Saturday, December 28, 2013

The joys of being a systems programmer

From James Mickens, dubbed 'the funniest man in Microsoft Research', which you might think is a backhanded compliment, but is actually just a compliment. The Night Watch:
Perhaps the worst thing about being a systems person is that other, non-systems people think that they understand the daily tragedies that compose your life. For example, a few weeks ago, I was debugging a new network file system that my research group created. The bug was inside a kernel-mode component, so my machines were crashing in spectacular and vindictive ways. After a few days of manually rebooting servers, I had transformed into a shambling, broken man, kind of like a computer scientist version of Saddam Hussein when he was pulled from his bunker, all scraggly beard and dead eyes and florid, nonsensical ramblings about semi-imagined enemies. As I paced the hallways, muttering Nixonian rants about my code, one of my colleagues from the HCI group asked me what my problem was. I described the bug, which involved concurrent threads and corrupted state and asynchronous message delivery across multiple machines, and my coworker said, “Yeah, that sounds bad. Have you checked the log files for errors?” I said, “Indeed, I would do that if I hadn’t broken every component that a logging system needs to log data. I have a network file system, and I have broken the network, and I have broken the file system, and my machines crash when I make eye contact with them. I HAVE NO TOOLS BECAUSE I’VE DESTROYED MY TOOLS WITH MY TOOLS. My only logging option is to hire monks to transcribe the subjective experience of watching my machines die as I weep tears of blood.” My co-worker, in an earnest attempt to sympathize, recounted one of his personal debugging stories, a story that essentially involved an addition operation that had been mistakenly replaced with a multiplication operation. I listened to this story, and I said, “Look, I get it. Multiplication is not addition. This has been known for years. However, multiplication and addition are at least related. Multiplication is like addition, but with more addition. Multiplication is a grown-up pterodactyl, and addition is a baby pterodactyl. Thus, in your debugging story, your code is wayward, but it basically has the right idea. In contrast, there is no family-friendly GRE analogy that relates what my code should do, and what it is actually doing. I had the modest goal of translating a file read into a network operation, and now my machines have tuberculosis and orifice containment issues. Do you see the difference between our lives? When you asked a girl to the prom, you discovered that her father was a cop. When I asked a girl to the prom, I DISCOVERED THAT HER FATHER WAS STALIN.”
Gold, gold, gold. Read the whole thing.

And when you're done, read the rest of them too.

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