In case you missed it, I’m on the job market. As I’ve been winding through the various opportunities out there, I found a company that wants a sample of “analysis” as part of their application.
I’ll be honest, I sat in front of this section for an hour without coming up with anything. I wrote down some of the times I’d done deep analysis that I could remember, but none of them really impress me. Now, you may be reading this thinking “heh, yeah, cause this guy doesn’t know how to analyze”. But to be honest, I think for me, this question is like asking Greg Maddux how he threw his best fastball, or asking Sir Mick Jagger how he performed his best chicken dance, or a great white shark how it ate its most fish. They could all probably tell you more about doing taxes. They’re just being themselves, it’s what makes them great.
Analyzing systems has always been very natural for me. I mean always. I was that kid pulling apart the VCR to see what was inside, and then putting it back together successfully.. sometimes. I truly do not remember what I did there, but look ma, the whining noise is gone when we rewind!
So, that said, I’ll not give you the best analysis I’ve done, because I just can’t pick one of the thousands. Instead, I’ll give you the very first one I was paid for. A brief story.
The year is 1997, and the protagonist is a recent graduate of High School. For the past 3 months, our hero has been employed doing his dream: playing with computers. As a contrarian, this rare Linux-using teenager has decided to go right in to the IT industry and skip that silly college thing (yes, this teenager was as dumb as a teenager, and twice as stubborn). And they even have an HP-9000 real unix box to play with.
The developers are all perplexed, on this day however. The literal green screen application that runs the entire company is crashing, randomly. All hands on deck, the 4 developers are furiously examining code and records in the database to find out what is causing this problem. Our hero loves code, and has chatted with the devs a few times about what they do. This weird system they work in is called “PickDB”, and the app is in “PickBASIC”, and it’s really simple, so, Sir Paperbox-carrying PC-network-card-reseating 18 year old has been peeking at the manual and playing on his own green-screen to learn it in spare time.
Alas, the problem is vexing. This particular firm is a medical equipment manufacturer, and billing agents are seeing, randomly, that some records they pull up simply corrupt their entire screen view. The cursor flies around, weird matrix-like (oh wait, there’s no Matrix yet) characters print, and generally they have to have a server-side reset to continue (kill their shell, the database vendor explains, and our hero already knew how to do that and showed the devs so they could self-service).
Well the devs are fighting through it, so he sits down to peek at the database as well. They have a list of records known to cause the problem, so he pulls one up with the usual method: SELECT foo WHERE id = ‘999’ or something like that, honestly, it wasn’t SQL, but it was the SQL of PickDB. Behold! A perfect record is printed, line by line. One by one, all of the records look pretty normal, though you can see where the longer records had incomplete words.
The vigor of this young man will not be stopped though, and he wonders if he just writes a program to print out the records, if it works differently. Writes program, runs it, and there, in front of him, is a broken terminal.
So, he kills his session and tries turning the characters in to their ASCII numbers. Oh noes, the program crashes HARD. What’s this then? The built-in function that turns characters in to numbers has printed a runtime error and halted his program. “High-bit char detected.”
Fast-forward to an hour later, where this 18 year old is explaining to these 40 year olds how to fix the problem. See, PickDB and PickBASIC don’t actually exist anymore. It was originally run on IBM mini-computers, but those are expensive, so some vendors had shown up to swoop in and replace it with cheaper emulators that run on cheaper HP-9000’s. This was called “UniData”, and it worked flawlessly.
However, when this company had converted from Pick to UniData, the vendor had converted most of the data in some black-box process. But now, 4 years later, the database was purged of most of those records, and everything in it was newly entered in the green screens which were serially wired to a serial-to-telnet gateway via CAT-3 cables wired into RS-232 connectors. So, one day, 4 years ago, the vendor had arrived, taken the old IBM system out, and put in the HP-9000, and taken all of those RS-232 patches out of the IBM MUX, and put them into an HP terminal concentrator.
Meanwhile, over 4 years, the company had grown, and more and more green-screens purchased and wired up in the same fashion. Reorgs shifted people around, and terminal connections stayed where they were, with users just logging in to wherever they sat.
And so, what had happened? Last week, a reorg had sent accounting into the space used by medical bill processing, and vice-versa. This meant that records were now being entered in the space that had been newly built out for accounting 2 years earlier. Accounting didn’t do much data entry, but medical billing was literally just taking doctors’ patients forms on paper, and entering them into forms on green screen. And so, for the past week, new terminals had been used to enter all of the new records.
But the vendor had forgotten one thing. They forgot to tell the person who they trained on how to wire new connections, to log in to the terminal concentrator, and change it to use x-on/x-off 7-bit for green-screens. The default, was CTS/CTR. The details of this dark and arcane protocol are lost to my brain as it has been over 20 years, but basically, when people typed fast, the concentrator would set a pin on the RS-232 to 1 instead of 0 to say “STOP SENDING ME STUFF MAH BUFFER’S GONNA BURST”, but the terminal would keep sending stuff, and when the pin went back to 0, the concentrator would start reading again, and binary hilarity ensued.
This realization came about because our hero had been playing with serial connections and modems since he was 12. He knew what CTS/CTR and x-on/x-off were, sorta, and had read the manuals for both the green-screens and the terminal concentrator while debugging this problem. Once the high-bit chars error was seen, the real problem was unmasked. And it was a short process to go make a well behaved terminal suddenly become a garbage-data-generator.
Funny enough, the SELECT program from UniData had a filter which would remove high-bit chars, which is why it was so hard to find these nasty chars. Even worse, this DB used the 8-bit int value of 253 to mean “field delimiter”, and 254 as “record delimiter”, so if you got REALLY unlucky, your keystrokes would split a record or a field in two! The devs just hadn’t thought that the built-in program would lie to them! By writing his own program, our hero had satisfied the X-files rule of debugging: Trust No-one. After reading the manuals he had then applied the same principal to the terminal concentrator configs: why trust one port over another?
In closing, this analysis also led to an amazing discovery that changed the lives of the data-entry folks for a brief time. In reading the manual for the port-concentrator, he discovered that the ports were all set to 19200bps, which was ok, but that the port concentrator could actually go much, much faster if it could use CTS/CTR. And all of the new terminals in the data-entry area were WYSE-60+, not WYSE-50, which meant they actually could be configured for CTS/CTR and the much higher data rate. As a result, screen paints were 10x faster on these models, and soon they became coveted treasures in the company.