First and foremost, I wanted to remind everyone about the first-ever Olympiad of Misguided Geeks at Worse Than Failure (or OMGWTF for short) Programming Contest. The entries have been streaming in and are looking really fun and interesting. There’s plenty of time left to get started, so go hack up something and submit your own entry! Who knows, you might very well win the Grand Prize of a High-Resolution JPEG of an OMGWTF First Prize Trophy and a brand-new laptop to view your highly-valuable JPEG.

So, without any further ado, here is Corporate E-mail on the Road, 1990's Style, the story of Owen Morgan’s very first professional programming experience...

Back in the mid 1990's my large, U.S. government organization made the move to the newly introduced Microsoft Mail. Not too long after the roll out, someone high up in the organization wanted the ability to have all of their e-mail available to them on the road, not just what was in their inbox (this was a limitation of MS Mail). At this time all e-mail was stored on the server, and the remote software didn’t allow access to anything but the inbox.

That’s where I came in. There I sat in my helpdesk cubicle, having only been on the job a couple of months, and happily surfing the corporate network for unauthorized games to “eliminate,” when in walks the MS Mail Install Guru asking, “does anyone in here know how to program?”

Being that we didn’t have a programming team on staff, this wasn’t an odd request. I dutifully answered “I’ve programmed a little in the past,” not explaining I was self taught in BASIC (the most basic BASIC ever devised).

“Good,” he stated, “I have a project for you.” Thus I was off to help solve this great leadership e-mail problem.

I was handed an unopened (still shrink wrapped) copy of “WINBATCH” and given instructions on what to do. Since the MS Mail Install Guru had already figured out how to allow the users to take their e-mail folders on the road with them, I was to implement his design in software. Here was the method:

  • A user would take their laptop to a strategic e-mail upload/download point in the home office (think of a router and you get the point) and plug the network cable in
  • They would run the program I created which would move the users e-mail folder from the server to the laptop.
  • When they returned to the office they would reverse this procedure to move the folder back to the server.

The real trick, the guru told me, was to build this so that multiple people could check their e-mail from the same laptop, since laptop were often a shared resource amongst a traveling team of leaders! I cautioned the MS Mail Install Guru that they should probably get someone who’s actually experienced in MS Mail and, perhaps, programming, but he insisted that it’d be a cinch.

Applying my entirety of BASIC experience and vast knowledge of WINBATCH (read: the back of the WINBATCH box), I got started. I worked long hours and was finally able to churn out a clunky, barely tested program that somehow managed to meet the constantly changing desires of the guru. Oh, and it was all done within an insanely short time window.

I suppose that I was fortunate that I never had to actually use my traveling email program. I did have to support it, though. Day after day, I struggled to work with frustrated users who couldn’t get their e-mail on to or off of the laptop, couldn’t read their e-mail after using the program, or had some other obnoxious problem as a result of some oversight in my code.

Through all this experience, I did learn a very valuable lesson. Spec it , design it, code it -- just let someone else support it.

And on that note, Jake, Derrick and I will be taking next week off. Don't worry, though, we'll be posting plenty of Classics throughout the week.

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