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Coding Horror Stories: Tales From the Java Crypt

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Three hundred and sixty four days of the year, we at Skillcrush are in the business of helping people fight their tech fears, learn the tech skills needed to make serious career change, and then navigate their new found tech life, but today is Halloween—that annual celebration of all things spooky, scary, and horrifying—so we decided to pull back the curtain on some of the terrors lurking in the digital realm. From ghostly white screens of death to developers lost in an endless labyrinth of horror, there are enough coding nightmares here to curdle even the most callous of blood—but don’t despair! There’s no tech terror so towering that it can’t be outwitted with skill and determination…or is there? Read on to find out.

When Death Looks You in the Face

In tech, a staging environment is the final frontier for testing a product (apps, software, etc.) before production is deployed. For Web Designer Daniel Davidson, the process of moving from staging environment to production is always tinged with a certain amount of panic—even under the best of circumstances. “Did I do everything right?” Davidson wonders as he feels doubt creeping across his skin. “If not, is production backed up properly? Is my rollback plan [an operation for returning data to a previous state] airtight?”

And—in the midst of these doubts—Davidson says there’s always the inevitability that something new and unforeseen will go wrong, that unexpected moment when—despite your preparations—Davidson says, “you just get hammered.”

The hammer did indeed drop on our poor friend during one fateful production cycle. Davidson had been working on a website redesign for months. He’d overhauled everything—site architecture (the way the website is laid out to meet business and client needs), messaging (the method for communicating with a website’s users), content (the text, visual, and/or auditory components that make up a website), third-party tool integrations (outside apps or software running on a website)—the whole thing, top to bottom. Davidson was also migrating this doomed site to a new host. Normally, he says, that wouldn’t be an issue…but this was no normal migration.

“I thought I had all my ducks in a row,” Davidson recounts. “Our staging environment was with the new host and the site was perfect. All we had left to do was push [it live].”

And so, Davidson pushed. Everything looked great. And then he switched the DNS (the settings that control which host’s servers a website’s name directs to), refreshed the site…and was greeted with the death stare of a blank, white screen.

Another refresh was met with more deathly white. Davidson felt the blood drain from his face.

Refresh! White screen! Re-push, refresh!

But still the screen was white.

“I pulled in other developers, I got the new hosting’s support on the phone immediately. We all dove in, but none of us could figure it out.” Davidson says.

The helpless team sat on a white screen for nearly three hours before one of the support technicians noticed something—a redundant redirect line (a line of code used to make a web page available from more than one URL address) in the .htaccess file (a configuration file used on certain web servers).

It seems the DNS and the previous host had a unique setup that required this .htaccess line. The new hosting environment, however, was tightly managed, which made the .htaccess line unnecessary, causing this devilish disruption.

Davidson and his team deleted those few short characters, and just like that they were up and running, the crisis averted. Time has since has moved on and Davidson’s level of anxiety when pushing to production has settled back down to normal, but he doesn’t think it’ll ever go away entirely. Things may seem calm now, but deep down he knows there’s another line of code in his future, unseen and unknown, waiting to wind its tendrils into a production cycle that will send him descending into panic once again.

Flying Too Close to the Sun

While things turned out fine for Davidson (for now), can the same be said for Sean Spielberg, CEO at ZephVR? Spielberg is the co-creator of a product that adds realistic wind to virtual reality. “When you fly, fall, or accelerate—or when there’s wind in a game,” says Spielberg, “you’ll actually feel it.”

Sounds positively charming, doesn’t it? That is…unless something were to go wrong.

Last July, Spielberg and his cofounder applied to an incubator. They flew to LA to interview and demo their tech, and brought two prototypes with them so they had a backup in case anything broke during the trip. The night before the interview, Spielberg did a trial run to make sure everything was ready to go, but the first prototype wasn’t working.

