Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dug in and Not Budging

For some reason a bit of junk mail history has popped into my mind. It's not very interesting except in that it illustrates how people can get out on a limb with an obviously bogus position and cling to it for dear life.

At a company I worked for in Virginia in the 1990's, a client had sent us a master file of records on magnetic tape. The records comprised a history of donors to political organizations and had been copied from a disk file elsewhere.

The record format included dates and amounts of the most recent ten donations, with a YYMMDD format for the date and a seven digit field for donations, cents implied. Perhaps the last 25 or 30 records on the tape consisted of (presumably) genuine names and addresses, but each date was 222222 and each amount was 2222222. In addition, there were twos in the fields for identifying the political organizations that received the money and in the two-digit codes associated with the donations.

We'd had the file a couple of days, had run a conversion on it and examined the results, corrected a few things after looking at the output, and run a second conversion, when the owner of the client company called for me.

Client: "How's the conversion going?"

World's Greatest Programmer: "The conversion is complete. It all looks pretty good except that we had to drop a few records at the end that contained garbage data."

Client: "WHAT? Those represent money. You can't drop any records."

WGP: "Well, once you get by the name and address on the input, the rest of each record is filled with twos."

Client: "That's money! You can't drop records! I can't believe you dropped those records!"

WGP, losing patience and counting to one: "Ohhhh, I'll bet you'll believe that before you'll believe that on the 22nd day of the 22nd month of 1922 each of those people made ten donations of $22,222.22."

Silence, followed by

Client: "Let me speak to Walter."

Walter was my boss and the owner of the company. I put the client on hold, walked over to Walter's office, and explained the situation. Walter picked up the phone and I hung around just long enough to learn that he was going to have exactly the same conversation with the client that I had just had. Well, with a little more tact on our end, perhaps.

We had our wicked way in the end, of course. Garbage is garbage and there's not much to be done with it. For you mainframe techies, the twos came from unused index records on the disk originally containing the file.

Once in a while it can be productive to get out on a limb about something, and sometimes it can be fun, even if the limb gets sawed off behind you. Stubbornness for the sake of sheer stubbornness is something else. I can't imagine what the client thought about the origin of donations made in the 22nd month of a year six decades before the existence of his company.