Data, the hard way

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Pilot fish gets a new assignment: responsibility for a mainframe application that prints a monthly report listing all the employees who use the company's tuition-reimbursement program.

"The problem we had that made it a recurring programming problem was that, at some point, someone had decided to send the raw data to an outside vendor, which accumulated it and created a data tape that was then sent back to us to be used to print the monthly report," says fish.

"The outside vendor hired a series of temps to do the actual data entry -- all of them with zero experience on this particular job."

That means each month fish has to take the tape from the outside vendor and copy the data into a raw "dump" format to discover just how that month's temp has decided to format the data.

Once he has mapped out the format, fish then modifies a data-copying utility so it can convert the tape's data into a format the report program can understand.

And it seems like every month's new temp manages to try something different: data separated by commas, separated by spaces, not separated at all, aligned, unaligned, with column headers, with no columns, with tapes labeled or with no labels.

Finally one month the temp turns out to be someone who has no computer data entry experience at all -- so she emails the data in a Word document. Fish converts it into a nicely aligned text file, but he still has a bigger problem: how to get it from Windows into the mainframe.

"After a few hours of fiddling, I was able to persuade the system operator to set me up to receive an FTP file into my mainframe directory, then copy that to a tape that could be mounted in the data center," fish says.

"Shortly after that, management finally decided to transfer the task of compiling that data to a company employee, so the same person would do the job each month and we wouldn't have to kludge ways around system security."

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