Testing Times

continuingAfter the AES show we were still broke,so I found a job working for a consulting firm called Maxim Group. They rented me to Sylvan Leaning Systems, who had moved their corporate HQ to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

At Sylvan I was assigned Aileen Barry’s new Internet Team. At our first team meeting (which she held in a room with no chairs to make sure we kept it short!), she gave us our assignments. “Matt,” she said, “I want you to develop the ASP pages for the site. “That’s great,” I answered cheerfully. “I just have one question: what are ASP pages?” (I had apparently missed the announcement of ASP’s release the prior year).

ASP code

ASP code

As I soon discovered, ASP pages were basically BASIC programs that created web pages on-the-fly. In other words, when you request an ASP page, the program runs and creates the HTML that your browser receives. Since the HTML you see does not even exist until the ASP program creates it, it is not static HTML — it is dynamic: ┬áit can look different and say different things every time you load it. ASP and its competitors such as ColdFusion and PHP are the workhorses of most websites. Did you just log into a website? Then a script file read your name and password, then accessed a database to see if you are a member. Probably a .ASPX, .CFM, or .PHP program did the work of checking your password in the database and then creating the HTML for the welcome page to send to you.

I was very happy working on those ASP pages. And I was proud of what the team managed to accomplish, because I saw it filled a real need. At the time, Sylvan Prometric was delivering like 200 tests in 2000 centers in 140 countries, and all of the registration for testing appointments was done by the Call Center where a hundred or more unsung minions manned the telephones and made appointments for people in real time, one at a time. Keeping their phones warm.

Clearly, automation could reduce this pain. While others worked on the database connection and the Java applet to be the database client, I created the sequence of ASP pages that extracted information from test candidates via HTML form submissions. Given a variety of variables such as the type of test and zip code a list of testing locations can be selected. Once the location and date are selected, data can be retrieved regarding available testing slots. An available open testing position can be booked and entered into the database; you can book an hour in a particular testing cubicle for a particular test just as you can book seat 23A on a flight from Jacksonville to Miami.

Not everyone was ready for such power-to-the-people help-yourself front end design. When we got the system up and running, Marketing was caught flatfooted and was so disturbed that they came into the office and turned the server off. When we came in early the next morning, we found the server off, so we just turned it back on again, because the website and server belonged to our team and our development group, not to Marketing. It was the beginning of a little friction between the Internet Team and Marketing.

On my part, I learned to hate MS FrontPage, even though I never used it. You see the Marketing department people used FrontPage, and when they heard that we had a working website representing the Sylvan empire for test registration, they felt, naturally, that any media that presented Sylvan to the general public was their business and they wanted a say in how it looked. Which was fine by me; I am NOT a graphic artist and my focus is always on making pages that function; I welcome assistance in making them visually pleasing.

So we sent them the source code for the pages, which they modified using FrontPage. And when I got the modified code back from them…it no longer worked! The early version of FrontPage they were using had let them move test and graphics around on the page…but it mangled or deleted my ACTIONs for the buttons and messed with the JavaScript embedded in the ASP pages. In other words, the pages now looked better, sure, but they were now useless until I fixed the damage FrontPage had wreaked on my code. So I fixed it, but I have to admit that I never trusted FrontPage again.

Sylvan seemed to be satisfied with my efforts as part of the team. Before too long they offered to buy me out from Maxim Group and give me a raise. Which was good, but there was trouble in paradise. The powers in Sylvan for some strange reason were not as pleased with our team leader. Eventually Aileen decided to leave and one of my fellow contractors, David Clayton was raised to team leader. In a way it was funny, because Sylvan had told me that they wanted me as an employee — they had decided that it was better to have in-house employees rather than so many contract programmers. So I changed from contractor to Sylvan employee…but now the boss of the Internet Team was a contractor! David was smart enough to keep his options open.

continuingIt was good to be employed and solvent. But the house I lived in was full of hypercube speakers collecting dust. And now the Patent was expiring. But the truth has no expiration date…and a message must be delivered.
–MRK

Next: The Rise and Fall of Worldnetpress

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