– Ben Martens

You Can’t Screw It Up

payrollchecksThe other day at work we were talking about our biggest mistakes in a work environment. It reminded me of an epic failure at my first computer job…

My Dad was a contracter and his boss (the owner) got me a job during high school at a company that processes payroll for thousands of companies across the United States. I worked in the computer room processing the jobs. We had big laser printers that would print 150 checks per minute and it kept you pretty busy just feeding it paper, not to mention pulling 12 sheets out of it whenever it jammed or pouring a gallon of toner into it. it took a while to get the hang of it, but after a while it was fairly mechanical. I enjoyed the job though because the people were fun and sometimes I’d flip through the checks and hold one worth a million dollars. If I had changed my name to “Illinois Department of Revenue”, do you think I could have cashed it?

When I started learning the old mainframe system that ran the whole operation, I specifically remember hearing them say “Don’t worry, you can’t really screw anything up.” Challenge accepted.

The computer system had a bunch of “partitions” and each one could run an individual payroll job. One of our main tasks was to look at all the incoming requests and figure out how to organize them to get maximum throughput through the system. If I remember correctly, there was a background partition and then eight job partitions. The background partition was how you interacted with the system and submitted jobs to the either other partitions. When things went wrong with a job, you’d pause a partition by typing “P F3” where 3 is the number of the partition running the job.

On some very busy days, we’d squeeze a little more juice out of the system by running jobs in the background partition. It was a little risky because it would block user interactions while it was running, but if you had a really quick, high priority job to get through, it wasn’t a huge deal.

It was one of those busy days and I had submitted a job to the background partition. There was a mistake so to stop it from getting worse, I quickly typed “P BG”. Those characters will always be burned into my brain because basically it felt like when I hit Enter, the entire building ground to a halt. I had just paused the partition that the computer was using to listen to input from the users. So effectively the computer was happily chugging along with it’s ears plugged and there was no way to tell it to start listening again because it wasn’t listening to us.


We all just kind of stared at each other with this “uh oh” look on our faces. People around the building started coming to the window of the computer room with quizzical looks on their faces. The president and the mainframe guru came storming in. I made myself tiny in the corner. It was a doozy of a problem. They were on the phone with IBM for THREE HOURS trying to figure out how to fix it. I still don’t know what they did but eventually it came back online and somehow I got a pass because I was the stupid intern.

So please, don’t tell me that I can’t do anything bad that you haven’t done before. I have a knack for it. Maybe that’s why I ended up geting a job as a tester for 8 years.