back to article How my batch process nightmare was solved by a Wombat

“I enjoy these night shifts but what I’d really like is a six-day week with a three-day weekend.” Today's pocket sociologist – let's just call him "Seb" to protect his anonymity – might be onto something here. I'd popped into the office on my way home after a long day buzzing from one client premises to another, only to remain …


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  1. Uncle Slacky


    As in "Waste Of Money, Brains and Time"?

  2. Putters

    Can't be co-incidence (can it ?)

    Many many moons ago when I was a spotty trainee at Philips had the joys of bashing around in VMS. When you typed HELP, it gave a list of commands.

    The last one on the list was WOMBAT.

    Typing HELP WOMBAT gave the following response - "A Wombat is a small Australian marsupial "

    1. Martin Silver badge

      Re: Can't be co-incidence (can it ?)

      And what do you do with a Wombat?

      Play Wom with it.

      1. MikeOxlong

        Re: Can't be co-incidence (can it ?)

        They go hand in hand with a Womble then do they? (pronounced Womball for you non English)‎

        for more information

    2. GBE

      Re: Can't be co-incidence (can it ?)

      The VMS wombat help article was actually pretty extensive, and if you had smart enough terminal (e.g. VT240) even included a half-way decent picture of a wombat. I don't know if all of that was available from the command-line or if the more extensive wombat info and graphics was only available from withing some specific subsystem...

  3. Sir Barry

    Happy Birthday Alistair, have a pint.

    1. Alistair Dabbs Silver badge

      >>> have a pint

      Thanks, Barry, I might do that.

  4. Lee D

    Over the years, I have automated any amount of processes that don't really "need" automating but I found it convenient. This inevitably grows into a "Well, I see you do X... any chance you could make it do Y while it's there" scenario and it soon becomes an entire application. Hell, I put some code on our access control system that our access control system guys wanted to buy off us.

    The problem I have is that the end product is then "looked down"" upon because it's not got a brand name, a version number and isn't available with a EULA (no, it's just the entire source code to something that the company I work for has free copyright over, that's all...). When the process of hand-over comes along, it's thrown out of the door rather than employing someone who understands a bit of VBScript or Javascript (let's not even get into batch files / shell scripts / C code).

    The problem with business IT today is that even the "professionals" don't code. They avoid coding like the plague. I would get that in, say, a stock exchange where one wrong semicolon could cost you dear (but, strangely, in such environments, a lot of stuff is held together with scripts written by people who can code and code-flux is quite high), or on an emergency services desk where you don't want to be debugging the system.

    But I hate the culture of "Well, we'll just rip all this out and replace it with Microsoft Whatever which can't do half of what it does anywhere near as fast or as nicely and costs thousands and thousands of pounds", especially when you then employ idiots to run it. Why? Because almost every job I've taken has been where that's happened, it's collapsed catastrophically, and someone with a brain has said "Let's just get in a geek that knows what he's doing, to get us out of this mess" and then I've ended up staying because they realise my "higher" price than some spotty teenager is actually saving them an AWFUL lot of money elsewhere (I once worked in a job where I saved them my year's salary - directly and provably, not theoretically - in just the first three months, and stayed working there for many years). There's even a cycle you can witness of this - outsource, bring back in-house, outsource. It takes 10-15 years to complete the cycle but it's definitely there in some places.

    In fact, I'm now in discussions with a new employer where exactly that has happened again. They had a geek to run their network, but they found out that he wasn't doing the job (not because he was coding, he just didn't have any backups at all when a server went down). They sacked him. Then they bought in very expensive temporary commercial support to get them out of the hole they found themselves in, who ripped out all his stuff, replaced it with Exchange and all sorts of expensive gear (and way more servers than were strictly required), but they are too expensive and quite inflexible. So now the company are in negotiations to hire me to come in as an "on-site geek" and do all these things that the geek used to do rather than spending money left, right and centre on products not designed for their particular usage.

    I'm sorry, but if you want a simple rule in IT, it's employ someone who can code. They don't need to be a coding star, because then they'd not be interested in a small business, but you have to be able to throw them a problem for which NO solution exists (or is affordable) and have them produce something that will work. It may not be pretty (but what the hell does that matter unless you're selling it on to customers, in which case HIRE A DAMN PROGRAMMER and maybe even a UI designer), but it will get the job done and they will know that the effort they put into making it nice and understandable is more than saved by not having to touch the damn thing for YEARS except for the occasional tweak.

    I've yet to inherit a system that actually has code. And I've left dozens of systems with code clearly marked, visible, documented and simple, and producing some real results and making a real difference - but I don't think in any of them has anything actually happened because the next guy is usually some dolt (which is usually why I leave - because the situation has changed, the management who knew what I did for them have moved on, etc. and they think that hiring a random idiot will be "better") and he just formats the servers back to the default configuration that has nothing customised in it at all - i.e. they could have just installed Windows and Office without the network at all and have done with it.

    Relevant XCKD:

    Relevant non-XKCD:

    P.S. If anyone knows a place hiring a educational network geek at the moment, I'd be interested in a short-term contract to tide me over until my negotiated position becomes available.

    1. DJV Silver badge
      Thumb Up


      So many truths in that post. Wish I could upvote you more than just the once.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Amen, Lee!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Lee D

      If you're serious you should say where you are based at the very least, and also how flexible you are as some employers are smart enough to grab a good one whenever they pop up regardless of their background.

