As you may or may not know, my day job is a Software Developer at a small consulting company called Inedo. We build all sorts of businessy software that does all sorts of businessy things for all sorts of businessy, erm, businesses. Most days, it’s a challenging and satisfying job; I’ll go home thinking, I accomplished something today. But every once in a while, I can’t help but wonder, why am I spending my life building cold, meaningless business applications?
I’ve found that the feeling of meaninglessness comes especially after the “Deployment Celebrations” of some big, “productivity-increasing” system. Congratulations! We saved MegaCorp shareholders millions each year in labor costs, and we got a fantastic bullet point to put on our resumés. But we also put an entire floor of nice, hardworking people out of work. Now, I’m sure a lot of you have felt this sense of meaninglessness as well. Fortunately, folks like Ferdy remind us that, while we may not be doctors, or astronauts, or really anyone in a position to change the world, making it run a little more efficiently every can be a good thing.
Like many computer science students, Ferdy started down the path of Information Technology because it just seemed like the right thing to do. Before college, he was a big computer buff and had a lot of fun hacking around in BASIC and doing all sorts of other geeky stuff like Bulletin Board Systems and USENET. Computer programming as a career was just the next logical step.
Much like any other computer science student, Ferdy went through all the different CS courses — data structures, digital theory, operating systems — and was finally ready to move on to the Real World. Well, almost. Before he could graduate, he’d have to do a semester-long internship at some company.
Ferdy was fortunate enough to find an internship where he’d actually be responsible for completing a real project. It was an engineer planning application that would be part of the company’s brand-new “Intranet” (it was a new-fangled word back in those days). The project sounded pretty exciting at first, but ended up being rather boring once it started. There were boring meetings, boring paperwork, boring conference calls — even the programming itself was pretty boring. It even felt meaningless.
On one of his many “boredom walks” around the facility, Ferdy ran into a couple of older fellows working inside of a cramped, little room with a sign outside that read “Stock.” The room was filled with all sorts of electronic devices, measurement tools, and miscellaneous gadgets that were used by engineers out in the field. The guys — Louis and Frans — were responsible for receiving, calibrating, and certifying all of these various pieces of equipment. And they were very grumpy.
Louis and Frans, in addition to doing their day to day calibration tasks, were responsible for going through the system — some proprietary DOS-based database application — and “recoding” each and every device. You see, sometime back in the 70’s or 80’s, someone decided that they would use the date “99” (as in, 1999) to indicate that the device never needed to be calibrated. And lo and behond, a few decades later, 1999 was starting to become a “real” date, and one that was just around the corner. Obviously, that was going to cause all sorts of problems.
To “recode” the devices — the 30,000 or so — Louis and Frans would have to load up the device search screen, find a device with a calibration date of “99”, load it, change the date to “50” (1950 or 2050, who knows), and then save it. In the year that they had been working on this project, they had only managed to go through a few thousand of the devices. The software manufacturer (who recommended using “99” and then “50” in the first place) advised that this was the only possible way to do it.
As a reminder of this herculean task, a note was taped to the little terminal: “Louis and Frans, please remember to use all of your spare time to recode the devices.” Needless to say, it was not how they had envisioned spending their last few working years before retirement. Ferdy, being the helpful fellow that he was, went back to his desk to research this little application. He found that it used some ancient dBase database and could easily be opened and fixed with a few queries. And so he did that. He backed up the database files, ran a single query, and in a matter of seconds, all 30,000 of the “99”-dated records were now “50.”
He took a trip back to the room labeled “Stock” and replaced the notes at Louis and Frans’s computer: “Louis and Frans, please remember to use your spare time to buy the intern coffee.”
These days, Ferdy works as a software architect at one of the bigger electronics manufacturers. While he does occasionally wonder if what he does is meaningless, he always thinks back to Louis and Frans’s 30,000 device nightmare. And saving a few folks from a few years of rushed, data-entry hell — now that has meaning.