If Daddy doesn't want me to touch the buttons, why did they make them so colourful?

The perils of 'bring your child to work' day


On Call We have stepped into Friday, and the weekend is only a few short hours away. Take a break from wondering what a trip to the park might do to the "R" number and join us for another adventure of those Register readers cursed with the On Call phone.

Today's story comes from "Dave" (and his now nearly 40-year-old child) and takes us back more than 30 years to a time of mainframes, z-folds and ever so attractive buttons.

Like many an IT worker back in the day (and even now), Dave took care of a variety of tasks. He had helped configure his company's mainframe as well as deal with customisations needed for the printer controller. The printer itself was a relatively new model and, recalled Dave, "I was still the first call when there was an unusual issue with the printer."

The device was a hulking HP machine, capable of spitting out 50 pages per minute on z-fold paper. "Usually," said Dave, "this worked very well, but when it failed, usually you had a mess of crumpled paper jamming the works."

The frequency of borkage meant that the majority of the operators had learned to deal with it and restart the job from a few pages back. One weekend, however, the printer threw a wobbly that needed more specialist attention so Dave was called in to help.

"The printer controller was an HP/3000, if I recall correctly," he said. There was a glass TTY console and a dot-matrix printer to log operations. An ancient IBM print controller emulator received files from the mainframe, turned them into page images and spooled them onto the printer. Sometimes, Dave delicately explained, "when the system did not respond as expected to the few commands the operators knew about, they called me."

This particular weekend Dave asked his young son to accompany him to the office. "I'm not sure if he had started school yet," he told us, "although he did read a bit. I thought: what could go wrong?"

The job itself would probably turn out to a be five-minute fix that Dave would be able to train out to the operators.

Upon arrival at the office, the pair trudged through the security doors leading to the computer room and into a heavenly sanctum of flashing lights and exciting buttons (at least as far as Dave's son was concerned).

Warning his son not to touch anything, Dave swiftly dealt with the printer problem; a two-minute fix and a three-minute wait to make sure it worked. Doubtless hoping to impress his son, Dave pointed out the fixtures of the room and suggested he might like to watch the tapes doing their thing.

"If you knew my son," he said ruefully, "you would know that he wanted to explore everywhere."

With the inevitability of locked brakes and stationary truck, Dave heard the dread words: "What does this do?"

His son had wandered over to the dishwasher-sized disk enclosure and stood, finger poised over a solitary button. The button was away from the others, and a LED display glowed above.

Dave could move fast, but not that fast, and despite an effort worthy of an Olympic athlete, reached his son just after that lonely button had been pressed. A button marked "Eject."

The world threatened to drop out of Dave's bottom as he waited to see what HP's finest would do. Surely the lid would open, the disk cartridge rise up like Excalibur from the deep (or a turd bobbing to the surface) and career-ending damage be inflicted.

"I had visions of a disk trashed, the OS, programs, data lost, unbootable and unrepairable," he remembered with a shudder.

"I waited. We waited. Nothing happened. A message scrolled across the LED: 'disk in use'."

Back at the console there was a single message – "something about a button press ignored because the disk was in use," Dave told us. The only evidence of his son prodding things he shouldn't would be an easily ignored note among the many spat out in the log on the console printer.

"I relaxed," said Dave, "giving thanks to the engineers at HP; perhaps they too brought their kids to work."

A long talk was had about not touching things at work, and Dave never took his son back into the secured rooms, although the boy did visit Dave's office on another floor many times after.

"There he played games on a Unix workstation while I went alone to the printer or computer rooms."

What could possibly go wrong?

Have you ever taken a child with you on a call-out, only for the poppet to wreak havoc? Or been saved from yourself by the thoughtful designs implemented by engineers years previously? Tell us your story with an email to On Call. ®

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