Locked up

Episode #4 of my story starting here.

It feels strangely weird to sit at home, in confinement because of COVID-19 measures, typing my story. It feels reminiscent of the kind of H.P. Lovecraft novel told via the pen of an unfortunate hero, prisoner of his hiding place, putting his story to paper before the untold happens… Fortunately, reality can never be as grim as an H.P. Lovecraft novel, there is always that to cheer us up !

After my first exciting project, I focused on doing simpler things even though I always end up needing some unexpected feature, like that very simple contract with a video club that led me to have to figure out how to encode barcodes and get a matrix printer to print them with enough contrast. This makes me feel so old: people went to shops to rent movies, on tapes as big as a cigar box, dot matrix printers, researching standards in books, this is all so ancient now !

My main customer at the time was an architect studio doing a lot of expertise work for insurance companies. They go on site, analyse what’s going on, send notes to their small army of assistants who, back at the office, type and send the reports and archive copies. Bookcases and bookcases of reports, everywhere. This was before Novell owned the LAN market and they had a server that was connected to maybe eight PC’s via a serial cable each, there were cables running everywhere ! From a software standpoint, that server was really only visible as a shared disk, and every station directly wrote to it like if it were its own. I learned to be very defensive in my coding practice then, any discrepancy between the versions of the code the stations ran could lead to corrupting the database (which was still really a bunch of ISAM files). Corrupted databases led me to spending many nights fixing and restructuring the data while nobody was working, enjoying the photography of architecture books while machine was crunching through records.

I’ve spoken about trust before in this series, and that leads me to the main learning of this contract, a learning I keep sharing to this day with everybody who embarks in a software project, as a software person or as a client : the client is tied to whomever writes the software, uncomfortably tightly. If the writer disappears, the software will die. Sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly. This is a problem in my profession, something we haven’t figured how to fix yet, it comes from the fact that there are 101 correct ways to do anything and they are constantly evolving, which results in every engineer doing things in a different way. So, when the person who writes your software disappears, it is a massive problem. An that’s exactly what happened then…

I had my contacts, I thought it was all sorted out, but it wasn’t: I got called for military service. In the few weeks notice I had, I did my best to warn my customers and provide the most stable subset of their projects that I could in the short time and, next thing I know, I arrived early at that base in Orange. I got assigned to a dormitory, I was first, I picked a bed and made it up ; after a few hours, others arrived, each of them starting by dropping their bag on the one bed that was made, having me go « who do you think made that bed ? ». A very long year was starting, which I have lived through like captivity.

After two months of « classes », I got assigned to a base in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin quite close to home (contacts did work in some way), and after two more months of standing guard, I finally found some space: I volunteered to work at the petrol pump station, nobody wanted to do that, it stinks and you’re always dirty, but I had noticed that beyond filling up the buses and cars in the morning, the guy there had a desk all to himself and nobody seemed to bother him very much. So, when he got released I took his place. The architects bought me a Toshiba T1100, and I was back in business, serving fuel in the morning, coding like a madman in the afternoon !

With confinement beginning today, it’s quite odd to remember that period of time that was both extremely depressing to me and the illustration that, one step at a time, by never giving up, by working together, there is always a way to climb back up.

Historical Metadata
Year: 1988
OS: MS-DOS
CPU: 8086 8/16bits,8MHz,1C1T
GPU: n/a
RAM: 640KB Storage: 32MB?
Connectivity: Netbios over RS-232-C, 720KB Floppy disks
Language: C

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