Monday, June 22, 2009

Where People Keep Their Word

I'm really pretty easy going, but I have a strong personality which pushes back when pushed, and I have pushed back all my life. I must say that I've been lucky that I've "gotten away with it," so to speak, as I was consistent in that respect in the Army and in all my civilian jobs.

As you may recall, I was hired as a mainframe assembler programmer at Blue Cross of Massachusetts in 1972. My actual title was Senior Systems Designer, which was shorthand for "I need to pay this programmer more money than I pay some others." To be fair, the job description did have additional responsibilities defined, and one was expected to grow into them.

There was in production a kludge of a program, one that people had nicknamed "the cowcatcher" because when anything related to its function had to be automated people threw it into this program, and the program grew like Topsy.

Somehow I became responsible for the cowcatcher's maintenance and for adding any additional functions. "Somehow" is shorthand for "I was junior and sh*t flows downhill."

The program did a lot of things it was not initially designed to do, things that had been added by different programmers over time. As a result, any underlying structure to the program had long since disappeared and trying to follow the logic for some of the functions was a butt ugly process, although not as ugly a process as trying to add a new function to it.

It had reached the point where a simple change, one that "should" take a half day or so, took two or three days to make, and I began laying the groundwork for a rewrite.

I had other responsibilities as well, and the person who gave me the requirements for the cowcatcher was one of several Directors in the data processing area, Rick, who was not my boss. Over time I made him see that the rewrite had to be done. Not only was it taking too long to make changes, but I couldn't even give a time estimate on a change for a day or so after receiving the information on it.

Rick and I reached a point where we agreed that I would begin the rewrite on a certain date, and from that time until it was done there would be no more changes to the process, no programming changes to the cowcatcher. I had negotiated with my boss and obtained the time away from other efforts in order to do this rewrite.

Two or three days into the rewrite Rick came to me and said "I need a change made to the cowcatcher." I reminded him of our deal and pointed out that any time taken away from development of the new program put us at risk regarding its completion. I had negotiated two months for it, and had to meet that deadline.

Well, he "really" needed the change, it was "important," etc. I took a couple of days from the development schedule, and made the change.

A couple of weeks later he came to me again, "needing" another change to the cowcatcher.

Donnie: "Good luck."

Rick: "What do you mean, 'good luck?'"

Donnie: "I'm not going to make the change, Rick."

Rick: "What do you mean you're not going to make the change?"

(Cracking myself up internally, not showing it, I thought "Sheesh. There was only one two-syllable word in that sentence.")

Donnie: "We have an agreement and we can't keep breaking it. Soon the new program will be incomplete, the deadline will have passed, and we'll be stuck with the cowcatcher forever."

Rick: "You have to make the change. I'm *telling* you to make the change."

Donnie: "No."

I turned away from him and back to the work I was doing, and then heard:

Rick: "I can have you fired. What then?"

I turned back to face him again.

Donnie: "Then I'll get another job. If I get lucky I'll get a job at a company where people keep their word."

He stomped off and I heard no more about it that day.

The next day he came to me, this time hat in hand, pleading for the change and promising to stop any further attempts to change the cowcatcher. From this I inferred that he had gone to my boss (or perhaps even higher) in an attempt to have me fired and had been rebuffed. Also that he really *needed* the change.

Donnie: "OK, Rick."

Several days later I was a carbon copy recipient of a memo from Rick to all users of the cowcatcher, informing them that it was being rewritten and that there would be no further changes allowed to the existing one.

Just to be clear: I wasn't just defending some noble cause. My resistance was motivated partially by self-interest. It was frustrating and painful to have to figure out how to make changes or add functions to the cowcatcher, spending two or three days to accomplish what should have been a half day task.


As a sort of post script, I can tell you that the new "program" was actually a small system, about eight programs I think, that (for you dinosaur techies) made use of an HDAM database. During its entire production life it never went down except deliberately, at which time it gave the operator a message and built a table of information in memory for anyone who needed to debug the problem.

And I documented the bloody Hell out of it - both in the code and externally, with flow charts at the function level and supporting typed text.

Several years later it was decided to switch from IBM to Honeywell, swapping out twin 158's for a pair of 6000's. I began the process of deserting the sinking ship, but before I got completely away I was assigned to a group to coordinate the transition with Honeywell's software people.

One day the subject of "my" system came up. I was no longer associated with it and the only other person in the room who knew I had written it was my boss, Drew. One of the Honeywell people said "By the way, this is the best documented application software we've ever seen at any site."

Drew, who was a great tease, sucked on his pipe a moment, then said "That can't be."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thoughts That Popped into My Head - II

  • Melanie, daughter of a black American and a Thai woman, worked for me at a junk mail company in Virginia. She was in her early twenties and still living at home, and invited me to a cookout hosted by her family one fourth of July.

    Driving to her house at around noon on the appointed day, I saw a greenhouse that was open. On a whim I stopped in and picked up two roses, one for Melanie and one for her mom.

    Good move. Mom adopted me on the spot, although I was at least her age and possibly a year or two older. But I *needed* a mother while I was there because excepting only Melanie, her father, and yours truly, *everyone* - about twenty-five or thirty people - was Thai, and that's what they spoke. Only the three of us, and to a small extent her mother, conversed with each other in English.

    For all I knew they were plotting to overthrow the government, but my mind was soon set at ease in that regard when in the midst of unintelligible chatter I would hear something like "slot machine" or "jackpot."

    I chatted with Melanie's dad for a while, and when Melanie told us that all the food was ready and laid out on the deck, we grabbed paper plates and headed that way. I stopped when Mom snatched the plate from my hand and signaled that *she* would fill the plate for me.

    I'd had a few things at Thai restaurants, but really didn't know much about Thai food. Most of what I'd had was in any case an Americanized version.

    Mom filled the plate with some of the most delicious home cooked food I've ever had.

    Her dad was an interesting man, retired from the Army and retired from Civil Service, and working at a local school. But I write this anecdote just to tell the charming story of how he resolved unhappy situations with his wife. *He* never argued, although she would occasionally attempt to provoke him into it. He would sit down on a sofa and watch TV while she stood over him berating him for one thing or another, really just letting off steam. When he'd had enough, he would stand up, wrap his arms around her and give her a big hug, and go upstairs and turn on a different television set. She'd vented, he'd shrugged it off, and both were happy.

  • As you know, Debbie and I stayed in touch after we split. Although hundreds of miles apart we saw each other several times, sometimes called each other, and frequently emailed.

    One day sometime around 2003 or 2004, seven or eight years after the last time I saw her, she began a curious line of conversation during a phone call. She asked me whether I thought her sister was attractive.

    Umm, yeah, not spectacularly so, but certainly not actively repulsive.

    Did I think her niece was attractive?

    Umm, yeah, a little heavy, but nice looking.

    Well, did I think a certain girlfriend she'd introduced me to was attractive?

    I had no idea why she wanted this particular information, but I saw right away where it was headed.

    Cutting to the chase, the most attractive woman you ever introduced me to was Paulette.

    (Paulette was a long-time girlfriend of Debbie's, and married to Bobby. Both were strangers to me, but Debbie and I visited with them one Christmas vacation. They were friendly, and before long Bobby and I were upstairs doing one thing or another while Debbie and Paulette chatted in the kitchen. This was the *only* time I ever met either of them.)

    Debbie and I finished our phone conversation and resumed emailing. Several months later we chatted again and at some point she said "I told Paulette what you said."

    Oh? What did she say?

    "She said 'I always did like Donnie.'"

    Ever after, when Paulette's name came up in conversation, it was as "the lovely Paulette."