Monday, April 2, 2007

Semi-Karma (A True Story)

Once upon a time there was a company that made a gizmo. We’ll call it Company A. It doesn’t matter what exactly the gizmo did, except to say that it was an essential part of another thing, a gadget, that was made by Company B, and the gadget was essential to the manufacture of semiconductor chips made by Company C.

In fact, the gadget contained more than one gizmo, and the gizmos were connected together in the gadget by a network. Unfortunately, sometimes the network in the gadget would fail, and neither Company A nor Company B knew why. Nevertheless, Company C was getting mighty unpleasant about the problem, because they had a new plant that they were trying to bring on-line and the problem was costing them money. Lots of money.

So Company A launched a major research effort, digging into the details of their networking setup and eventually they discovered that there was one particular chip that wasn’t always quite up to spec. About 20% of the chips developed thermal noise just a bit too quickly, and if you had two such chips in your network, the noise level would be enough to sometimes kill the network. Not always, you understand, just often enough to drastically cut throughput, but not often enough to have been easy to find. In fact, the effort took weeks. Once they’d done this work, they contacted the manufacturer of the chips to ask about the problem, and they were told, yes, there was a tiny quality problem on some of the chips, they hadn’t been annealed quite enough to get rid of all of a particular contaminant, and that could, under some circumstances, create noise. Oh, and by the way, all the “Tier 1” customers using those chips had already been notified, but Company A was not “Tier 1.”

You’ve probably guessed by now that the chip in question was manufactured by Company C.

I sometimes wonder whether or not those who made the decision to at first restrict the information to only their top customers ever learned of the consequences of that decision. My guess is that they did not, and even if they had, they probably did not change their behavior in the future. I suspect that they were the sort who believed that you can create the appearance of greater value to some customers by giving other customers short shrift. Everyone likes to think they’re special.

But what comes around, goes around. What you do comes back to you, and it’s not just bread cast on the waters that karma applies to. Some might say that matters of ethics and morality come down to a question of faith, but I think it’s more a matter of paying attention to the way the world works.

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