More stupider user tricks: IT horror stories

Take heed; lessons await

Trick No. 7: A truck load of Murphy

Incident: An apparent relative of Mr. Name Withheld above, Mr. Name Withheld Jr., sent this in. "I work for a shipping company located in Florida. We manage a fleet of several thousand trucks and delivery vans with separate divisions for contract moving and parcel delivery. Our boss in the '80s was pretty good at looking ahead and paid to design our own asset management application. As I remember it, the whole thing was written in pieces of REXX and C++ that sent ASCII to one another. This worked great while the programmer was on staff with us. But when he left to do something more interesting, the boss made a deal to have him support the thing remotely. That's when the problems started."

Unfortunately for Withheld Jr., they weren't very big problems, just a glitch for a half hour here, a drop for a full hour there. Enough to get Witheld Jr.'s boss to complain around the water cooler, but never during an actual budget meeting with his own boss.

Withheld Jr. got frustrated, "As our technical expertise grew, we realized we had more options -- especially by the late '90s when there were so many other, safer software platforms we could have used." But the boss of bosses had gotten accustomed to bragging about his super-app that did all the stuff his country-club friends' applications could do, but for a super-low investment that he finished paying 10 years earlier. Every request for a move or an upgrade was denied.

When Murphy finally got to these poor saps, he got them good. It was the literal week before Christmas 1997. Shipping subcontract jobs were at a year-long high, as was the parcel delivery business.

"Suddenly the app just up and died -- hard. So hard, we thought it was a hardware thing at first. But that checked out, and the server-side of the app simply wouldn't restart." Calls to the programmer got his answering machine -- turns out he went on vacation and didn't tell anyone. The company was down for three days before they got a hold of him and then for another day before he could make everything work again. Meantime, the whole organization reverted to phones, faxes, and hurriedly updated forms.

"We lost a big chunk of revenue in nonrecurring business after that," Witheld Jr. said.

Fallout: "We finally got permission to move to a new system. Even that turned into a pain because the original application's data was in a proprietary format for which we had to hand-build a conversion process so we could even import it into the new application."

Moral: A smart technology investment is worth some bragging, but don't push Murphy too much because he always pushes back hard.

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Oliver Rist

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