The World’s Worst Software Developer

Between college and work, I’ve been surrounded by software developers for close to 35 years.  In that time, I’ve known many hundreds of them.  They come in all sizes and shapes from all over the world and have a very interesting variety of personalities.

Most developers that I’ve worked with are reasonably skilled.  Some are insanely awesome while others are at best mediocre.  Early in my career, I worked with a lot that did not have a computer science background, so they weren’t necessarily versed in the theory, but they’d understood the basic concepts and generally speaking were able to get the job done.

There were a couple of exceptions, though.  People that should never have been allowed to touch a keyboard.  People that Boeing would have been better off paying them to stay at home than to have them come in and attempt to write software. This is one of those stories…

I had just started at Boeing.  I was 22 years old, freshly armed with my computer science / mathematics degree.  I had been at Boeing (and hence, the corporate world) for a grand total of 2 months.  My manager came in and talked to my lead.  He said that there was someone at his church who was looking for a software development job.  He could vouch for him and was bringing him into the company (note that this was substantially before the days of formal on-line job requisitions, resume filtering, and behavioral interviews).

One day, a guy shows up.  Tom was his name.  He was in his late 30’s and was wearing an ill fitting suit.  My lead (Tony) turned to me and told me to ‘show him the ropes’.

I’m like WTF?  I’m 22 years old and I’ve been there like two months.  Exactly what ropes was I supposed to show him?  It turns out that it would be the rope that I’d want to hang myself with.

I showed him to his computer.  This was in the 80’s, so this was a dumb terminal with a modem that dialed into an HP3000.  On the HP3000, the command to log in was ‘HELLO <user.account>’.

I told him to type in the word hello. He says OK.  He points his finger at the top row of the keys (the numbers) and scans across the top row.  He then points his finger at the second row and scans across the row.  He then points his finger at the third row and scans across the row.  Halfway through, he spots the letter H and triumphantly strikes the H key.

He then points his finger again at the top row (let me reiterate, the fucking number row) and scans across the row.  He points his finger at the second row and scans across it.  Three letters in, he finds the E key and strikes it.

I’m watching this, absolutely horrified.  It takes him 5 minutes to type the HELLO command and log onto the computer.

It turns out that attending our manager’s church was his sole qualification for this job. Not only did he not have experience on the HP3000, not only did he not have any software development knowledge at all, not only could he not type, but it turns out that he didn’t even have a high school education.  His previous jobs were lumberjack and missionary in Haiti.

This struck me as a problem. I went to talk to Tony.  His attitude (remember this was Boeing in the 80’s) was that the boss could hire whomever he wanted.  It was our job to make it work.  And it was my job to ‘show him the ropes’.

Over a period of months, on top of my normal software development duties, I basically had to teach Tom how to type, how to develop software, and how to make software run on an HP3000.  He would come over several times an hour and I’d have to set aside whatever I was working on to help him.  I needed to explain about for loops.  I needed to explain the difference between a goto statement and a return statement.  I needed to explain what a database is and how tables in a database relate to each other.  I had to proofread all of the documentation that he wrote since he had the writing skills of a 5th grader (and no, I’m not exaggerating).

Needless to say, I made a botch of it.  He somehow (and again, this says something about the Boeing company in the 80’s) managed to hang in for a couple of years.

After he finally left (got a transfer to Tulsa, IIRC), years later I would come across some software that he’d written.  I’d take a five minute look at it, and inevitably would just throw it away and write it from scratch.  It was significantly easier to start over than it would be to make the abortion that he wrote work. It was about this time that I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could actually make it in the real world.  If someone like Tom could somehow muddle through, things were really looking up for me.


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