Class project: Crash the federal data center

Disaster turns into discovery as one techie's homework assignment wreaks havoc on a government mainframe

Every generation thinks it's invented the wheel -- or the computer or the killer app. But technology in one form or another has been around for a long time, along with tech problems, surprises, and suspicion of foul play. In fact, years ago I inadvertently played a role in a system crash that at first put me under suspicion, then led to a bigger discovery that benefited the manufacturer as well as customers.

This story goes back to the mid-1970s when I was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy working in computer support for a division of the Defense Communications Agency. Occasionally, my job required a small amount of assembly-level coding. I already had some basic skills in that area, but my boss decided I should attend a two-week advanced assembly-level language class.

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The class was in the nearby Washington, D.C., area. For our class "projects," we used a Honeywell mainframe owned and managed by the U.S. Customs Department. Class members were allowed to use time-sharing and could submit batch jobs via punched cards.

I liked this arrangement because we used Honeywell mainframes for several critical and highly classified applications at the Defense Communications Agency. I could do some of the class projects from my office, then turn them in when I got to class.

For one class assignment at the end of the first week, I did my work back in my office over the weekend, but I ran into a small snag. I had heard, and soon confirmed, that the collating sequence for the military version of the Honeywell GCOS operating system was slightly different than the civilian version used by the Customs Department's system. But there was a utility program that could produce a compressed version of the card deck of my code that could then be uncompressed on the Customs Department's computer, so I could then show my work to the instructor.

The first part worked, and I dropped off the card deck the next Monday before class, expecting to pick up my output the next day to turn it in to the instructor. Was I in for a surprise!

When I came in on Tuesday, I couldn't find my card deck among the others. Worried that my class project was lost and I'd have to redo it, I asked the operations person on duty if he knew where my output might be. He asked me who I was, and I told him. He got a strange look on his face and said, "Ohhhh. My manager wants to see you right away."

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