Recent Feature Articles

Aug 2017

Attention to Detail

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The exotic and exciting life of the world-traveling contractor wasn’t exactly what Angie had been expecting. It mostly meant living in a dreary apartment on the outskirts of some city in a short drive from an industrial park where she’d go to try and keep 30-year old C code and their new ERP from fighting to the death. Six months later, she’d be off to the same apartment near the same industrial park in a different country.

When the crash came, it came hard. Hard enough that Angie ditched IT and got a temp job working in a customer service call-center for a greeting card company. She wasn’t exactly the best person on the phone, and nobody was giving her stellar marks for her cheerful demeanor during her quarterly review.

A vintage 'get well' card from 1949, with the text, 'How's the convalescent?/Down but not out'

Paying Taxes on Technical Debt

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In the U.S., individuals are expected to file federal and state tax returns once a year by April 15. The tax forms are quite complicated, and have all sorts of sub-forms and schedules to support and detail the numbers on the main form. The tax code of the U.S. is approximately 74,000 pages of special cases.

For many items, the same data needs to be entered on multiple forms, usually as the starting point for different calculations that depend upon the same information; these are duplicated again on both federal and state returns. It follows that tax preparation software needs to put the relevant numbers in all the places that they are needed.

File folders on a shelf

The Security Audit

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We do our best to anonymize submissions, but there’s always a chance that some dangerously identifying detail slips through. Every once in a while, a submitter contacts us to ask for a modification. More rarely, a submitter’s employer contacts us.

Our rule is to make edits more or less as requested, then move on without comment. There’s nothing about an article so sacrosanct that it’s worth going to war over.

Time To Transfer

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TN-wall-clock hg

When people think about government, they usually think about a President or Prime Minister, Senators, MPs, or what have you. But government isn't just a handful of people at the top of the food chain: there's government all the way down to the city level, quietly making the country run. Driver's licenses have to be issued, as do pet licenses. Buildings have to be inspected and certified. All those elevator certificates get printed up somewhere. Increasingly, these small functions are being computerized—in bits and pieces, in incompatible systems—and hooked up to the Internet.

Featurette: Hired!

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As you know, Hired has been sponsoring the site for the past few months. I went “behind the scenes” to have a brief chat with Michael Mitchell, a full stack web engineer focused on their “Candidate Experience” features.

Cut Short

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Marcus worked on a small networking team responsible for keeping a series of UK-based garages interconnected with the world-wide web. Seymour, the Team Leader (in title only), knew far less about networking than Marcus, but that didn't stop him from acting like the big shot. Seymour was working a cash register at the original garage several years ago when the owner asked him, "You're a young guy, right? That means you know how the internet works. What can we do to make this place internet-friendly?" After taking a Networking 101 course, Seymour managed to get the garage online, then enabled it to monitor gas prices and perform credit card transactions. This made Seymour a hero to the owner, and earned him the title, "Networking Team Leader" before he even had a team.

Eventually the garage grew from a single location into a chain. When each new location opened, Seymour made it "internet-friendly", using the same techniques he learned at the original store, which usually involved sloppy cable runs and the cheapest router he could buy. When it came time to do more than just have the ISP arrive to show where Seymour to plug in the network cable, he was completely lost. Having multiple locations networked together was really advanced stuff, so he convinced the owner to hire some help.

Disk Administrations

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It was a mandatory change control meeting. Steven S.’s department, a research branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Belgium, assembled in a cramped meeting room without enough chairs for everyone. Camille, head of IT, was nonplussed.

“These orders come directly from Security,” she began. “Just last month, we monitored over a hundred attempts to break into the HCP.” The Home Care Platform was a database of citizens’ requests for doctors’ visits, prescription coverage, etc. Steven’s team had developed a mobile app that gave citizens access to HCP’s records.

Credential Helper

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302 El Born Centre Cultural, sala Casanova, claus dels calabossos de la Ciutadella

John S. worked with a customer who still owned several Windows 2008/R2 servers. Occassionally during automated management and deployments, these machines threw exceptions because they weren't configured for remote management. One day, John caught an exception on a SQL box and remoted in to address the problem.

Nature In Its Volatility

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About two years ago, we took a little trip to the Galapagos- a tiny, isolated island where processes and coding practices evolved… a bit differently. Calvin, as an invasive species, brought in new ways of doing things- like source control, automated builds, and continuous integration- and changed the landscape of the island forever.

Geospiza parvula

Or so it seemed, until the first hiccup. Shortly after putting all of the code into source control and automating the builds, the application started failing in production. Specifically, the web service calls out to a third party web service for a few operations, and those calls universally failed in production.