Back around 1998, the company I worked for at the time received some funding to create a new e-commerce product. We had the full gamut of business requirements to meet. It had to be fast, easy for end users, flashy, multi-language, etc. Sad to say, I probably haven’t had as an ambitious set of work to accomplish since those heady days.
This effort pre-dated Microsoft.NET. Plain vanilla ASP was still somewhat new (or least very unfamiliar to my company). "Brick and mortar" companies were doomed. Doomed! This is to say that it was pioneering work. Not Hadron Collider pioneering work, but for us in our little world, it was pioneering work.
We were crazy busy. We were doing mini POC’s almost every day, figuring out how to maintain state in an inherently stateless medium, figuring out multi-language issues, row-level security. We even had create a vocabulary to define basic terms (I preferred state-persistent but for some reason, the awkward "statefull" won the day).
As we were madly inventing this product, the marketing and sales people were out there trying to sell it. Somehow, they managed to sell it to our nightmare scenario. Even though we were designing and implementing an enterprise solution, we really didn’t expect the first customer to use every last feature we built into the product day zero. This customer needed multi-language, a radically different user interface from the "standard" system but with the same business logic. Multi-language was especially hard in this case, because we always focused on Spanish or French, but in this case, it was Chinese (which is a double-byte character set and required special handling given the technology we used).
Fast forward a few months and I’m on a Northwest airlines flight to Beijing. I’ve been so busy preparing for this trip that I have almost no idea what it’s like to go there. I had read a book once about how an American had been in China for several years and had learned the language. One day he was walking the city and asked some people for directions. The conversation went something this:
- American: "Could you tell me how to get to [XX] street?"
- Chinese: "Sorry, we don’t speak English".
- American: "Oh, well I speak Mandarin." and he asked them again in Chinese, but more clearly (as best he could).
- Chinese: Very politely, "Sorry, we don’t speak English".
The conversation went on like that for bit and the American gave up in frustration. As he was leaving them he overheard one man speaking to the other, "I could have sworn he was asking for directions to [XX] street."
I had picked up a few bits and pieces of other China-related quasi-information and "helpful advice":
- A Korean co-worked told me that the I needed to be careful of the Chinese because "they would try to get me drunk and take advantage of you" in the sense of pressuring me into bad business decisions.
- We were not allowed to drive cars (there was some confusion as to whether this was a custom, a legal requirement or just the client’s rule).
- There were special rules for going through customs.
- We were not allowed to use American money for anything.
- You’re not supposed to leave tips. It’s insulting if you do.
And finally, I had relatively fresh memories the Tiananmen massacre. When I was at college, I remember seeing real-time Usenet postings as the world looked on in horror.
In short, I was very nervous. I wasn’t just normal-nervous in the sense that I was delivering a solution that was orders of magnitude more complicated than anything I had ever done before. I was also worried about accidentally breaking a rule that could get me in trouble.
I’m on this 14 hour flight and though it was business class, 14 hours is a damned long time. There are only so many ways to entertain yourself by reading, watching movies or playing with the magnetized cutlery. Even a really good book is hard to read for several hours straight.
Eventually, I started to read the packaging material on a piece of software I was hand-carrying with me to the client, Netscape’s web server. I’m reading the hardware/software requirements, the marketing blurbs, looking at the pretty picture and suddenly, I zero in on the giant "NOT FOR EXPORT" warning, something about 128 bit encryption. I stuffed the box back into my carry bag, warning face-down (as if that would have helped) and tried to keep visions of Midnight Express out of my head.
Looking back on it now, I should have been worried, if at all, when I left the U.S., not when I was entering China 🙂 Nothing untoward happened and I still consider that to be the best and most memorable business trip I’ve had the pleasure of making.