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The time PC Tools spared an aerospace techie the blushes

Look before you leap, and by leap, we mean run del *.*

Who, Me? Welcome to Who, Me?, The Register's weekly dive into the murky waters of the reader confession pool. Read on to see if this week's tale triggers a guilty memory or two from you.

Today's story from "Art" takes us back three decades to the closing of the 1980s. Knight Rider was a receding memory while Baywatch had only just begun its years of splattering our screens with seaside fun.

Art was working at a well-known UK-based aerospace outfit and his team had just completed the development and implementation of some just-in-time material-requirements-planning software. "The next steps," he told us "were to get the ordering to our suppliers automated."

With a nostalgic twinkle in his eye he said, "These were the days of EDIFACT and TRADACOMS (do they still get used?)"

You betcha, Art. Both were standards for Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and while TRADACOMS is a tad dusty nowadays and subject to repeated attempts to kill it off, it can be still be found lurking within UK commerce. EDIFACT is altogether a lot more international, and these days can be found squatting under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE.)

What there wasn't, according to Art, was the joy that would become Extensible Markup Language (XML). That delight was still a little way off back then.

The gateway used was PC-based rather than the IBM mainframe that ran everything else. Shifting data between the mainframe and gateway during the early days while things were "bedding in" could best be described as a bit… manual.

"Said manual interface," explained Art, "was to take information onto a (very advanced tech) 3½ stiffy [sic] and take it across to the gateway PC and put the files onto the gateway PC and then action them."

Careful to avoid a reprocessing disaster, the team would ensure the floppy got wiped. "The files were, after all, still on the mainframe so we had copies if we needed them."

That wiping was also a manual process. What could possibly go wrong?

On the day in question, Art switched to c: as normal, followed the usual process to copy the files over, then switched back to a: to delete the files like the good citizen he was. Except what he actually typed was this:

del *.*
Are you Sure (Y/N)? Y

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the deliberate typo. Rather than a:, Art had typed a;, and so remained in the context of the c:. Muscle memory meant he'd not seen the whinges from DOS and had inadvertently wiped the root of c: before realising his error.

Everything the all-important gateway PC needed to be able to boot was gone.

"Who backed up PCs back then???"

Lots of people, Art. Lots of people.

But not this particular aerospace company, it seemed. Art knew that should the PC restart, there was every chance it would fail, so a solution was needed sharpish. Like every good engineer of the era he had his own "magic disk" (labelled as such) containing such gems as the file manager XTree Pro and Central Point's PC Tools.

While the latter is long since defunct (Symantec killed off the brand in 2013), back then it contained a handy undelete utility. Saviour of many a careless sysadmin.

Would it save Art? With breath held, he inserted the disk, ran the utility and… Success!

Unable to believe his luck, Art poked around the recovered root and all seemed to be in order.

The final test was to restart the PC and try to send a test file. Again, a success!

"My final action," said Art, "was to recommend that it may be a good idea to have a backup PC in case anything ever 'happened' to that one."

The now retired Art, who would go on to forge a career in programming, database administration and IT management, recalled that "Management were very complimentary about my forward thinking…"

Ever let bored fingers do the typing, only to be horrified by the results? Or received a commendation for suggesting some automation after you'd comprehensively hosed the manual process? We know we have. Drop an email to Who, Me? if this rings any bells you'd hoped were long since silenced. ®

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