In software development, there are three kinds of problems: small, big and subtle. The small ones are usually fairly simple to track down; a misspelled label, a math error, etc. The large ones usually take longer to find; a race condition that you just can't reproduce, an external system randomly feeding you garbage, and so forth.

Internet word cloud

The subtle problems are an entirely different beast. It can be as simple as somebody entering 4321 instead of 432l (432L), or similar with 'i', 'l', '1', '0' and 'O'. It can be an interchanged comma and period. It can be something more complex, such as an unsupported third party library that throws back errors for undefined conditions, but randomly provides so little information as to be useful to neither user nor developer.

Brujo B encountered such a beast back in 2003 in a sub-equatorial bank that had been especially fond of VB6. This bank had tried to implement standards. In particular, they wanted all of their error messages to appear consistently for their users. To this end, they put a great deal of time and effort into building a library to display error messages in a consistent format. Specifically:


An example error message might be:

  File Not Found - 127 / File 'your.file' could not be found / FileImporter

Unfortunately, the designers of this routine could not compensate for all of the third party tools and libraries that did NOT set some/most/all of those variables. This led to interesting presentations of errors to both users and developers:

  - 34 / Network Connection Lost /
  Unauthorized - 401 //

Crystal Reports was particularly unhelpful, in that it refused to populate any field from which error details could be obtained, leading to the completely unhelpful:


...which could only be interpreted as Something really bad happened, but we don't know what that is and you have no way to figure that out. It didn't matter what Brujo and peers did. Everything that they tried to cajole Crystal Reports into giving context information failed to varying degrees; they could only patch specific instances of errors; but the Ever-Useless™ -0// error kept popping up to bite them in the arse.

After way too much time trying to slay the beast, they gave up, accepted it as one of their own and tried their best to find alternate ways of figuring out what the problems were.

Several years after moving on to saner pastures, Brujo returned to visit old friends. On the wall they had added a cool painting with many words that "describe the company culture". Layered in were management approved words, like "Trust" and "Loyalty". Some were more specific in-jokes, names of former employees, or references to big achievements the organization had made.

One of them was -0//

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