Dirty IT job No. 5: Orphaned code debugger
Programming is challenging work. Working on another developer's code adds yet one more level of complexity. But cleaning up after someone else's programming mess with nothing other than their badly written code as your guide? That's when things get really dirty.
Joe Emison is vice president of research and development for BuildFax, which maintains contruction records for more than 70 million U.S. buildings. But seven years ago he did some freelance programmer work for a pair of Web developers who insisted on using ClickCartPro, a shopping cart app written in Perl.
ClickCartPro was a wet hot mess, says Emison. Among its flaws, the code had no indentation, no comments, and no documentation, which means he had to hunt for subroutines and guess at what the original coders had in mind. It used only global variables, so changing the values in one place changed it everywhere else that variable appeared. It made extensive use of
eval(), which hides error messages from end-users but also from developers, making it nearly impossible to locate the source of a failure. And the code was more than 100,000 lines long.
"I had to go line by line in a text editor trying to figure out where things failed and why," he says. "I kept saying to the developers, 'This program is crap; stop using it.' But they had invested a lot of time in customizing it, and they had a lot of legacy customers who were unwilling to pay for a new cart."
Emison says this kind of dirty job is something many programmers encounter, especially when dealing with Web code written at the turn of the last century. Still, it could be worse.
"You couldn't pay me enough money to work on vBulletin," he says. "Whoever created that code is some crazy whacked-out psycho."
The dirtiest part of this job? Unless you're being paid big bucks, there's little incentive to do things the right way -- which means leaving a mess for someone else.
"If you're dealing with awful code and you're just being paid to fix one thing or add one feature, you don't have much reason to use any kind of good practices in your own edits or additions," he says. "It's a bit like stopping at a gas station with a filthy restroom. You're not going to spend too much time cleaning the toilet. You just want to get in, do your business, and get out as quickly as possible."
There are now more than 550 million websites on topics ranging from apiphobia (fear of bees) to zygomycosis (fungal infections), with everything in between. Someone has to generate copy for all of those sites, no matter how gross it gets.
One of those people is Kari DePhillips, owner of The Content Factory, an online PR and social media marketing firm that offers ghostwriting services for a variety of sites. It's not a job for the squeamish.
"We frequently get weird writing projects, but the weirdest had to be when we were asked to create an entire website about vaginal discharge monitors," she says. "Pregnant women wear them to tell if they're leaking amniotic fluid. On the surface, it may seem as though we were just writing about different types of hoo-ha leakage, but what we were really doing was saving lives. I mean, somebody has to do it."