!” I saw Scott bee-lining from the right toward the cubicle intersection ahead, intent on intercepting my path.
We converged at the cubicle crossroads. “Hey, Scott, what’s up?”
“You know, just living’ the dream. Hey I was wondering, you got a sec to talk about the new Portal?”
Scott was one of the 13 people appointed to the redesign committee. Many of them had little to no previous experience managing web projects or being involved in a redesign. Although I was relatively new to the organization, I had been involved in a website redesign project at my previous job. Apparently, that was all the qualification needed. I was selected to lead this newly formed committee and to oversee the project. Although daunting, I was looking forward to the opportunity. This would be the first major project entrusted to me, and I felt like it would give me a chance to prove myself—and to look good in front of upper management.
After the initial kick-off, we had set up weekly meetings to share updates and review progress on the design prototypes. But now, two months in, I noticed a peculiar pattern emerging. It seemed like every time I turned around, I was getting ambushed by a committee member. People seemed to feel that they would have a greater chance of getting their features incorporated by hitting me up outside the scheduled project meetings.
“So, about the homepage…” Scott continued, not leaving me a chance to sidestep his request to chat about the project. He went on to list some new content features he was hoping could be added to the homepage, and described how they might fit into the current design-in-progress.
“I think this would be a great suggestion to bring up in our meeting Wednesday,” I responded, “Amy might have some concerns about how—“
Scott interjected, “Yeah the thing is…this isn’t really my request, it’s coming straight from Craig.” Craig was Scott’s boss, and one of the company VPs. All the committee members were either middle management or senior level employees, and we all reported to higher-ups who, at the end of the day, called the shots on pretty much anything and everything.
I had done a pretty good job in the first few months of keeping feature requests prioritized and balancing the needs of the different stakeholders. But with 12 vocal committee members, each under pressure to fight for their priorities, things were devolving into a real shit show. Each time I tried to shut down a new request, somebody would play the exec card, citing a VP that was championing it. It was becoming increasingly difficult to say “no.”
On top of that, my reputation was at stake. My boss had me under the microscope on this, and was expecting the project to run smoothly and on time. We had already wasted weeks arguing over features. Denying VP requests and dismissing committee members’ demands wasn’t making me look like a very good project manager.
How exactly did I get put in charge of this project again?
I needed a new strategy. At the next meeting I announced my plan:
“We've blocked out time with our designer and the lead developer. I’ve booked this room until the project is complete. If there is something that you want added to the Portal, content you want to feature, or some special functionality, just tell Eric and Tara. They’ll add it into the prototype. No limits. This is your company Portal. We’re gonna keep at this until we've incorporated everything you need.”
I watched as the eyes in the room widened. After months of fighting for features and navigating internal politics, the stakeholders now had carte blanche. The team got to work. We locked ourselves in. Suspense was building within the organization—as if a jury in a high-profile case had gone off to deliberate indefinitely. There were rumors floating around that no feature was being denied. I can tell you, those rumors were true.
Throughout the remainder of development, my investment in the project deepened. The more time I spent helping shape the Creation, the more fond of it I became. The more that I scrutinized it, the more I began to become obsessed. I fixated on details of it incessantly. Each component—each menu, icon, toolbar, button—had to fit so precisely into its place. Zero wasted space. Each element used only the space needed and not a pixel more. This was the epitome of interface efficiency. A dense wall of pure functionality.
And of course, there was the icing on the cake: a cue to help users recognize when they were hovering or focusing on a button or link. A subtle but noticeable chime, an audible “TINK.” That one was my idea.
“Yassss.” Any skepticism I initially had when opening the floodgates was long gone. This. This was the ultimate creation. The other team members appreciated what we had accomplished, but none shared my vigorous enthusiasm. None of them truly recognized what we had achieved in putting it all together. Maybe they didn’t love it, but they all were delighted with having gotten everything they had asked for.
Finally, the prototype was complete.
The launch date arrived. To avoid disruption during employee working hours, the deployment was scheduled for late in the evening. The committee gathered in the conference room, our anticipation rising. Eric sat at his laptop plucking away at the final keystrokes before the cutover. Outside, the wind howled. The rain began coming down harder, tapping out a staccato rhythm on the glass skylights.
“Okay, we’re ready.” Eric announced. “All that’s left is to flip the switch on the DNS.”
He made the switch. Thunder growled. The sky flashed. The conference room lights flickered and droned with an intermittent mosquito-like buzz.
I turned toward Eric’s screen. TINK. It was live.
