Project X

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“Ouch”, cries today. Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash.

In an open plan office in a galaxy not so far away…


Lisa rotates in her chair and looks upwards at the ceiling. She poses a question:  

“I’m just about to create the repository in Github. What should we call it?”

“Well, we’re not even sure what it’s going to do yet. I don’t even know if what they’re asking for is possible.”

Ben looks back towards his monitor, opens up Google and types in “cool project names” and hits the return key with vigor. Lisa scoots her chair over to Ben’s desk to look at the results. 

“That’s the one.”

“Oh yeah,” she replies.

Switching back to his initial browser tab, Ben types in “Project X” and creates the repository so that the Data Science team can start hacking around with ideas.

Lisa uploads the first file. It’s a Python script that prints “What on earth is Project X? 💁” when executed. Ben laughs. He commits a README.md that states:

The first rule of Project X is that you don’t talk about Project X.

Lisa stretches her arms into the air and cracks her knuckles. She sighs.


A gentle clinking sound repeats as Lisa whirls the milk into her teacup in the kitchen. She looks through the glass partition that separates her from the breakout area. 

The light in the open space is dimmed, and row upon row of chairs are packed tightly with what looks like the entire commercial team, listening intently to the presentation of the company roadmap.

Leaning against the kitchen wall, she watches the projection as screenshots of the latest iteration of the mobile app are shown. Laptops glow as the audience take notes.

Sipping her tea so that it doesn’t spill over, she turns to leave the kitchen, but is distracted by the reflection of a giant “X” on door. It’s coming from the presentation.

The slide says what she had immediately feared: “Project X”. The CEO is animated. The crowd are clapping. Lisa’s heart sinks. She fumbles with her phone to send Ben a Slack message.

Lisa: They’ve just presented Project X during the roadmap deck.

Ben: Are you serious?

Lisa: Yes.

Ben: But we don’t even know what it does yet.

Lisa: What do we do?

Ben: What did the slides say?

Lisa: It’s coming next quarter, and the whole of downstairs was hyped.

Ben bursts through the kitchen door. 

“What the hell is going on?”

“We are absolutely screwed,” replies Lisa, who is now pacing in circles.

“It’s literally a CSV file with two hundred lines of test data for a feature that hasn’t been designed. How are they announcing it already?”

Lisa stares into her mug. “Will they notice if I leave the country?”

“I’m looking up flights to Siberia,” replies Ben.


Lisa! Our rockstar data scientist! So good to see you!”

It’s the head of sales.

“Oh, hey Mia.”

“Let me tell you this, Lisa. I love the website. I love what you’re doing for this company. It’s going to absolutely blow the competition away. My team are going to push this so hard when it’s done.”

“Website? What do you mean?”

Double-you double-you double-you dot project x dot com. It looks incredible. The announcement last night on the webinar? Fantastic. Thousands of our customers watched it, Lisa. Thousands.”

“What?”

“I love it, Lisa. Love it!”

Mia is already out of the kitchen and involved in another discussion. Lisa walks back over to her team and taps Ben on the shoulder. After finishing the current line of code with a semi-colon, he removes his headphones.

“What’s up?”

“Can you go to project x dot com?”

“What?”

“Just type it.”

Hitting the return key, the widescreen display is filled with a humongous “X”. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is audible from the headphones on the desk.

“Oh my God.”

The X fades away to reveal a satellite image of the Earth, spinning gently on its axis. Small X markers start appearing all over the globe. London. Tokyo. Hyderabad. Dubai. Lines then arc from city to city, forming an elaborate mesh across the planet.

There is stunned silence.

As the horn section reaches crescendo and the cymbals crash, the globe fades and a tagline appears:

Everything changes. November.

Ben is livid. “What the hell was that? Where did that November date come from? It’s already October!”

Lisa is staring through her hands. “We are so screwed.”


Errrrr… Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.


Ben is having difficulty moving his mouse cursor because his trackpad is covered in sweat. Usually the Data Science demo sessions have a small handful of attendees, but today is the first live demo of Project X, and there isn’t anywhere left to stand.

Mia has brought her entire sales team. Most of the engineering team are present. Even the CEO is there. Lisa is leaning against the wall for support. Her legs don’t feel like they are able to stabilize the rest of her body.

Ben coughs. His cheeks are burning.

“OK, hello – wow, there’s lots of you here. A couple of demos today, but let’s kick off by showing you the latest build of Project X. Please bear in mind that we’re not finished yet and this is just a preview.”

Leaning over his laptop, he types his username and password into the login prompt and clicks the button to log in. An error pops up: login failed.

“Damn it,” he whispers to himself.

Lisa leans over so she can whisper to him. “It’s not hooked up to the live environment; try your development password.”

Ben enters his credentials again, but manages to type them in the address bar, revealing his password to the entire room. His cheeks flush for a second time.

Somebody from Engineering is humming the Ride of the Valkyries. Another sniggers.

Lisa rapidly shifts over and takes control of the laptop, successfully logging in to reveal a white screen with a text box on it.

“Er, OK, so this is our latest prototype. It’s probably just easiest if we give it a go. Can someone suggest a word to me?”

Somebody pipes up at the back of the room.

“Eggs!”

“OK, let’s type that in.”

Lisa successfully manages to type “Eggf”, which is quickly corrected to “Eggs”. She presses the return key. A table of data is returned with some fairly arbitrary numbers about eggs: their size, the quantity that are produced each year, and the ratio of egg size to the creature that laid it.

“There you go! Cool, huh?”

There is silence in the room. Faces look blank, confused, and disappointed. Ben and Lisa exchange glances. 

“Any other words to try?”

Mia pipes up. “Is this Project X? Is this our biggest new feature of the quarter? How are we meant to sell this?”


Ben is leaning over and prodding at the Nespresso machine with his left hand, which has managed to swallow his coffee pod and jam the input tray, much to the dismay of his colleagues who are impatiently waiting for the day’s first shot of caffeine. With his other hand, he is scrolling through a forum looking for instructions on how to hard reset the machine to release the drawer.

“Technology, eh?”

It’s Lisa, back from vacation after the rather intense end to Project X. 

“Why does the drawer have to be controlled by software, rather than it just being a manual latch?”

“Because software is eating the world, Ben. And now it’s eaten your coffee pod.”

Back at their desks, Lisa gets the rundown from Ben on the next project.

“So they’ve asked us to work out whether we can link together the browsing patterns of our users with the best times of the week to send them promotional emails.”

Lisa leans back in her chair.

“OK, sounds reasonable. Have you looked at any prior art?”

“Not yet. I’ve still been dealing with the fallout from this ridiculous Project X thing. I’m answering what feels like hundreds of emails a day about what it is, how it works, and why it didn’t change history, resurrect Martin Luther King or put another man on the Moon.”

Ben pauses for a second. “What did they expect?”

Lisa rests her head on her chin.

“Let’s just forget about that. I’m ready to start on this new thing. I think I saw something about behavior tracking at the last CHI conference that could be a good place to start. But before we do, this project needs a name.”

“Oh, how about we name it after a goddess? Oh, oh – or maybe one of the Grecian Fates? I always liked the name Atropos. Not a huge fan of Clotho though…” 

“No, no, no,” interjects Lisa. “We’re calling it ‘Best Time To Email’. We’re not having Project X happen all over again.”

Lisa commits README.md into the new best-time-to-email project on Github. It reads:

A project to find out the best time to email our users.

“Let’s see them make an animated spinning globe out of that.”

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