“Our first thought was ‘No fear,’” Spielberg says. “That’s exactly why we brought a backup.” However, Spielberg’s co-founder set up the second prototype only to find that it wasn’t working either.

Terror set in and a series of panicked attempts at fixes ensued, as Spielberg and his partner found themselves hopelessly turning the prototypes on and off, and even researching electronics stores that would open early enough for them to build a new prototype from scratch. It was as the clock struck 2:00 a.m. that—in the midst of delirium—the two realized that they’d each separately plugged the cables for their prototypes into the wrong jacks. Both units in fact worked just fine and they ended up having a stellar interview and being accepted into the incubator. Still, one can’t help but wonder what kind of sinister spirit may have been at work, causing Spielberg and his co-founder to each make the same mistake at the same time. For now the answer to that question lurks in the supernatural, hidden from our purview.

The Ghost of London

It seems that an eerie presence is all-too-common for entrepreneurs: Lori Cheek, Founder and CEO at Cheekd, encountered poltergeists of her own just as her business had reached an important milestone. Seven years ago, Cheek’s dating business was covered in The New York Times—a portent of good things to come. Or so it seemed.

With the press coverage coverage came a sudden influx of site traffic from all over the world, which eventually caused the site to crash—a mild nightmare in itself. The site soon came back to life, giving the Cheekd team a moment of relief. They couldn’t have know then what was coming.

As the site kicked back into gear, Cheek found herself inundated with orders—her company’s business model at the time was based on a recurring subscription model. It was the biggest day in the history of Cheekd—a time for joyous celebration, indeed, but fate was not done toying with her. As the orders poured in, one after another, Cheek soon discovered that her web developer—based in London—had managed to set the button that captured their user’s credit card information to “off.” This meant Cheek and her team were unable to enroll these customers into their recurring subscription.

“We lost nearly $30,000 from this simple mistake,” Cheek says. “I joke now that our London-based web developer is lucky he didn’t live in America at the time.” Indeed, one wonders if he’d have had his own grim fate to contend with. As it stands, Cheek immediately hired a new developer who fixed the button. But somewhere—shrouded in the London fog—Cheek’s original developer may still be lurking, waiting to ensnare his next victim.

The Malevolent Spirit of Unfortunate Development

Consider the case of Bryan Clayton, CEO at GreenPal. Clayton’s company launched their first mobile app in the summer of 2013, and—when they did—they outsourced the app to an outside contractor. At first, things moved along smoothly, until, two weeks into the project, Clayton came to the horrifying realization that his team had made a dire mistake.

The soul contracted to develop Clayton’s app was indeed very intelligent…perhaps too much so for his own good. This contractor had a tendency to overanalyze and outthink problems past the point of practical usefulness. As a result, he would concoct overly complex technological solutions in an effort to satisfy his own labyrinthine intellectual curiosities, with no regard to solving problems for customers—thus running a chilling tingle down the spine of GreenPal’s business. The contractor’s obsession with puzzles finally reached a crescendo—and signaled the end of a productive relationship with Clayton—during one fateful meeting when Clayton attempted to talk to the contractor about changes to the app’s user interface while the contractor feverishly fiddled with a Rubik’s Cube. Try as he might, Clayton could not capture the attention of the bewitched developer, only watch in horror, as the man toyed frantically with the cube.

Thinking back on this chilling encounter, Clayton advises other tech professionals to work with a user experience designer as a first step, creating a prototype for your app or other products, before engaging a contracted developer to build it. That way there will be a solid, agreed upon foundation to work from—one that will be sure to fend off the lurking distraction of maddening puzzles.

Yes, on this one day of the year, when the barrier between the tech world and the spirit world is at it’s thinnest, we offer you these wretched tales of coding gore. Tomorrow—in the light of day—they’ll be a distant memory, as we once again usher you toward the tech jobs of your dreams. But until then, bask in the cold glow of these tech nightmares, and warm yourself with the thought that each of these poor souls survived to tell their tales!

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