Strange reports about the Portal began popping up about a week after launch. I had been tracking user-submitted issues, and most of them seemed to fall into one of three categories.
“The system seems to have a mind of its own.”
There seemed to be a lot of confusion around some of the personalization features we had implemented. Users had been reporting that information was getting harder to find, and that the system seemed to be overriding the on-screen options with “whatever it thinks is best” (their words, not mine).
“Problem with new features.”
Although we hadn’t released anything new since launch, users seemed to be citing issues using features and functionality that we had no record of ever building in. I suspect user error.
“Problems with permission and authentication”
A number of users had reported not being able to edit content because the content was currently checked out by other users. People were also reporting problems logging out of the Portal once they'd logged in. I've had trouble tracking down either of these sets of these users for more information.
Due to the rise in complaints, and my inability to track down the complainants, I scheduled a meeting with Eric to go into the Portal myself and check things out.
Eric opened up the command line on his laptop and hit a flurry of keys. He pulled up the Portal and entered my user name. I stared into the hypnotic spinning icon in the center of the screen. Loading…Loading…Loading. Everything in my periphery began to blur. As my vision lost focus my mind also began to spin. I felt myself tumbling downward—like I was whirling down a drain.
With an abrupt thud I hit ground, knocking the breath from me. It took a moment for me to regain my senses. Cool silicon pressed against my cheek. I peeled my eyes open and the monochromatic world around me came into focus. I had entered the Portal.
I sat up. I was in the middle of a barren flatland. Grey trees flanked the western border of the flat terrain, stretching up as high as the eye could see. The northern edge was closed off by a wall of archaic stone square blocks—at least two or three dozen at least. Cryptic symbols were etched into the face of each block, clearly inscribed as a means to communicate to, or perhaps warn, trespassers who dared enter this realm without proper permissions.
I began wandering, following a trail of mysterious runes, hoping to pick up the scent of my missing colleagues. I knew they were trapped in here, and it was going to be up to me get them out. After hours of searching, I found myself back in the center of the flatland, right were I had first landed.
“Helloooo!” I shouted out, hoping for any form of response—even my own echo. Silence.
“HELLOOOOO!!!!” I hollered out once more, even louder than before. For a moment, more silence...and then:
The sound was unmistakable. A shiver ran down my spine. I knew it, for I had created it. I traced the sound to a small cave, far in the distance. I entered, knowing full well what awaited me. I had no choice but to confront my creation.
I shuffled my way through the dark cavern, a clickity-clack trailing each footstep. Whether it was the sound of a typist tapping away at a keyboard, or the rattling of old bones, I couldn't say and didn't want to know.
At the end of the corridor I reached a dimly lit chamber. Well before I could see it, I could feel it watching me. My eyes adjusted and I was just able to make out the shape of the Creation. This was the the first time I’d ever seen it in its true form. It was entirely unrecognizable; nothing at all like the vision the 13 of us had dreamed up in the boardroom months before. It just lay there, slumped atop a great mound, covered in grotesque, misshapen features—all entangled and out of control.
It was still studying me intently. I sensed within it a great sadness, which in turn filled me with great despair.
The sound was weaker this time. I approached, feelings of guilt welling up in me for what I had allowed my creation to become. I wondered what it thought of me… and of its other creators. It was dying. I entering the cave thinking I was searching for my Creation, but now realized that it was the Creation who had summoned me.
I reached out to lay my hand upon the bloated, wretched beast, hoping to console it in some way. It was then, as I approached, that I got a closer look at the mound it lay upon. Beneath the Creation was a pile of torn limbs and broken bones, tangled in gruesome knots. They were the remnants of my colleagues, the souls of its creators. I screamed for help, but of course there was no one to hear me. Before I could retreat in terror, I felt something constricting around my waist. A wicked grin stretched across the Creation’s face. Its body split open and thorn-covered branches were spilling out—hundreds of them—coiling around my body and tearing at my limbs.
I am being devoured by the branches. The black screen of death is upon me. I can see my Creation’s face one final time. There is no despair, there is no hatred. It is simply a beast that feeds on features and that lives to consume. The cycle is complete, and the Creation has destroyed its creators. I am not its first victim and will certainly not be its last. With my last thought I beg forgiveness for what I've done.
3 weeks later
Eric poked as his keyboard curiously. Something funny was going on with the Portal again, but it would have to wait. His workday was done, and it should be fine so long as he got the issue addressed before the next deployment. The new committee had reviewed the Portal and had a number of suggestions. A new batch of features was scheduled to be released on Tuesday. He moused over to the top right of his screen to log out.