Thursday, September 25, 2003

The great (s)capade

For the past two days, a debate has raged over the electronic frontier of my workplace. It has to do with three little characters, but boy, are they important.

We’re performing the final tests on a new software feature, and our new feature changes the layout of some screens for those people who are lucky enough to see it. We have been testing this feature for 6 weeks now, and somehow we missed something that our client team picked up on immediately.

When this feature appears, it causes the text next to it to wrap. For one client in particular, that makes things look a little odd. For you see, modern English is not flexible enough for our needs, so we saw fit to extend it in our application. The extension looked something like this: "Please review your number and the other number(s) below." (not actual text, but you get the idea). We just wanted to make sure that, in case there was more than one number below, we were covered. Of course, when you actually look below, the heading clearly says, "Your other number," but still, we’re covering all our bases.

Unfortunately, the creators of Web browsers and, well, any other software that deals with words played it safe, too, and stuck with the plain vanilla English rules, which state that any symbol in the middle of a word should be treated as part of another word when you run out of space. So, our little "(s)" dropped down to the next line, much to the horror of all demonstrators at the client meeting. In the words of one presenter, they were "mortified" to see the errant "(s)," and swore a blood oath to their client that they would eradicate it.

Their mission begun, our hardy folk sent forth a blurring volley of electronic messages, imploring the help of one and all to rid the world of this scourge. The impending launch of this product only increased their fervor. It would mean their heads if the "(s)" ever made it out to the world at large. We understood their concern, shook our heads and clucked our tongues sympathetically, then set out in search of a solution. One brave soul (OK, it was me) noticed that, not only was the "(s)" unnecessary, but it wasn’t even used later on the same screen to describe "Your Other Number." Perhaps we could just remove it and the errant formatting problem from the screen?

Well, this is what we in the software world call a "global change," meaning it would affect all users of this application. As such, it must be treated with appropriate gravity. The mere suggestion of such a change this late in the game set off another flurry of e-missives. No less than three Vice Presidents, a Legal Counselor, a Director of Technology, a Senior Technical Lead, and assorted Other Interested Parties and Stakeholders discussed this radical proposal for 36 hours. As the deadline drew near, they gathered virtually, nodded exhaustedly, and agreed to take the leap. The "(s)" had to go.

With moments to spare, our crack team leapt into action, opened the file, and deleted the three offending characters. The launch was saved!

Estimated cost: $5,000 per character.