“Where’s the thank-you change?” read the entire contents of the email from Tycho’s boss. The blank subject line – one of the boss’s many trademarks – offered no help in decoding the message.

Had Tycho not had a solid two years of experiencing working for this man, he may have made the mistake of asking for some sort of clarification. Perhaps a pointer as to which of the dozen or so applications the thank-you change referred to. Or perhaps to which of the several dozen or so change requests this may have referred to. Or if the thank-you change even referred to a change request or application at all.

Responding to the email with anything other than exactly what the boss wanted to know would lead to one of two outcomes. Most likely, the clarification request would be completely ignored and the boss would send a terse follow-up email (“still waiting to hear on this”) a couple days... weeks… or even months later. Or, worse, the boss could respond with something even less intelligible, thereby drastically reducing the odds of figuring out what he actually wants to know.

After searching through his email, source code commits, issues logs, and a few job boards in a hope to escape this personal hell, the light bulb finally went off. A few weeks back, Tycho and his boss were demonstrating some changes to the in-house CMS, and one of the managers requested that the text on the “email subscription confirmation page” be changed to say “thank you, or something friendlier like that.”

Of course, since the email subscription confirmation page was just like every other content page in the CMS system, the marketing department was not only able to make content changes, but was responsible for those changes. Tycho had mentioned this in the meeting and the marketing manager was delighted to be able to do it himself. But obviously, that wasn’t the end of it.

Fortunately, the CMS system kept a detailed history of not only the changes to content pages, but the visits to those content pages as well. It was all part of the creepy, big-brother marketing systems that Tycho’s team helped developed – the very same systems which inspired Tycho to browse without cookies enabled by default.

It didn’t take long for Tycho to figure out what had happened. Shortly after the meeting, the marketing manager was able to find and edit the content on the email subscription confirmation page. However, since the only way to access that page is by signing up for a new email subscription – something which would theoretically inflate new subscription numbers – the marketing manager must have asked Tycho’s boss if there was another way to access the page.

As it turned out, there was an easy way to access the page: simply enter the URL with a querystring parameter containing the subscription ID. The boss, however, must have been unaware of the querystring bit and after entering only the base URL, found himself staring at the “an unexpected error occurred” page.

But instead of figuring out what the error message could be, he simply replaced the error page content with what he wanted to see: the friendly email subscription confirmation page. He then sent the error page’s URL (which, effectively looked like the email subscription confirmation page) to the marketing manager, who then approved the change shortly to the live site shortly thereafter.

All the while, the changes the marketing manager made to the actual email subscription confirmation page remained in draft status. Some weeks later, the marketing manager must have emailed Tycho’s boss inquiring about the “missing” change, which then prompted the email to Tycho.

Had Tycho not had a solid two years of experiencing working for this organization, he may have put some effort into explaining all of these things, but he instead published the draft changes, undid the error page changes, and replied with an equally terse message.

“It was a content change in draft status. It's now published.”