Orders wrong, resellers receiving wrong items? Must be a programming error and certainly not a rushing techie

Some of those punch cards may still be lying at the bottom of a lift shaft


Who, Me? Punch cards are the order of the day in a reader confession that takes us back to an unfortunate incident with a trolley. Welcome to Who, Me?

To be fair, punch cards were on the wane at the time of our story in the early 1980s, but our reader (Regomised as "Ivor") was gainfully employed at an international manufacturer still keen on the things.

After all, if a system wasn't broken, it didn't need fixing, right?

It was Ivor's first job, and he worked in the computer room as part of the team responsible for both producing punch cards and feeding them into an IBM mainframe running a stock management system.

The system itself was deceptively simple. A card was included with every product manufactured. A customer returned that card when the product was sold, which would then trigger the replenishment process.

If that all sounds a bit manual, that's because it was. "The cards arrived every evening to be read and the data fed into the stock replenishment system," explained Ivor. "Most of the week the cards returned in dribs and drabs but Sunday night was an early shift start to process anything up to 150,000 cards, all generating new orders."

Another punch card was used to identify the customer for each batch of product cards. It was tedious and terribly time-consuming. "The cards were returned by Securicor," said Ivor, "and had to be loaded onto a wheeled trolley and pushed to the computer room to be read before order processing could start.

"With that many cards and the vagaries of the IBM readers, the job would often take five to six hours."

Getting that many punch cards to the computer room was a challenge, requiring a trek with a trolley, a few corridors, and an elderly service elevator.

On the night in question, Ivor had been charged with trolley duties. Good news: Securicor was early, which meant the job could be finished earlier! Eagerly, he charged down to the security hut to collect the trays of cards ready for the night's activities.

The journey back, with the trolley's wheels protesting under the weight of all those cards, was a bit slower. However, there was more good news. As Ivor pushed the trolley down the corridor toward the service elevator he spied the doors were open. Somebody had just used it, and if he could get to it in time, he wouldn't have to wait for it to return. He picked up the pace, the trolley rattling along the floor.

"What I had forgotten," he said, "was the lift, at this end of the building, never quite lined up with the floor, leaving an inch step up.

"I hit the step at speed. The trolley stopped... the trays didn't."

The cards were scattered over the floor. A large number dropped down the gap between lift and shaft. And any semblance of order was gone as Ivor scrambled to collect what he could and stack them back in the trays.

What to do? Confess to the cockup or pretend nothing had happened?

A little flustered, he pitched up at the computer room and remarked that there were strangely fewer cards than normal. Funny, that. Still, at least everyone would finish processing earlier, right?

And finish early they did, with only Ivor possessed of the knowledge of what was going to hit the fan in the coming weeks.

As the days passed, dark mutterings began circulating: replenishment orders were wrong; some resellers had received the wrong items while others had received nothing at all. Thousands of stock items were affected. But who was to blame?

It was Ivor, of course. However, he remained silent. The finger of accusation moved on. "The stock replenishment system took the blame, obviously a programming error," he said.

"To this day, as far as I know, no one ever knew what had actually happened."

But now we do.

Have you ever let the programming team take the blame for your misdemeanours or were you one of the developers on the receiving end of unjustified blame? Confess all with an email to Who, Me? ®

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