WTF – Let’s write all the code twice

There is an interesting web site (with the slogan “Curious Perversions in Information Technology”) that documents amusingly failed projects. The name used to be but changed due to the idea that for some projects success (interpreted to mean limping along in production) is worse than failure (being scrapped and re-written). I’ve created a new category WTF [1] on my blog to document such projects, both ones that I have personally witnessed and ones that friends and colleagues have seen.

In the 90’s I spent some time working on an OS/2 GUI program to be the front-end for a mainframe backed system used by call-center workers.

The first thing that they did was to develop a file naming scheme, they decided that all source files should be in the same directory (not unreasonable), but that 8.3 should be the limit of file name lengths in case there was a need to port the system to Windows 95. The fact that porting a program which did little other than display a GUI and talk to a S/390 server to a different OS was difficult (given the large amount of platform specific GUI code) was lost on them. Then they decided that the first two letters would be “FE” in case the source was merged with another bank project (of course the bank had many “Front End” systems talking to mainframes – so even this didn’t guarantee that they would be free of name clashes). Characters 3 and 4 were to represent the section of the program, and as the 3 character extension was one of “.h” or “.cpp” that left exactly 4 characters to name the file – we may as well have numbered the source files. Eventually one of the guys started making jokes about the file names by trying to pronounce them as words and that convinced a majority of the developers that the files should have long human-readable names. As the NMAKE expert (they insisted on not using unsupported software such as GNU make) it was my job to fix all the file names.

The bank had an internal users’ group for the C++ development environment, but the contractors were not invited to attend. You might think that it would make sense to have the most skillful C++ programmers attend the meetings and share their knowledge, but apparently attending such meetings was a perk of being a permanent employee.

What do you do when you have a C++ development project running behind schedule and a permanent employee who has had no prior exposure to C++ and wants to learn? One manager believed that assigning the junior programmer to the project is a solution to both problems – it was good for teaching the programmer C++ in a hurry but not so good for the deadline.

There was a lot of excitement related to the back-end development. The mainframe guys assured me that CICS could never handle bad data and it totally wasn’t their fault if my program sent bad data to them and the region crashed. The first CICS region crash occurred when the mainframe guys told me to make the unused space in text fields “empty” – to a C programmer this means filling them with the 0 character but it killed the CICS region (apparently “empty” means filled with spaces to CICS programmers). A later region crash came when they told me to change the field length for the account name everywhere that it occurred – they told me that they wanted the change immediately – so I changed a macro definition, ran “make”, and sent a transaction with the changed size. Apparently “immediately” really meant “after we have spent an hour of software development changing magic numbers throughout our system”. I’m assuming that COBOL has some facility that roughly compares to C macros for defining field lengths and that it was the programmers not the language that was at fault.

When the project became seriously behind schedule they hired some expert programmers from another country to help with the development. The experts decided that we needed to redesign the system (not that it had been designed in the first place) to use a “model view controller” architecture. When the real business logic is all on a S/390 and the only logic in the front end is to combine the contents of some screen-scrapes from a virtual 3270 terminal into a single GUI dialogue (with the first screen occasionally getting data from the IVR system) the benefits of MVC seem rather small. The new MVC version of the system was dubbed “phase 2” and there were a series of deadlines for changing over from “phase 1” which were missed. So the original team of developers continued on their project without any help from the “experts”. The last report I heard (some time after leaving the project) was that Phase 1 had gone live in production while Phase 2 was still being developed (at that time Phase 2 had a year of development and Phase 1 had about 15 months).

The lesson to be learned from this is that management should only hire people that they can control. If you hire a consulting company and then let them do whatever they want (as opposed to solving the problem that they were hired to solve) then at best they will do no good and they may just slow things down.

One of the more memorable incidents was when the project manager was talking to his 2IC, he said “I think we’re really breaking ground, [pause] I’m breaking wind and we’re breaking ground”. My desk was a few meters from where the wind (and ground) were being broken, I unfortunately was able to verify that wind was being broken but was not as certain about the ground.

I did learn some useful things during this project, one was the fact that sample code from library vendors should not be trusted and ideally should be read from a print-out not pasted into the project source tree. The CTI library vendor had buffer overflows in their sample code. Another useful thing was the coin-tossing method of dispute resolution. If two good programmers have a disagreement about how to implement something tossing a coin is a quick way of resolving the dispute – this only works with two good programmers (in which case either idea will work).

The project in question was messed up in many ways. I may write another post in the WTF category about it.

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