We don't need maintenance this often, surely? Pull it. Oh dear, the system's down

You've been visited by the Don Corleone of code


Who, Me? It is Monday, and time to stare glumly at the week of patching that lies ahead. Pause a while before hitting that update button with a cautionary tale from Who, Me? about support contracts and a naughty, naughty programmer.

Our story takes place in the mid-1980s when a reader Regomised as "Chris" was toiling away at an anonymous manufacturing company that ran its payroll system on a Burroughs minicomputer.

The venerable Burroughs brand was quite the force to be reckoned with back in the day, first producing adding machines before making the move into computers during the 20th century. Quite the fan of ALGOL, Burroughs was eventually subsumed into Unisys as part of a merger with UNIVAC in the latter part of the 1980s.

As for the source of the application in use, Chris explained: "The software was purchased from a guy who supplied several companies with payroll and accounting systems.

A man with no money in his wallet

Typical '80s IT: Good idea leads to additional duties, without extra training or pay, and a nuked payroll system

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"Every 30 days or so we would receive a tape from the programmer with software updates." How very diligent.

Each update was accompanied by a note from the programmer along the lines of "I noticed that in certain circumstances an error would occur..." and a little story about the fix. Compared to the guesswork required to figure out exactly what has changed in the modern-day multi-gigabyte updates slung out by the likes of Microsoft, it all sounds positively delightful.

Naturally, Chris's company paid handsomely for such a thoughtful and charming service.

Sadly, however, a bean-counting bigwig questioned the regular payments and the company decided to call a halt to the maintenance contract.

"And, of course," said Chris, "the updates stopped."

Then things took a surprising lurch for the worse.

"Thirty days later," Chris told us, "the software stopped working and displayed a cryptic message that said 'binary comp failure'.

"The programmer was consulted and he said that he wouldn't look into the issue since we no longer paid for maintenance."

Chris's team tried to restart the Burroughs and reload the software. No joy. Payroll and accounts processing was at a standstill because of that pesky error.

Faced with the prospect of having to pay for a fix, the systems manager (who sounds a suspicious soul) pondered what would happen if the clock was set back a day, to when things were working.

"It worked!" exclaimed Chris. Roll back a day, and it worked. Let the clock tick over, and it failed. Perhaps there was some sort of proto Y2K issue at play?

The company hired another consultant to look at the code. The problem, it transpired, wasn't an innocent overflow, or date-handling funny.

The issue was that the code actually checked that an update had been applied and vomited up an error if not.

"All those updates," said Chris, "really were a way to force us to pay for maintenance."

Naughty. Very, very naughty.

"After a lot of back and forth with the very recalcitrant programmer," Chris explained, "we ended up in court along with two or three other customers of his.

"We won a fairly large settlement and the programmer went out of business."

A programmer happy to drop bombs into code that can only be defused by paying for maintenance? Makes you wonder which tech giant they would have ended up at.

None of them, of course.

Ever caught someone in a nefarious act or, worse, have you dropped something ticking into the source? Confess all, with your anonymity protected by the Regomiser, with an email to Who, Me? ®

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