There really IS such a thing as too much choice

It's 1985, and this programmer pilot fish is asked to work on a pioneering banking software project -- one that uses PCs.

"The bank's own staff was highly skeptical about the ability of networked microcomputers to do the job of the bank's old mainframe system," says fish. "To appease their apprehensions about the system's ability to produce reports in a timely manner, we configured high-speed line printers onto a network of BTOS workstations."

Fish's job is writing the program to generate customers' monthly statements -- but he has to do it with very insufficient information.

Case in point: He can't get a straight answer about how many options to provide -- for example, whether inactive accounts should be suppressed, whether transaction detail should be included, or whether low checking-account balances should be flagged.

As a result, he ends up with a form containing about 50 check boxes for various options, and tells the team to delete the ones that aren't necessary.

They keep them all.

"Then came the demo," fish says. "The bank staff and the manager of the branch that was to be the guinea pig all turned up, and expectantly started typing in commands -- BTOS had a beautiful, advanced GUI forms system -- and up came the statement printing selection screen."

Fish is at the back of the room, but he can still clearly hear the demo leader say, "No problem, select absolutely anything you want" to the clearly clueless bankers.

"What's this last option that asks if it's raining outside?" says one banker, looking baffled.

Fish winces -- that's check box 50, one of the whimsical options he added to fill out the bottom of the screen. Fish expected the demo leader to replace them with real filter criteria. Somehow that never happened with the final question.

Demo leader gives fish an incinerating glare across the full length of the room, and tells the banker the option is to control humidity in the printer paper.

Then the demo leader firmly presses the "proceed" button. The banker's options: print all statements in account number order -- including nonexistent accounts.

"Everybody watched in awe as the 6,000-lines-per-minute printer printed ten thousand blank pages at thirty pages per second on continuous stationery," says fish. "The cover being open, the paper sailed clear across the 40-foot computer room in a whooshing, rustling arc and bounced off the opposite wall, to collapse in a huge pyramid on the floor.

"The bank canceled the project. The demo leader quit. And I was quietly sent to our office in England for a nice vacation -- in the dead of winter."

Got a story? Choose Sharky. Send me your true tale of IT life at sharky@computerworld.com. You'll snag a snazzy Shark shirt if I use it. Add your comments below, and read some great old tales in the Sharkives.

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