Way back in the early 1990’s I went to work for a Computer VAR franchise in Gaithersburg Md. I quickly got involved in all kinds of computer systems. We sold accounting systems and AT&T Xenix systems. I also got involved in developing what were referred to as 4GL (Fourth Generation Language) applications.
One of our customers was the Administrative offices of Chevy Chase Village. This was a high end community outside of Washington DC.
They purchased from us an AT&T Xenix Server, about 15 big ugly green terminals, 3 or 4 giant tractor-feed printers and a program call Smartware that I used to write an application to track a very unique inventory – the trees in the community.
This community tracked every tree. Probably a couple thousand trees back then. They wanted a database system where they could enter each tree id (they had a serial # tag on each tree) and they wanted to print a report on tree damage and any tree work that needed to be done.
Please don’t ask me why, but believe it or not, in 2009 they still have a Tree Committee, chaired by a guy named Robert Elliott.
Back to my story.
I put together the AT&T hardware, installed the Operating System, installed the application software, built the termcap files for the terminals, setup the users, file permissions, and brought all of it out to the client’s office and set it all up.
Everybody loved what I put together, until – I went to do the next step. I had to setup the Tape Drive to automate the nightly backups.
Everything back then was done on a command line. And, most commands were about getting input from one device and sending it out to another.
I typed in a command thinking it was going to read the hard drive and write the data to the tape. But, instead the command I typed in actually started to write “null” or nothing to the hard drive.
Don’t misunderstand this – writing nothing meant when the program ends, there should be nothing there – sort of like DELETE!!!
When the program started I turned my head to talk to someone standing near me. In less than 1 minute people started calling me to say that their terminals were acting strange or showing lots of weird errors.
I looked at the terminal I was working on and instantly saw what I had done. Sweat appeared instantly on my head and I actually started to shake. I knew I had just trashed everything I had just spent weeks putting together.
I took the high road. I walked into the office of the Village Manager, pulled a gun out of my pocket and blew a hole in my head.
Actually, I walked into his office and he asked me why his terminal had errors all over it. I told him that I had just discovered a serious flaw with the operating system and unfortunately because I had not been able to make a backup, I would have to fix it manually. I explained to him that this could take another 3 or 4 days, because fixing it would mean reloading the operating system. I assured him that I would put the time in necessary to fix the problem.
I called AT&T technical support, quietly told them what had happened and begged them to stick with me while I reloaded everything.
Fortunately I found a very compassionate engineer and he walked me thru some short cuts for reloading everything.
I spent at least three or four 15+ hour days redoing everything that I had previously spent weeks doing.
When I got done, I stopped, drank a glass of water and wrote down on paper the backup command that I wanted to use previously. I looked at it for at least 5 minutes before I typed it in on the keyboard. I looked at it for another 4 or 5 minutes before I pressed the enter key.
Almost instantly I heard the whirl of the tape drive and then saw the program response saying that it was writing files to the tape.
Once the backup was complete I walked around the office and turned all of the printers and terminals on. The users started to log back in and again, everyone was happy.
I went to the Village Manager and told him that thanks to AT&T we were able to get it all back up and running. He thanked me for all of my dedication to fixing the problem. “Exactly, what went wrong?” he asked me.
“I’m not really sure.” I told him. “I think it was something to do with the backup commands. Since we reloaded it all, we can’t tell. But I’m sure that once I leave, you will not have this problem again.”
This is yet another story from Teddy Burriss – maybe, just maybe you will laugh with me.