T-SQL Tuesday 107 – Viral Demo

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For this month’s T-SQL Tuesday. Jeff Mlakar invites to talk about “a project you worked on or were impacted by that went horribly wrong”:

https://www.mlakartechtalk.com/t-sql-tuesday-107-invitation-death-march/

I’m not sure the story I’m about to share is exactly what Jeff was looking for, but when you say failed project, this one usually comes to mind.

This is from one of my first roles as a developer, back when I was writing VB code and before I got into SQL Server. This was even before .NET. At the time I was working for an engineering company that dabbled in a few pieces of very specific software for the industry. I’d taken the job so I could develop my coding skills by working with a proper software development team. Only to discover when I started, that I was the development team – the others had left.

So… I worked on this piece of software. It was one of those productivity tools that had a very specific use in a very specific type of project. There was nothing else that did what it did in Windows. Without it you were required to do a lot of hand-cranked analysis using Fortran, or if you were really unfortunate, paper and a pencil. The licences sold for big bucks per seat – but there were only about 20 customers worldwide for whom it might be useful.

I’d been working on a shiny new version. As part of that, I was tasked with creating a demo that we could send to all those clients. The main thing was that it had to have full functionality but be limited to working with a sample dataset. The company were currently in litigation with one client who they’d given a copy for eval, but who’d then used it for completing a big piece of work within a six figure contract. They didn’t want a repeat of that.

My boss wanted to create an auto-run menu for the CD – we’d only just moved over to CDs from having to create 10 floppy disks for each install. An auto-run was the latest and greatest pinnacle of slickness. I gave him a few lessons in creating forms and buttons in VB and off he went.

My boss burnt the CDs one Friday, including his fancy menu executable. He packaged them up with the relevant sales brochures and sent them out. He then went off on holiday for a fortnight.

I came in on the Monday morning to an urgent email from one of our senior managers. Apparently one of the recipients of the CD was reporting that they had put it in a desktop and that it had installed a virus on their system. Testing verified that they were correct. The auto-run menu program did indeed have a fairly nasty virus hiding in the executable, and because it was in the auto-run, all they needed to do to get infected was put the CD in their drive.

Basically, my boss used to use his work PC for downloading hacked “warez” from happyhippo.com. His work desktop had become badly infected and that had spread to the executable he worked on and compiled.  As he wasn’t around to own the issue, a colleague and myself had the fun of calling all the people we’d sent the demo to, asking them if they’d put the CD in any of their computers. If they hadn’t we told them to destroy it. If they had, then we had to talk them through the lengthy process to get rid of the virus.

As a marketing exercise this wasn’t a stunning success.

I often tell friends in the software business this story as a consolation when they feel responsible for some mess up. “Well, at least you didn’t send a virus infected demo to your entire prospective customer base like my old boss did”

I left that company not longer after.

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