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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

It worked only a moment ago!

Thursday was D-Day for my database application. After sweating and testing for weeks, I felt ready to present the fruits of my labour to the general public, in this case my colleagues in Niger. Let me first tell you what it was supposed to do. We work with a lot of African organisations that we help to get organised, to analyse problems, to define their own solutions and to realise their objectives. Don’t I sound like a real consultant there? In understandable terms, this means that people in Africa are not always sitting helplessly in the desert waiting for dashing young aid workers to give them water and bread. There are people in developing countries that know what’s wrong and that want to do something about it. They just don’t know very well how to get organised and how to get things done. That is where we come in, we help them get organised. We don’t tell them what to do (Build schools! Establish more hospitals! Move over, let me do that!) Instead, we help them looking at themselves and at their situation and come up with their own solutions. This is called capacity-building and empowerment, it means that they are aware that they can change things themselves and that they know how to do it.

You need a very close follow-up of each organisation to do any good, and you need to understand the local context it is working in to understand what it’s doing and where it is going. So when you work with close to one hundred organisations, it’s becoming difficult to see where they all are going and how they are doing. This is where my nifty new database comes into place.

So after weeks of work, the moment was there to present version 1.1 of my application. And then I did a ‘Bill Gates’.

Those of you who remember the official presentation of Windows XP will know what I mean. There he was, the giant big boss of Microsoft, to present his brand-new operating system. So much more stable than Windows 9x, because it was based on Windows NT. And blah blah blah blah! And more blah blah blah! And now we start up the system! And then the bloody system froze, in front of all these highbrows of the software and hardware industry. In front of all the members of the specialised computer magazines. In front of all the members of the general press, the newspapers, the magazines, the television stations. In front of the whole world! Poor Bill.

On Thursday, I wanted to feed the first real data into the database with one or two colleagues. Instead, the director of our partner organisation decided to make it a big show, with everyone present and my laptop linked to the projector. At first, things went well. We were able to identify the team and to define the different types of organisations. Then we proceeded to define the indicators to measure our progress. And then a little mistake occurred.

No problem, fixed on the spot. And then there was another. And then I noticed that significant parts of the navigation and the scoring system didn’t work anymore. And then there were some more errors. And there was whining and wailing and grinding of teeth while I furiously tried to deal with the most serious of problems. Finally, in front of all those present, I had to admit defeat and ask them to continue later while I solved the problem. By my misery didn’t end there.

There was a power cut, just to annoy me. I was able to toil on thanks to the fully charged battery of my laptop, but after an hour and a half or so the battery was empty and the power cut still wasn’t solved. Well, it was lunch time anyway, and lo and behold, just after lunch the power switched back on. I fired up the laptop again, and then MS Access, but it didn’t want to start. That was the second time since the beginning of my mission, and I knew the only remedy was to reinstall everything, ripping register values manually from the Windows registry. Luckily I had the installation CD with me!

But this time, Access still refused to launch. I checked the other computers, but they all had old versions of Access and I hadn’t saved my application as an Access 2000 file yet, so I was blocked. Then, by divine intervention, my laptop gave up it’s resistance and I got Access to work again. Later that afternoon, we were able to continue and in the evening I worked frantically to get everything in working order again. Just before my departure the next day, everything was fine and dandy and the team was happily feeding data into the database. I haven’t gotten any complaints yet, so as far as I know it is still working. Or else it exploded in their faces, killing everyone on the spot. Both scenarios are fine with me, as long as I don’t get any alarming e-mails.

So there you go. For those who have been doing some programming, it’s a classical case of ‘it worked only a moment ago’. No matter how much you test, your application WILL fail in front of everyone once you give a demonstration. And changing only the tinniest of lines of code during that demonstration will make everything fall apart, even when you just add a line of commentary.

Those of you that are not interested in programming will have had an interesting introduction in the wonderful world of application writing. Or you’re swinging on the end of a rope with the other end tied to your chandelier because you weren’t capable to cope with the immense boredom of this post.

Both scenarios are fine with me, as long as I don’t get any alarming e-mails.

Posted by Bart at 9:13 PM
Categories: ICT - Inevitable Computer Troubles

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