So This Is What It’s Like

One of my clients is a professional office whose most mission-critical application is, believe it or not, written in COBOL. That’s the COmmon Business Oriented Language, the oldest examples of which are found in petroglyphs of the American Southwest. (Well, okay, in 1959 when it was created by a chick named Grace.) In 1975, renowned computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra wrote, “The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offense”. I learned COBOL once upon a time, but never actually got an opportunity to use it for anything more than making a tweak and a twiddle to some seriously fouled up code written by someone unknown to me whose work convinced me that he was not so far from insane. I was offered a fat consulting gig in the late 1990’s to go around, actually going on-site all around the country, plugging Y2k fixes into COBOL code. I turned it down, in the main because I wasn’t interested in traveling but also because COBOL sucks. Not in a good way.

My client’s mostest mission-criticalist (COBOL) application lives on a server whose operating system and basic software haven’t been upgraded in five years, so can’t be upgraded without significant toil. I’d have to go to the office in Mississippi and spend days at it, which would leave them with new software on old hardware that’s just looking for an excuse to fail anyway. It’s also the shittiest version of Linux you’ll find in common use, some shit that some drunken Germans put together so poorly that Linus Torvalds himself denigrates it. It’d be cheaper to just start from scratch with new empty hardware. So now they’ve got a shiny new machine running Debian GNU/Linux… It’s my mostest favoritist Linux and what I’ve been running on my everything since 1996. 

The glitch? Just transferring stuff from the old machine to the new wasn’t enough to make those mission critical applications work. I didn’t expect it would, but DAMN. First the application vendor’s support people blew me off, flat out said that they didn’t know anything about anything and maybe I should talk to my predecessor about it. Fortunately my client has their operations manager’s direct email address and punched through that wall for me. Then, with a fresh copy of their software in hand, I needed the COBOL bits themselves. More hoops with the application vendor, all of them bricked up when I jumped into them. Ow my aching melon. So I went over everyone’s heads to the operations manager again…

He punted it back down to the support drones. Oh shit. They wanted license numbers, serial numbers, secret handshakes, coded greetings, and a magic decoder ring. Days and days of looking for excuses to tell me to fuck off. Finally I get through all of that, and after the application vendor made the referral and introductions the COBOL vendor has more of the same for me. Everyone wants an excuse to tell me to fuck off.

Finally I received an email message very early this morning giving me the toll free telephone number I can use to talk to someone. Someone in London. Which explains it all. Ain’t nobody on this planet loves their bureaucracy the way the Brits love theirs. They’re like the Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. 

Now I know what it’s like for those people that people like me refer to as “end users”. At least that’s what we refer to them as when they’re listening, or when certain hypersensitive people in positions of power might hear or read our words. Otherwise: lusers. Now, before any of my dear readers take offense I should state that lusers is not a derisive term. It’s just the way we talk. “We have to choose menu item names the lusers will understand”.

On the other hand, luser, singular, when referring to another, is possibly derisive. It’s always okay for me to call myself a luser, but you have to be careful when you call me one. 

I have never really had this experience before, being an end user up against the software Vogons, and it sucks more than I ever expected it could. I’ve got important work to do, work I’m being paid to do, work that others are depending upon, and I can’t do it because some fucking software Vogons haven’t ever heard of quality service. They’re too busy hiding behind endless layers of bureaucracy when it would cost far less to just provide the damned service.

When I was the guy who ran business-to-business service organizations I never made customers jump through flaming hoops. I did everything in my power to eliminate them. I wanted customers to be able to get in touch with us, to bother us with their stupid questions as quick and as often as they could come up with them. I have literally fixed problems by telling the customer to plug the machine into the power outlet, and been happy to do it. Gracious about it, too. We’re all human. Shit happens and sometimes to the very smartest of people.

Three fucking weeks! That’s how long it’s taken me to penetrate the service department’s fuckyou wall. I’ve talked to lusers who’ve been there, but have never before done it myself. Now I know what it’s like to call some random fucking guy in Bangalore or Manila and go around and around and around, and around, oh, and around some more, until finally getting kicked up to second-level support so some random dipshit can say, “Oh, let me email you this file”. And that’s really all I’m asking for: The installation instructions that will give me the 100% correct way to get this pile of files that make up the COBOL runtime into place so it’s certain to work. I don’t want to get a call on Christmas Eve from my client saying that some thing they do only once a year when the office is closed doesn’t work, and oh by the way, it looks like the hard disk might have been wiped, too.

When this is over, and I catch a lull in the action, I’m going to review all of my policies and procedures, written and unwritten, to make sure that I never, ever, never fucking ever, do to my clients just ten percent of what’s been done to me by these pukes.


8 thoughts on “So This Is What It’s Like

  1. sistermae

    I without a doubt drive the Kindle guys crazy I bet they laugh every time they see my name pop up I am always doing something dumb and I can never remember how to reset it

    1. happierheathen Post author

      If I might ask: Do you get support without inordinate hoop jumping? I’m curious because I’ve never dealt with Kindles/Nooks so I know nothing about how well they’re being supported.

  2. whyzat

    Yikes, it’s like working with a union! Hurry up and wait for the right guy to come back from lunch so you can do some work that only requires him to stand there. Well, I guess that’s different from what you describe, but still frustrating.

    1. happierheathen Post author

      I’ve never been fortunate enough to work in a union shop… But I’ve worked in the defense industry, which was maddeningly bureaucratic. Defense contractors actually make many times more money on the paperwork than they do on the product itself. To some far less than full extent the reasons for it make sense, but boy is it frustrating.

    1. happierheathen Post author

      It’s crazy. I rarely ever run into these kinds of roadblocks, and to see one so impenetrable is unique in my experience. If I had to do this all the time I’d want to find a new line of work, though I have no idea what such a new line might be and it’s a question I don’t like to think about.


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