A programmer's heaven
The anti-virus community, represented by Symantec and Sophos, recently reported that they were finding new viruses at an increasing rate. Sophos said 1998 was the worst year ever for major new threats. Symantec said its treatment centre for suspect files was five times as busy in December 1998 than it had been a year earlier.
There is something distinctly fin de siecle about the image this conjures up. The IT community, locked in internal battle with the Millennium Bug, is at the same time besieged by exotic hordes of viruses clamouring at the walls. It suggests decay and corruption and a sense of things irrevocably winding down.
The picture has a couple of minor flaws. The Millennium Bug is not a bug at all but a convenient shorthand for a mistake perpetuated over several decades. And computer viruses do not have an independent existence. They require the hand of a deus ex machina, a fallen angel in this case.
Both features of modern IT systems, in other words, are caused by programmers.
They also demand the intervention of programmers in the search for a defence.
I used to think commercial programming in high-level languages was rather a dull job. Once you'd written search, update and print routines singly and in combination, there didn't seem to be much to be done that was new or challenging. I understand now that my view was hopelessly myopic. On one level, it was the attitude of a person who would use the astonishing technology of the Internet just to send memos by Email. On another level, it overlooked the economic miracle that programming was capable of performing.
Not a macroeconomic miracle, though. It is a miracle on a personal level.
It lies in the possibility that most programming effort guarantees work for programmers in the future. A capable programmer should never be unemployed as things stand at the moment. There can't be many lines of work of which that could be said.
The millennium fiasco is the most obvious example, but it is far from being the only one. What is coded today will need attention tomorrow - for errors to be corrected, features to be upgraded, data formats to be altered, you name it. The trend in IT over the years has been to make programming easier and hence to increase the pool of talent to draw on, but there is still a shortage. Program generators, report generators, fourth generation languages, macros and scripting routines have all failed to solve the problem. Perhaps the drive to make computers easier to use has made them harder to program adequately. Either way, programming is responsible for ease-of-use and generates its own demand here as elsewhere.
This self-seeding aspect of programming has a darker side. Where viruses are concerned it becomes an epic struggle between Good and Evil. Evil is hardly likely to throw in the towel or see the error of its ways, so Good - in the shape of Sophos, Symantec and their like - must be constantly on its guard.
The price of an overnight batch run is eternal vigilance. It's a battle of wits between programmers, and the chances are that the personalities on opposite sides are not too different. They certainly have this in common: between them, they are creating employment for the next generation.
None of which will be much comfort for managers who have recruitment problems and who wonder, when the euro and 2000 give them time to draw breath, if their security is tight enough.
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