For Want of a Comma


When I’m not writing blog entries, I am a CRM consultant.  A big piece of my job is integrating systems together.  Integration in this case means getting data from one system to another system.  I had a client up north that had some integration built a few months ago to tie some systems together.  Like a lot of companies, it was a lot of “hurry up… and wait”.  By the time they finally decided what they wanted, I had moved on to another client (yet more integration actually).  One of my co-workers picked up where I left off.

It wasn’t long before my phone rang.  Things were not working well with the integration.  Some data were fine, other data were truncated.  Some data were in the right fields, some data were way off.  The first rule of thumb with consultants is “blame the guy not on site”.  So, I heard a lot about how terrible I was and how this didn’t get caught in testing and so on.  I get annoyed by it, but I try not to take it personally.

We took the integration piece apart and ran through it one step at a time to determine where things started to break.  The initial data were in a format called comma-delimited-text.  This is like a spreadsheet in Excel except each cell is data split up by commas rather than put into little boxes.  You end up with something that looks like this:

“Company”, “Contact Name”, “Address”, “City”, “State”, “ZIP Code”

“ABC Company”, “Joe Smith”, “123 Test Lane”, “Chicago”, “IL”, “60606”

It turned out, somewhere deep in the thousands of lines of information, a single comma was missing.  The integration had combined “Joe Smith” and “123 Test Lane” as one field and everything else after that was shifted one field over.  My fellow consultant couldn’t help but marvel at how much damage a single comma (or lack thereof) could do.  Lynne Truss and other grammar police have written entire books on what kinds of damage can occur if you don’t put in the right punctuation.  However, to err is human… to really screw things up, one needs a computer.

Probably the most famous missing punctuation was an overbar.  This was part of a mathematical equation designed to average out data between two RADAR systems.  Since the overbar wasn’t there, the RADAR data streams weren’t smoothed out, and Mariner 1, the first US interplanetary spacecraft took a one way trip to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean rather than fly by Venus.

Luckily, no multi-million dollar spacecraft was on the line up in Wisconsin.  We fixed the issue, added the comma, and my consulting reputation was quickly repaired.

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