      Upvoted, regardless of the '...hiring a educational...'

    4. Synonymous Howard

      That sounds like my life .. after 35 years (the last 22 actually getting paid for it) of coding / hacking / building / rebuilding / fixing / solving / documenting and generally automating the heck out of all things techie, it stills amazes me how many times people ring up to ask me to help out with something "because they are sure I might know" (and I usual do or 'know how to google it').

      I suppose I get a perverse thrill from solving other people's problems .. especially when the ones I'm supposed to be working on are ... well .. boring. Still as long as there is a WBS code to book to then its paid work 8-]

      I keep all the code I write, you never know when you may need to 'remember' how you did something .. plus all my code comes with a (my) life-time support guarantee.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Sadly, that's my life's story... Too many times to count. Good job on relating it accurately and good luck ;)

    6. 0765794e08

      “P.S. If anyone knows a place hiring a educational network geek at the moment…”

      Try an IT recruitment agency – Messrs Modest & Humble spring to mind.

  5. Richard Jones 1

    First Steps in Programming?

    In the late 1970's we bought a training simulator, for 6 trainees and one supervisor, it could have up to 32 training positions and was all wonderful wizzy computer driven stuff. We bought and installed it early to allow the staff to be trained ready for 'The New System'.

    The only problem was that we spent the entire budget on the beast and then changed the way that the new system worked. Two dozen training programs then taught the wrong thing and needed to be changed with no budget. So Muggins sat down and started to reprogram the beast. It was programmed in assembler but we had no command interpreter. What I could do was direct memory access, up to 6 bytes at a time writing hexadecimal code. Then shoot the slides, then make the training tapes. It saved about 24 times £25,000 so was worth the effort.

    After that I played with Lotus 123. That was fun,

    I wrote macros to write macros as the PC was faster to generate a number of 1000 line columns with up to 200 plus characters per line than it was than type them all out by hand. Using a few other tricks and programs I ran an automated system for the collection of stats, production of analysis and writing letters to go out with the results. All good automated fun and it saved a mountain of work.

    It did catch out one of my staff. He entered the locked off room where the automatic set up slaved away wanting to use Lotus 123 on the control machine. Clutched in his hot little hand was the floppy disk he had worked on for weeks. The system ran his little job and being an automated system then backed up its own production data wiping out his month's work.

    It was tactfully(?) suggested that in future he should only use his own machine or one that he was authorised to use.

  6. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

    Oi gimme

    Stop teasing us!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So many truths in there...

    Ohhhh yes. But the difference is that all those hours spent will immediately pay off because you won't ever, ever have to do it again (unless something's changed, and you must tweak it again).

    The amount of times I've done this, even if it only shaves a few minutes off, is a lot. It's just that those few minutes, multiplied by the amount of people using that instead of the old method, and multiplied by the amount of times it's used instead of the old method just adds up to a *LOT* of man hours saved, even though people just don't realise!

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: So many truths in there...

      Plus you'll probably have learnt something along the way, and if you're canny, you'll have saved your code/scripts/macro ready for re-use when you next come across a similar problem.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: So many truths in there...

        Of course! And saved off-site too so you can take it with you when you move on. ;-)

  8. Alistair

    Harpy Birfday - enjoy sir.

    "What has always struck me is the immense personal satisfaction you can experience when you successfully run your own macro, batch file or script that saves you, ooh, all of three minutes – despite the fact that you spend the best part of the previous three days trying to get it to work. OK, clearly that’s just me, but you get the point."

    Umm no, its not just you. Perhaps its a trait of Alistairs the world over.

    And have a beer on me if you'd like

  9. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    "I remember a daft macro that made column AA extremely wide and jumped to the next row when the cell was full"

    That's so daft I think it deserves some hacker respect.

  10. Squander Two

    Lotus 1-2-3 was awesome.

    Earning a living as an Excel & VBA expert now. Lotus 1-2-3's macro language was miles better twenty years ago than VBA is now.

  11. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

    the first time you wrote a snippet of code to persuade that clunky Commodore PET at school to send a variable string to a dot matrix printer

    Good call. It had no printer, but the school's Commodore PET was indeed the machine I wrote my first snippets of code on.

    Fred Brooks referred to those of us who'd rather spend time creating a program to do our work than actually do our work as "toolsmiths". In The Mythical Man-Month1, he says that every programming team should have a toolsmith, because every team needs custom tools.

    Personally, I have always found Wombats obtuse. And furry.2

    1Not to be confused with the mythical man-moth, featured on SyFy this Saturday.

    2Sunday on SyFy: "Obtuse Wombat vs Mythical Man-Moth".

  12. leeCh

    Mmmm - Roasted Wombat - maybe not

    Wombats aren't exactly small - sorry VMS help - and I wouldn't recommend eating the wombats, not the tastiest.

    Then there's the old joke to offend 'nature loving' Victorians - I just love Koalas, they go great with Bacon.

    Although Koalas ain't that great either.

    Kangaroo (especially the tail) and Emu are both OK. And Croc is definitely good.

    But in the end, when it comes to consuming Australian Fauna, it's gotta be Rainbow Lorikeets - although you will need quite a few because there's not much meat on the cheeky little things.

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