A refurbished iPad, the CAP theorem, and a lesson on negotiation

We’ll get to the iPad and CAP theorem soon, but first, let’s talk about negotiation:

  • Your boss hands you a project with an impossible deadline–so you end up working evenings and weekends.
  • You get a job offer that’s lower than you’d like–and you accept it.

And that’s just the way things are, and it’s not like there’s anything you can do, right?

Maybe. But quite possibly there is something you can do.

To explain why, I’d like to share an edifying tale, a story of broken promises and ultimate–albeit minor–triumph. Along the way we’ll take a detour into distributed systems theory, and when we’re done there will even be a moral (hint: it’s about negotiation).

A purchase is made

Once upon a time, at a different job that subsidized such things, my wife purchased an iPad. Years passed, operating systems were upgraded, and over time this iPad became too slow to run some apps, and too old to run others.

It was time to buy a new iPad.

The day Apple released their new 2018 iPad we went to Apple’s online store and purchased a refurbished 2017 model. We got a confirmation email, and looked forward to a tablet that could keep up with many companies’ unwillingness to ship performant code (looking at you, Skype).

The next day Apple sent us another email: our order had been canceled, and our money would be refunded. When we checked the store, the refurbished model was no longer in stock.

Our somewhat cheaper iPad was not coming.

A theory is introduced, with some references to distributed systems

Why did the Apple Store cancel our order? Perhaps it was a bug, but I have another theory: the constraints of the CAP theorem.

Eric Brewer’s CAP theorem states that a distributed data store–a system composed of multiple nodes–can only have two out of three properties:

  1. Consistency: all nodes have same view of the data.
  2. Availability: the system can respond successfully to clients.
  3. Partition-tolerance: if the network between the nodes fails, the system can continue to operate.

Now, the online Apple Store is quite likely to be a distributed system, given the need to scale to many users. And it needs to store data, the size of the inventory of each item in the store. Given a choice between those three properties, the only two reasonable choices are availability and partition-tolerance.

It’s far better to have a store that is available than to have completely consistent tracking of inventory. There is a cost to this choice, though: every once in a while a large rush of orders will cause inconsistent views of the available inventory.

  • Node A thinks there is one iPad left, and sells it to customer 1.
  • At the very same time, Node B thinks there is one iPad left, and sells it to customer 2.

Because the system can’t enforce consistency, the same iPad is sold to two people. What to do?

One common solution (alas, I can’t find the original paper where I read the idea) is “compensation” or “apology”: out-of-band business processes to repair the mistakes. In this case, a post-processing stage that notices the double-sold iPad and handles it somehow.

How this rare but inevitable mistake is handled is a policy decision, and Apple’s chosen policy is to simply cancel the order–contrary to a guarantee they make on their website.

A complaint is made

If you go to the Apple Store website’s refurbished section, you will see in small letters at the top that “availability is guaranteed once we receive your full payment.” Given that promise, and the fact we’d gotten a confirmation email for our payment, my wife called up customer service and politely asked why our order was canceled.

The representative went off, and after some delay she indicated that she’d talked to her manager and she’d gotten approval to send us a new iPad instead. So the next week we received a 2018 iPad, while only paying the cost of a refurbished 2017 model.

Success, and easy success at that that. My wife didn’t have to complain loudly, point out Apple was in the wrong, or hassle anyone. She just asked.

The topic of negotiation is reintroduced

Apple made a promise (payment == guaranteed delivery), and then violated it. Why? Violating the guarantee on their website was an opening offer in a negotiation.

When you’re negotiating, you need to ask for what you want, or you won’t get it. In practice most people won’t ask and won’t complain, and so it’s in Apple’s interest to start with a low offer: most people will get the email canceling the order, grumble a bit, and re-order something else.

Often how you ask is also important: you need to ask the right way. I once had a $5000 medical expense denied over and over by a health insurance company. Eventually I indicated I wished to file a grievance–a bureaucratic procedure I found on their website–and suddenly they found a “coding error” that had caused the problem and my bill was paid. (My uninformed guess is that grievances get reported to state regulators.)

The same dynamic is part of how many companies take advantage of employees, and the cost you’ll pay for not asking is even higher. When a company gives you a job offer they will have a salary range they are willing to pay, but they will usually not offer their high number. Instead, they will offer you the lowest number possible they think you might accept. Sometimes that number will also be far below market rate.

Many people will simply accept that initial salary offer–I’ve certainly made that mistake–and therefore end up getting paid much less than they could otherwise get. But of course that’s just an initial offer, and simply asking for more will usually result in a higher offer. And you can do even better if you do a little work beforehand.

A summary is presented

Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Recognize negotiating situations: you’ve already lost if you don’t realize you’re negotiating.
  2. Ask for what you want, or you won’t get it.
  3. Ask in the right way.

For a useful guide to negotiating your salary and benefits in general, see Valerie Aurora’s negotiating guide. And if it’s your working hours you care about, check out my book: Negotiate a 3-Day Weekend.



We all make mistakes, and I’ve got 20 years’ worth: from code that crashed production every night at 4AM, to accepting a preposterously bad job offer.

Every painful failure taught me a lesson—but only after it was too late.

You can do better! Join 2900 other programmers, and every week you’ll learn how to avoid another of my mistakes.


You might also enjoy:

» Negotiating a 4-day workweek: an interview with an expert
» How to engineer a raise
»» Get the work/life balance you need
»» Level up your technical skills