In 1979, Argle was 18, happy to be working at a large firm specializing in aerospace equipment. There was plenty of opportunity to work with interesting technology and learn from dozens of more senior programs—well, usually. But then came the day when Argle's boss summoned him to his cube for something rather different.
"This is a listing of the code we had prior to the last review," the boss said, pointing to a stack of printed Fortran code that was at least 6 inches thick. "This is what we have now." He gestured to a second printout that was slightly thicker. "I need you to read through this code and, in the old code, mark lines with 'WAS' where there was a change and 'IS' in the new listing to indicate what it was changed to."
Argle frowned at the daunting paper mountains. "I'm sorry, but, why do you need this exactly?"
"It's for FAA compliance," the boss said, waving his hand toward his cubicle's threshold. "Thanks!"
Weighed down with piles of code, Argle returned to his cube with a similarly sinking heart. At this place and time, he'd never even heard of UNIX, and his coworkers weren't likely to know anything about it, either. Their development computer had a TMS9900 CPU, the same one in the TI-99 home computer, and it ran its own proprietary OS from Texas Instruments. There was no
diff command or anything like it. The closest analog was a file comparison program, but it only reported whether two files were identical or not.
Back at his cube, Argle stared at the printouts for a while, dreading the weeks of manual, mind-numbing dullness that loomed ahead of him. There was no way he'd avoid errors, no matter how careful he was. There was no way he'd complete this to every stakeholder's satisfaction. He was staring imminent failure in the face.
Was there a better way? If there weren't already a program for this kind of thing, could he write his own?
Argle had never heard of the Hunt–McIlroy algorithm, but he thought he might be able to do line comparisons between files, then hunt ahead in one file or the other until he re-synched again. He asked one of the senior programmers for the files' source code. Within one afternoon of tinkering, he'd written his very own
The next morning, Argle handed his boss 2 newly printed stacks of code, with "WAS -->" and "IS -->" printed neatly on all the relevant lines. As the boss began flipping through the pages, Argle smiled proudly, anticipating the pleasant surprise and glowing praise to come.
Quite to Argle's surprise, his boss fixed him with a red-faced, accusing glare. "Who said you could write a program?!"
Argle was speechless at first. "I was hired to program!" he finally blurted. "Besides, that's totally error-free! I know I couldn't have gotten everything correct by hand!"
The boss sighed. "I suppose not."
It wasn't until Argle was much older that his boss' reaction made any sense to him. The boss' goal hadn't been "compliance." He simply hadn't had anything constructive for Argle to do, and had thought he'd come up with a brilliant way to keep the new young hire busy and out of his hair for a few weeks.
Writer's note: Through the ages and across time, absolutely nothing has changed. In 2001, I worked at a (paid, thankfully) corporate internship where I was asked to manually browse through a huge network share and write down what every folder contained, all the way through thousands of files and sub-folders. Fortunately, I had heard of the
dir command in DOS. Within 30 minutes, I proudly handed my boss the printout of the output—to his bemusement and dismay. —Ellis
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[Artwork details: Julie Mehretu. “Refuge.”