Software changed the world, then died on the first of the month

Brief didn't call for two-digit dates. What to blame? Bad brief or lousy testing?

Who, me? Welcome again to Monday, and therefore to a new edition of “Who, me?”, The Register’s confessional column in which readers own their errors.

This week meet “Stan” who told us that he once did the world a great service – for a week or two.

Stan’s story started in 1998 when he “worked for a certain company that had developed a real-time solution to updating prepay mobile phone tariffs.”

This product was a cracker because until it hit the market pre-paid mobile users usually waited overnight for new credit to reach their accounts. This new product meant that credit appeared in accounts not long after payment, a boon for all at a time when pre-paid mobiles opened up the market to those who didn’t fancy a more complicated contract.

Stan’s job was “designing and developing the front end to backend comms module” and he told us he “was given very poor specs on the architecture.”

But he did a pretty good job anyway: he told us that “when it went live in almost every western European and English-speaking country in the world middle of November that year, everybody was wowed by it.”

“Dozens of mobile phone companies sang our praises, north and south hemispheres... for about two weeks.”

Things went sour when a new month commenced and “all the installed systems started to fail, one after another.”

Those failures happened while Stan slept and he had no inkling of the issue as he arrived at work the next morning.

“You cannot imagine the mayhem,” he told Who, me? “Every single director, executive, manager and senior staff had been called in and were screaming at each other. They had been up all night of course.”

“They finally got far enough down the chain of command to scream at me,” at which point Stan pointed out the existence of a debugging module and suggested it might be of some help.

Doing so “produced a rather stunned silence in them all.”

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Not many minutes later, Stan had the debug logs in view and could see that – gulp! – his comms module was to blame.

“I had to shout over all the screamed threats of recriminations and lawsuits to point out that no-one had ever actually asked for a leading zero on single digit days, and that they hadn’t tested date edge cases before deployment.”

“You could have heard a pin drop,” Stan told us.

Stan stuck in the job for another six months. “They were all so embarrassed by the incident that I decided there was no future there and moved on, fortunately to a company that did the most rigorous design and testing I’ve ever encountered... a real treat!”

Has a bad brief seen your work blamed for breakages? If so, write to Who, me? and we’ll try to slot you in here on a future Monday.

And feel free to share your thoughts on Stan’s situation in the comments! ®

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