Gerald M. Weinberg's Favorite Bug

My favorite bug is also my first bug. It's my favorite because it started me on the road to learning the most important things about programming and testing.

It was the first commercial program I had ever written--a pipeline network analyzer for municipal water systems. (note 1) Essentially, it solved systems of non-linear algebraic equations, by iteration.

It passed all my prepared tests (test first, back in 1956), so we brought in civil engineers with data from a city near San Francisco (not San Jose, which barely existed back then). We set up and started to run the first set of data. Then we waited while the IBM 650 ground away. Thirty minutes--surpassing my largest test case. One hour--surpassing my wildest imagination. Two hours--making me suspect the program was in a closed loop.

I got up from the table where we'd been checking the input data. I was about to stop the machine and find out where the program had gone wrong, but before I reached the machine, it began to punch cards. (We had no on-line printing in those days.) The cards contained the solution, exactly according to spec.

So, what was the bug? There was nothing wrong with the computation, but the design of the human interface was bad, bad, bad. I had not estimated the performance characteristics as the number of equations grew. I had not accounted for human patience (or impatience) and tolerance (or intolerance) for uncertainty. The case that "looped" was the smallest of our cases. The largest would have run something like twenty hours.

I fixed the bug by having the program punch out a "progress card" after every complete iteration. The card contained a set of numbers that characterized the convergence so far. From the sequence of cards, we could observe the rate of convergence and decide if we wanted the program to continue. If we wanted to stop, we could set a switch on the console and force the program to punch out the full set of values so far--in the input format, so we could resume later, if we wished. (Having no breakpoint in a program that could run twenty hours was another design bug.)

After than experience, I've never failed to consider

  1. the relationship between a program and its user.
  2. the potential performance characteristics of the program.
  3. the possibility that an error might occur (hardware or software or human) that could cost us thousands of dollars of wasted computer and human time.
  4. that I ought to be more humble about my programming skills. Before that, I had never made an error in one of perhaps ten small programs I had written, and I thought I was pretty terrific. This humiliating experience made me appreciative of a good testing process. (We didn't have "testers" in those days. We didn't even have "programmers." My title was "Applied Science Representative.")

This was the beginning of a long career of learning about programmers, programming, and testing. Many of those learnings are captured in my book, Perfect Software and Other Illusions About Testing (note 2)

Well, it wasn't my last bug, but it was first, and my best.

(note 1) Weinberg, Gerald M., and Lyle N. Hoag. "Pipeline Network Analysis by Electronic Digital Computer." Journal of the American Water Works Association 49, no. 5 (1957).

(note 2) Perfect Software (And Other Illusions About Testing)


-- Gerald M. Weinberg



Do you have a bug whose story you love to tell? Let me know!