The Getting Better Moment

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At the stroke of midnight, your code will turn into a pumpkin.

Inspired by The Getting Better Moment – You’ve Been Haacked , this is my story of my first job and a getting better moment.

During my summer break in university, back in 1999, my local council, who part funded my university education, back in the days before student loans, found me a placement at a local charity to develop a CPD database to track the exams their members took every year.

It was an Access database, installed on one machine on the network. With manual backups. It stored the pass/fail data in a set of bit fields in the database, requiring some complex sql to answer the common “who hasn’t done this course yet” mail merge query, it used VBA to parse those SQL queries into a screen full of check boxes to allow users to search.

None of that was my getting better moment though. I went from being a very shy geek at the start of the placement to a slightly less shy geek with a lot of confidence in my code. It was the first thing I’d written that was out in the real world and I was proud of it.

Until the first work day of 2000, when it stopped working. Despite the initial suspicions of the customer, it wasn’t a y2k bug. There was a bug in the end of year routine. What it was meant to do was create an empty exam results table for the new year, then rewrite the rest of the system to point to that table do that all the queries, screens and reports were up to date. It failed because it wasn’t properly tested. And I spent a whole day in their office, feeling sheepish, rebuilding the queries, screens and reports by hand to fix the mess.

But that wasn’t my big learning moment. That came exactly a year later, with another call, and another broken database. A lot of pressure now, trying to remember a fix from 12 months before on 18 month old code. It took longer than the first time, but I spent some time afterwards documenting the fix, testing the end of year rollover, and simplifying the code so I was capable of debugging it.

Luckily the customer was reasonably happy, as they didn’t run many exams in the first week of the year, and they understood you don’t get perfect solutions when you pay student placement wages, but I have tried hard since then to keep the customer happy and keep bugs that are fixed, fixed. All software has bugs in it, it’s how you deal with them, and the customer, that separates a professional from a beginner. The experience set me on the path towards TDD, open and honest communication, and not wanting to pick up support calls out of hours, which is a great motivator of quality. If you can lie on a beach, knowing you won’t get called because your code just broke, you’re doing it right.

What’s your getting better story?

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