The Case Of The Stopgap Solution

When I’m not gallivanting about the countryside fixing computers, I sometimes do work for clients at my own desk. One such client is an old workmate from my Sydney days, Tom. Tom works for a utility company that I won’t name, even pseudonymously, where he seems to have some kind of middle-management position that somehow doesn’t interfere with his true passion, football (the proper European kind, not this aerial ping-pong that occupies the minds of too many Australians). Somehow, in between matches, he happened to notice that the company had a problem that I was ideally positioned to fix, so he called me.

TimeThe company had a timesheet system, a clunky combination of Excel spreadsheets and Visual Basic scripts that tracked the work done, in the field, by the actual workers. Every day, after a hard eight hours down the drains / up the pylons / in the pipes (strike whichever does not apply), they would fire up their laptops, click on the Timesheet icon, select the description for the job or jobs they’d just been doing, fill in the hours spent, and click save. There was also provision for overtime, shiftwork and all the other curses of the modern working man and sometimes woman. This system worked perfectly well, so naturally management decided it was time for a change.

My eternal arch nemesis, Apple Inc., made a deal with the company to provide iPads to all the workers. They were ruggedised, which basically means they were just as fragile as any other Apple product but they had a nice plastic case with chunky rubber bits on it to make you feel more secure. They were also more expensive than the cheapie laptops, but the management got some kind of perk out of it, so the decision was made. They weren’t completely mad, though; they did ask if the iPads could run Excel spreadsheets, and Apple marketron assured them that, yes, the feud between Microsoft and Apple was long past, and Excel would run perfectly well on the iPad.

It’s a shame they didn’t know to ask about Excel macros, the obscure little feature that everyone in the business world uses all the time, that the iPads could not handle.

It was thus the case, when Tom called me, that his IT team was looking at a company-wide roll-out of new hardware to every hobnail-booted worker in the entire city, with absolute certainty that there was no way their timesheet system would work because management had asked the wrong question. Could I, he asked plaintively, come up with a way to fix the problem?

I was nervous about this. Write an entire timesheeting system? That’s a big job! Weren’t there already plenty such systems available off the shelf for a reasonable bulk discount price? Yes there were, Tom told me, except that we have no budget for that kind of “reasonable” price. We need something that won’t require selling off half a dozen sewerage treatment works / power stations / gas refineries just to pay for it, and we need it fast.

But don’t worry, he told me. It’s only a stopgap solution. We’re getting a new management system installed later this year, so your program would only need to be operating for three or four months. Six months tops. So you can just whip up something simple and it’ll do nicely.

The Sillhouette Workmen 1I did indeed whip something up. It was designed to look exactly like the Excel spreadsheet the workers had used on their trusty laptops, same ugly beige colour scheme and all, and even worked with the same data files back at base that the admin staff were used to using. Their processes didn’t have to change at all! The workers still clicked an icon, put in their details and hit save, but now they did it with a stubby and mud-caked/rust-coloured/slightly singed finger instead of a mouse or a laptop trackpad. No huge difference for them. As it happened, the difference was in reliability: the old spreadsheets fell over every five minutes, whereas my program was a web app so it didn’t rely on anything about the hardware they were using. Tom tells me it was seen as a big improvement, though of course nobody ever assigns credit properly: they all talk about how much easier it is to use the timesheet on these iPads, so clearly Apple is the superior product. Sigh.

So that was that. Stopgap solution in place, due to be replaced with “the real thing” as soon as management got their act into gear. Happy ending, right?

Well… not quite. It was a year later that I got an email from one of Tom’s co-workers. The timesheet was doing something funny because one of the workers didn’t have a work ID yet, and their page wasn’t coming up properly. Could I fix it? I had to stretch my brain to even remember what she was talking about, but a trawl through old emails reminded me. The stopgap! The one that was due to be quietly switched off six months ago at the very latest! Sure, I can fix that… I remoted in and modified a conditional, so that any blank worker IDs would be handled separately, and the whole thing worked. Tom’s co-worker thanked me, and that was the last I heard of it.

Until eight months later, when there was a need for a new feature, a slightly different way to download the data…

And a year and a half after that, when they had to change some labels because the terminology they used to talk about shift work was changing…

And six months after that, when one of the output files was hiccuping, so I went in and cleared some caches…

The stopgap solution has now been in operation for four years. Of course, Tom suggested I set them up with a support contract, so for the last couple of those years they’ve been paying a pleasant amount to ensure I’ll always be available.

I wonder sometimes what happened to the “new management system” that was really truly absolutely certain to get installed no later than, oh, 2014 or so. It never showed up apparently. I could go looking in the drains/pylons/pipes for it, I suppose, but I think it’s lost forever. And I am not the IT bloodhound. I’m the IT blacksmith!

By Paul Sleigh | General | Link

Say Hello To The IT Blacksmith

BlacksmithMany years ago, when I was a young twit with a poor work ethic, I worked in Sydney for a man named Ian. He got back in touch to say g’day a little while ago, and coined a phrase I’ve taken as my own:

I love the idea of being the local IT blacksmith. It strikes me every community should have one. All these people with computers in their homes and not much idea of how to keep one healthy and working, and all they need is access to someone with the magic fingers. Obviously in the big city we do have various dial-a-nerd services, but I rather suspect the quality is patchy and without the sense of community, there’s no real ongoing continuity or trust. I have a mental image of you wearing a tunic and tights, and pointy shoes that curl up at the end, walking up to people’s computers and exclaiming “odds bodkins who configured your IMAP server?!” I accept my vision may not be completely accurate.

I confirmed that his vision was not entirely accurate (I don’t wear the tights or the curly shoes, but the “odds bodkins” is spot on) but I decided then and there that he had hit the nail on the head regarding my vocation. I am indeed the IT blacksmith: people have a problem with their computers or assorted gadgets, so they call me and I fix it. It involves less sweating over a hot forge than your standard blacksmith, but it serves the same purpose. I give people the support they need to get their own work done. And in the process, I can’t walk down the street without running into someone I know, someone I’ve helped with some problem or other.

After years in Sydney and Canberra, when the only time you learn your next-door neighbour’s name is while you’re prepping for yet another bushfire to tear through the suburb, this is an improvement!

By Paul Sleigh | General | Link