Don’t Let Developers Write Anything But Code

Developers are idiots.  Aside from their well publicized social awkwardness and inability to dress themselves with any sense of fashion, they also have a terrible sense of humour and, as it turns out, no sense of consequence. As Dr. Ian Malcolm famously said in the movie Jurassic Park, “they [are] so preoccupied with whether or not they [can], they [don’t] stop to think if they should.”

As a developer, I include myself fully in that regard.  In fact, it’s quite likely that this is mostly just about me.  However, it’s also a little bit about developers like Steve, our longest surviving partner in crime.

Steve has been with us for a long time.  Back in the beginning, after the successful launch of canada.com, things started to get a lot busier.  We began working on other new sites such as Working.com and CarClick.com (now Driving.ca) and it was time to start hiring some additional help.  We received a resume from a young developer named Steve who was currently living out in BC but looking to move to the Toronto area.  Although a bit green, he seemed very promising, so we brought him on board.  Obviously we found something good in him, as he’s been with us ever since.

One of the first projects Steve worked with us on was the development of our first membership and personalization system.  Personalized home pages were all the rage at that time, so with canada.com being a portal, it was only natural that we should jump on the bandwagon and allow users to register and deface the home page to their liking.  Back then, we were as agile a development shop as one could be.  It’s one of the things I really miss.  Constant change, discussions, back and forth with designs.  It was long crazy hours of hectic development and I loved it.

As the development team, we would just go and build what needed to be built.  Anyone who has been in web development long enough knows that generally you start out with a few nice designs of a couple of key pages, but somehow each and every time the stakeholders and designers always seem to miss all those other key pages and elements that go into a finished product.  You know what I’m talking about.  It’s all those beautiful buttons and links that don’t seem to do anything or go anywhere.  Things like the “Forgot my password” button or the “Terms of Service” link.

In any case, as we were building out those other pages, we obviously didn’t have any “copy” for those pages either.  My instructions to Steve were to simply do what we can for now and the stakeholders and designers can advise us of any changes they want once they review the application.  It seemed like a great idea at the time.

The day after we launched, Pete received a call from his boss.  He’s upset.  In fact, he’s absolutely steaming.  (Pete, if you wish to share how that conversation went, by all means do so.)   Why was he so upset?  It turns out that during the registration process a number of customers were encountering an error message that read something like this:  “If you can’t fill out this form properly you must be a complete idiot.” and they weren’t too pleased about being insulted.

Apparently Steve didn’t have any copy for that particular situation and decided to use some placeholder text that was both obviously wrong and funny at the same time.  His thinking was that in doing so, it would easily be caught and corrected during QA and adjusted according.  It wasn’t, and as it turns out few people shared his sense of humour. Go figure.

Now, it’s not fair of me to single out Steve.  It was an innocent mistake by a rookie developer.  It could just as easily have been a bit of text I wrote as well.  In fact, our membership system got me in trouble a number of years later.  You see, us developers have some odd addiction to creating cute project names.  Shortly after we were purchased by Canwest, we were tasked with a major relaunch of our authentication and membership system once again.  I in my infinite wisdom decided to name the project the “Canwest Security and Information System”…. or CSIS for short.  It was just an internal project name of course.  What’s the harm?  (For my international readers, CSIS also happens to be the acronym for Canada’s version of the CIA)

Well, about a year after we launched there was a bug in the cleanup process and the membership database ran out of disk space.   As such, everyone who attempted to register or log in to one of our  many sites was presented with the following error message… “Unable to write to the CSIS database”.  That one resulted in a call to Pete from the CBC.  Oops!  You’d think we’d learn.