Beware the developer with time on his hands and dreams of Disney
I like trucking, I like trucking and I like to truck
Who, Me? Welcome to Who, Me?, The Register's weekly tale of reader misdeeds, accidental or otherwise.
Today's story is set thirty years ago in a time of mainframes and limited computing resources.
Reader "Ivor" was working for an up and coming US trucking company that was so up and coming that it had realised it needed 24-hour programming support to keep things ticking over.
Ivor explained, "A team was assembled to cover the second shift and a lone programmer volunteered to provide support for the midnight to eight AM shift."
He continued: "As with most support teams, sometimes things work the way they are supposed to and you sit around twiddling your thumbs."
Regular readers will be nodding their heads sagely at this point, suspecting what that solitary programmer got up to.
"After reading all the available tech manuals, the third shift person took an interest in developing character-based graphics for the terminals on our IBM mid-range servers," said Ivor, "he realized that you could move the images across the screen by rewriting the screen multiple times."
Animation on the terminals! Neat!
Being a loyal employee, the programmer came up with an animation showing an image of a delivery truck with the company's initials on it. The truck would rumble from one side of the screen to another.
A productive night's work, we're sure you'll agree.
The programmer naturally wanted to share how clever he was with the company's employees and, since he was the only person on the support shift, had administrative rights to all the systems.
"So he thought it would be fun/funny to install his code into the log-in process and after entering their credentials, a user would be presented with a truck slowly moving across their terminal screen.
"On all two of three near maxed out servers that supported Headquarters."
Of course, in the wee small hours everything looked great. Alas, our smarty-pants programmer was then called home by a domestic emergency, meaning that he would not be around to witness the surprise and joy of the company's users at his handiwork.
Those first users began turning up at around four or five in the morning. As they watched the truck spend around 5 seconds pottering across the screen, they thought it was "cute."
"But," said Ivor, "as more and more folks got to their desks and attempted to log in, the support desk started to receive calls that they were stuck on the credentials screen and "WTH" was going on"
By this point the truck was taking a minute to complete its journey. And as more users tried to log in to work, the animation "eventually came to a stuttering stop somewhere in the middle to right side of the screen."
"Managers started calling saying their people couldn't get access and this was a "MAJOR CRISIS!!!!". (It was a trucking company and MOST of the calls were much more colorful.)"
"After a frantic hour," Ivor recalled, "someone looked at the logs from the previous shifts, discovered that changes had been made to system components and eventually found and re-installed the manufacturers code."
A swift restart, and all was well. Although as Ivor ruefully observed: "I.T.'s reputation hadn't been the best before and now it had been shattered."
In what will be a familiar experience for many readers, "Any little hiccup in performance flooded the support lines with calls asking 'What the ..... have you done now?'" – we can imagine the impact of the animated truck.
Ivor found himself on the review team for the incident: "The performance data showed that the backlog in writes to the terminals had reached limits never before seen by IBM techs. The systems were maxed out with less than 2 MB of RAM and the OS had paged out the vast majority of the queues so I/Os were contributing to the problems."
Unsurprising, the offending programmer found himself stripped of administrative privileges, and sent to toil in application support.
"The developer ended up leaving for greener pastures because he had few opportunities at the company."
Ivor stayed on for another twenty years or so and watched the system grow far beyond the one that was taken down by a humble truck animation in the 80s.
"I think," mused Ivor, "the fact it stopped was what really aggravated upper management."
"Trucks, real or digital weren't supposed to stop for longer than it took to deliver a package."
Ever done a thing that you thought would delight and surprise your users, only to be greeted by shrieks of horror and despair? Of course you have. Send an email to Who, Me?
The understanding Vultures at The Register are ready to hear your confession. ®