Back in the heady days of Internet speculation, the giant retailer JumboStores contracted with Fred’s software company, TinyWeb, to develop the region’s first web-based supermarket. Customers would be able to assemble carts online and receive their groceries the next day.
The virtual supermarket had to communicate with JumboStores’s inventory system in real-time. The former was bleeding-edge web technology, the latter a cobweb-laden mainframe with no external point of access.
“How will we get around this?” Fred asked early in the specification process.
“We can stage an intermediate server.” Nick, a programmer from JumboStores IT, assured him around a mouthful of doughnut. “You guys send your requests there, we’ll write software to forward them to the mainframe and back.”
Fred was optimistic. Both companies were *nix shops; the JumboStores IT department were his geek kindred. Equally optimistic, JumboStores management scheduled a live media demo several months out, well after the estimated project completion date.
Deadlines slipped, as they are wont to do. The week before the big demo, the online supermarket still wasn’t ready. TinyWeb had implemented the website and database back-end, but JumboStores’ relay software lagged behind. At the urging of multiple strata of nervous managers, Fred took an emergency trip to JumboStores to investigate.
“We don’t know, man, we just don’t know.” The confident Nick of months prior shook now, leading Fred to his cubicle. “We coded the application. We debugged until it compiled without errors. When we run it- core dump!” He threw up his hands, then dropped into his swivel chair. “We’ve been pestering IBM support, but they haven’t been very helpful.”
“Well, why would they be?” Fred frowned, pausing at the cube threshold. “I mean, who knows what might be wrong with the code?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. It compiles!”
“So? It could still have errors.”
Nick swiveled around to face him. “Dude. It compiles.”
Fred faltered in the wake of Nick’s earnest insistence. “That… doesn’t mean the code is perfect.” He all but fell into the spare chair presented to him. “How do I explain this?” Am I actually trying to explain this? To a programmer? “Let’s say you’re building an engine.”
“This isn’t an engine,” Nick said. “It just passes-“
“No, a car engine! OK? You have all the parts spread out on the desk here.” He waved his arm out over a layer of branded cube toys and post-it notes. “You’ve never built an engine from scratch before, but you have a blueprint with pictures and directions, so you grab your wrench and your welder and whatever, and go to town. At the end, all the parts get used up, and the result looks vaguely engine-like. Still, would you expect to drop it under the hood and have it start up flawlessly the first time you turn over the ignition?”
Nick stared. “I… don’t see what this has to do with anything.”
Fred refrained from smacking his forehead. “Uh, OK. Forget the engine. It’s like sheet music. Just because all the dots are on the staff doesn’t mean it’s the song you want.“
“Dude! The compiler would bug out if there were any problems.” Nick graciously omitted the Duh.
Fred took one last chance. “No- it’s like, if you were building a house. Just because all the parts fit together doesn’t mean it will stand up.”
Nick’s face brightened. “It’s like the home inspector! I see what you mean."
“If that works for you…” Fred said, carefully.
After long consideration, Fred took the intermediate server back home to TinyWeb for some down-to-the-wire recoding, resulting in a flawless demo for the press. JumboStores was delighted.
With their collaboration at an end, Fred wondered how JumboStores IT would ever manage on their own.