Steve huffed up the steps of the state Capitol to his office in the IT department. As he caught his breath in the lobby elevator, his PDA buzzed. The flag coordinator, responsible for processing state flag orders from citizens, had written him an email in his typical tone. WHY ARE THERE NO FLAG ORDERS IN THE SYSTEM? IT’S YOUR JOB TO GET THEM TO US!

Still panting from the climb, Steve logged in at his work computer and checked the FTP server where flag orders were stored after being faxed or mailed to the Capitol. Requests were uploaded as PDF files and renamed automatically with a numeric suffix, such as “flag_order_1234.pdf,” by the automated system in the flag coordinator’s office.

Checking the logs, Steve noticed that flag_order_6612.pdf had somehow been written twice, throwing the naively automated system into a feedback loop until the FTP server crashed. Until the server was back up, the Capitol intranet couldn't read the new orders.

So, the automated system tried to upload two files with the same name, Steve thought. But shouldn't it have incremented the numeric suffix automatically? Steve knew the bug was in the flag coordinator’s system. He went downstairs to root it out.

Going Down

“WHY DID THE FTP SERVER GO DOWN, STEVE?” The flag coordinator’s tone of voice had always been caps-locked for as long as Steve had worked there. The flag coordinator worked out of a first story office, just below the IT department’s slightly more spacious cubicles above.

Steve explained. “Your automated system tried to upload a file with the same name as another flag order.”

“YOU MEAN YOUR SYSTEM! I DIDN'T WRITE IT--”

“Wait, your office doesn't run the automation?” During Steve’s tenure, the flag order system had never changed. He assumed, since there was no IT documentation, that the flag coordinator’s office had built it. Steve began to ask a question, but noticed the coordinator’s face had turned a dark shade of red. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.

Well, Steve thought, I could trace the flag orders from when they first get to the Capitol building.

Basement

The mailroom sat on the foundations of the Capitol building. The floor was wobbly from a century of bad concrete patches and shifting soil. Mail clerks pushed shaky carts full of packages, either to a mailbox inset in the walls, or to an outbound cart. One lucky soul delivered mail upstairs, escaping twice a day from the dimly lit room.

“141?” The mailroom supervisor squinted at Steve over bifocals. “That’s that mousy fellow, Ramon, I think. He usually comes in around nine-thirty.”

On cue, a short, middle-aged man in a grey sweater shuffled to box 141. Wheezing, Steve ran out around the wall of mailboxes, catching Ramon before he could scurry off. “Ramon? I’m Steve from IT upstairs. I’m trying to fix a bug in the flag order system. Can you take me to your office?”

“Oh, okay,” Ramon whispered. “It’s a bit of a walk.”

Trailer

Because building funds were always tight, the state legislature leased several single-wide trailer offices in an unused parking lot across the street. Steve wiped beads of sweat from his forehead as he stepped into Ramon’s cramped office. “Don’t get many visitors,” Ramon said. “What can I do you for?”

“I’m rooting out a problem with the automated flag order system. Can you show me how it’s done?”

“Of course.” Steve watched as Ramon produced a flag order form from an envelope, set it on a scanner, and saved it to an old, yellowed Pentium desktop. “And then I rename the file, move it to a folder named FLAG_ORDERS, run this .bat file--”

“Wait, wait,” Steve interjected, “I thought this was automated! You type them all in by hand?”

“Why wouldn't I?” Ramon’s lip curled. “I’m the one who automates it! THIS is my job. The way I do it works just fine, so please don’t change it.”

Steve sighed. “Mind if I fix it? You know, no more dupes?” Ramon thought for a second and then nodded and got up from his desk. Steve opened the .bat file in Notepad, then added a sanity check in case Ramon named a duplicate flag order again. “By the way,” Steve asked as he saved his modifications, “who hired you? Which department trained you to do this?”

“Oh, I don’t remember,” Ramon said, “But let me tell you, it sure beats flipping burgers!”