For once, credit where it's due

Flashback to 1979, when this student pilot fish really wants to be working as a programming intern at an electronic cash register company.

Instead, he's been assigned to put parts in little plastic bags for the people who solder the circuit boards.

All except for four hours a week.

"The computer we used in the parts cage had to run weekly inventory reports," explains fish. "The reports took about four hours to run every Friday, and pretty much shut the parts cage down because we were not allowed to kit components without first entering them into the computer, and the PDP-11 couldn't multitask."

But why should one report take all afternoon? Fish talks his boss into letting him look at the inventory software -- which, it turns out is written in interpreted Basic.

Fish inserts a few "got here at HH:MM:SS" debug lines to tell him how the run is progressing, and he quickly determines that, for all but five minutes of the four-hour run, the program is re-sorting the transaction history file.

And with tens of thousands of records, the bubble-sort algorithm that the program uses is, well, slow. A few dozen lines of code later, fish has implemented a more elegant sort.

"That Friday, when my boss kicked off the usual report at noon, the printer started dumping the report at 12:10 instead of approximately 4 p.m.," fish says.

"Of course, she thought I broke the inventory software and was in a panic mode. But after she went over the report and realized it was correct, she did something I will never forget."

First, fish's boss gives him a big hug and congratulates him. Then she walks him down to management row, where she gives fish full credit for his initiative and success in fixing the program -- and especially the fact that the manufacturing line would no longer have a partial shutdown on Fridays.

Then she tells the big bosses that, while she'll be sad to see fish leave her department, he belongs in software development.

Finally, she explains the real reason she has come to management row: the fact that fish has just earned a bonus that's larger than she's allowed to grant.

"The best part of the day, I think, was getting escorted to HR," says fish, "and having the same woman who said I wasn't qualified to be a programmer cut me a big fat check that was no doubt more than she made all summer, and doing the paperwork that put me into firmware development with my own office."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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