The orange juice test

Spending money is very easy. Spending money effectively is very hard. There are lots of dodgy people & service providers out there who will promise the world, send the invoices, and deliver mediocrity six months late. Or worse.

It’s helpful if you can eliminate these chancers from your considerations early on, to make sure you’re only talking to people well equipped to solve the problem you have. This is where the Orange Juice Test comes in. What follows is a brief extract from the book The Secrets of Consulting by the late Gerry Weinberg.

LeRoy was president of a custom software firm that that had employed my services to facilitate some problem solving. For a couple of days there was no break in the action, so I had little chance to talk to LeRoy. Eventually, the only alternative was to catch him for breakfast, which violates a hard and fast rule. If there’s one thing worse than a business lunch, it’s a business breakfast.

LeRoy shared my feelings so we finished off the business part of the breakfast even before the waitress got around to warming up the first cup of coffee. As the food came we settled back to enjoy the small talk and the possibility of exchanging some really interesting information.

LeRoy asked me about the consulting business, and I asked him about the software business. LeRoy said we had many problems in common, especially the problem of not being able to predict if and when we would be awarded contracts. That gave me an opening…

“I’d be curious to know how come you gave me this contract” I asked. “But don’t tell me if it would violate some confidence.”

“Not at all,” LeRoy assured me, raising his juice glass in a mockup toast. “You got the contract because you were the only one who passed The Orange Juice Test”

“The Orange Juice Test? But how? I don’t even drink orange juice”

“Oh, The Orange Juice Test has nothing really to do with orange juice. It’s just named after one particular application of the test in which it’s used to select a conference hotel. But you can use the test for selecting any service.”

“Like consultants?”

“Or software houses. Which is how I learned about it. One of my clients told me about it, when I asked her the same question.”

“So how does it work?”

“Well, imagine that you had to choose a site for an annual sales convention, accommodating 700 people.”

“I have some experience with that problem. It’s not easy”

“Yes, but with The Orange Juice Test, you can do pretty well. At the very least you can eliminate some of the losers.”

“I’m all ears, how do you do it?”

LeRoy smiled over his coffee cup. “When you see the banquet manager for a hotel, you pose the following problem: The founder of your company has established a hallowed tradition for your sales meetings, requiring that each morning’s sales breakfast starts with a short toast to success, using orange juice”

“A sales breakfast for 700 people?” I grimaced. “That’s downright disgusting!”

“Oh you don’t really intend to have the breakfast. It’s just part of the test. You then explain the breakfast has to start at 7 a.m.…”

“That’s even more revolting!”

“… and that each of the 700 people must have a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.”

“A large glass?”

“Yes, large. Not like this one, which they simply call large on the menu. But a drinking glass size, at least.”

“And freshly squeezed?”

“Yes. No more than two hours before serving”

“I see the problem”

“Well that’s the test. After posing this problem you listen to what the banquet manager tells you.”

“They’ll probably say it can’t be done.”

“That might happen,” LeRoy said, “in which case they flunk The Orange Juice Test.”

“But I know managers who would say, ‘No problem’, just to get the business”

“… which also flunks The Orange Juice Test. They might be lying, or they might really think there’s no problem. I don’t know which is worse, but I don’t want to have my convention at either place”

“So who passes?”

“The one who says what you said to us, when you took this job”

I was puzzled, “I don’t remember discussing orange juice. What did I say?”

LeRoy smiled. “You said, ‘That’s a real problem. I can help you with it, … and this is how much it will cost.’ So you passed The Orange Juice Test.

“But surely you considered more than that? No doubt I could get workers to squeeze oranges at 5 a.m. if I paid them a thousand dollars apiece. But would you be willing to pay that much?”

“I might, or I might not, but it’s not for the banquet managers to decide that for me. That’s my job, not theirs. If your price had been too high, we would have eliminated you, too. But that’s a different test. There’s no sense in getting a low price if they can’t do the job, or if they’re going to con you and give you canned orange juice in small glasses”

The key idea here is to propose a task you know to be extremely difficult but possible, and then measure the candidate’s reaction. If they are defeatist (“That can’t be done!“) or deluded (“I’d code that in a weekend“) then that’s what you’d be hiring.

Hiring quickly and booking contractors sure feels like progress, but remember, when you’re building software reality always bats last.

Credit for orange juice photo: helterskelter