Some Life Lessons from VAX/VMS

HP announced back in June that end-of-support for OpenVMS will be 2020.  I've been compiling this blog post since then.  I have very fond memories of VAX/VMS... I used one to store my pillow for two years.  Funny story.  I learned a lot of life lessons from VMS.  Originally this was one big 'ol blog post but I decided to break it up so the post wasn't so long.  These posts are just a collection of funny VAX/VMS stories from my youth.    I really believe that I learned the most in my career from my few years working on VMS.  

Life Lesson Number 1: you need to have a sense of humor to work in this industry

Many people have speculated that HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey was really supposed to be a play-on-words.  HAL comes one letter before IBM.  I guess that makes it "one better."  Mathematically, the equation is...IBM (IBM rot-1) = HAL.  The guy who wrote VMS was vehemently anti-IBM and when he ported VMS to WNT, which was the acronym for Windows NT before it was known as Windows NT, it is believed that WNT was "the next evolution" of VMS.  Mathematically...VMS(rot 1) = WNT.  That is a great sense of humor.
Life Lesson Number 2: Hard Work Pays Off
When I was in college I had a work/study job as a computer lab technician.  Basically a lab tech is supposed to sit at the front of the "lab" and help people print documents, log in to e-mail, etc.  This was a few years before computers were ubiquitous in every dorm room.  I was the only lab tech that actually walked around and helped kids and didn't just sit there playing games.  I'm serious...  It was so bad that I was promoted to head lab technician by Thanksgiving of my freshman year.  
I was promoted because I showed initiative and because I came up with snappy little "tricks" to make computers easier for the less

 savvy.  An example...our campus email was housed on a big VAX/VMS system.  We had to either login from a VT100 terminal or use a program called Kermit to access our email on old DOS 286's.  Kermit was actually a very popular communications protocol.  It is a backronym for "KL10 ErrorFree Reciprocal Microprocessor Interchange Over TTY lines."
I digress.  To say the least VT100's and Kermit were not user-friendly.  Students would send email and it would immediately bounce if the address was not formatted perfectly.  The syntax was "smtp%''".  And, yes, those are single quotes embedded in double-quotes.  In those days it was not well known that smtp meant "simple mail transfer protocol".  Lots of kiddies would type "stmp", "smpt", etc.  The error message was beyond cryptic when the format was not correct.  This led to lots of frustration.  I always explained that it was very simple, "send mail to postman."  People like when the difficult is distilled down to the simple.  I eventually wrote a VMS "macro" to make the syntax even easier for people.  
Just before Christmas break the VP of Information Services asked me if I would be interested in being the "computer operator" for the department, again, because I showed initiative.  The job was simple, take the backup tapes off-site every morning, check the status of scheduled jobs, answer emails for special requests, etc.  
I now had an easier job, could make my own hours, and was accountable to almost no one.  As long as the job got done, nobody bothered me. 
Hard work does pay off.  
Life Lesson Number 3:  When you fail, fail big.  (But not too big).  Or, your first intuition is probably your best intuition. 
You always want your failures to be big enough that they get you promoted because you solved a big problem, but not so big that you get fired for them.  

I had a part-time job while I was in college as the computer operator for a VMS system for a large, formerly monopolistic, telecom company.  This was way back before email was ubiquitous.  VMS has two e-mail programs…PINE and MAIL.  Neither has the concept of a “sent items” folder.  PINE is the “preferred” email program everyone used.  To set up a “sent items” folder you did this:

customized-hdrs=fcc: SENTITEMS

…where fcc stands for “folder carbon copy”.  It makes a copy instead of sending a copy.  Cool right?  In VMS, folders were not allowed to have spaces, much like the old DOS.  So if you typed this:

customized-hdrs=fcc: SENT ITEMS

…or this…

customized-hdrs=fcc: SENT,ITEMS

…you got the same thing, two copies of your email…one in a folder called SENT and another in a folder called ITEMS.  With me?   A comma and a space were the same thing. 

In Outlook you have the “Outbox” which is the temporary holding area where your mail sits until you can connect to Exchange.   VMS had the same thing but it was called OUTMAIL.  So, I really wanted to have my “Sent Items” called “OUTMAILCOPY”.  But I screwed up and typed this:

customized-hdrs=fcc: OUTMAIL COPY

Notice the problem?  Every email was copied to two folders…one of course being OUTMAIL, and that caused an infinite loop and caused email to go down for a few hours.  

So I crashed the email system by building my own little "mail bomb" macro.  I managed to fix it myself but by then people were paged and wondering what was going on.  I tried to hide what I did, "Don't worry it's fixed now."  

And surprisingly, that worked.  "Really?  You fixed mail all by yourself?  That's great Dave, we should promote you."  

This is where hubris of the young takes over, "Oh, it was no big deal really.  I know what I'm doing."   But of course I didn't know what I was doing.  At this point my failure was big but I had the opportunity to be promoted.  The next morning management began investigating the logs and saw that clearly it was my mail account that caused all of the problems.  Management's tone went from "let's promote Dave" to "let's fire Dave".  

I was spared.  But I was told I could no longer use PINE for email.  

Sidenote:  In VMS MAIL you use this command for “Sent Items”:


…which cc’s you on every mail you send, right to NEWMAIL (Inbox).  

More funny stories to come...

I have very fond memories of VAX/VMS...  You see, I used one as my pillow for two years.
I had a work study program in college as a computer operator.  We had lots of systems Unix ultrix and a big old VAX 11/780.  These were monstrously huge systems, bigger than three washing machines put side by side.  And the required gigantic cooling systems.  One of my jobs and computer operator was to ensure the VAX was backed up, patched, etc.  There were only two applications that ran on the VAX the campus e-mail system and a statistical analysis package.
My work study program included summer employment so I got to live on campus for free.  I loved living on campus, free to do whatever I wanted and I didn't have to go home to my parents like all of the other kids.  The big problem was that my dormitory had no air conditioning.  I must have air conditioning.  After sweating for a few nights I realized I had a possible solution, I could simply take a pillow over to the data center and sleep amongst all the big mainframes and minicomputers.
The first night I got no sleep.  I didn't realize how loud the year handlers were.  So the next night I tried earplugs.  I managed to get a good night's sleep.
But I ran into a problem.  I got lazy and instead of taking my pillow and blanket back to my dorm I stuffed them behind the VAX.  This worked great, until one day my boss decided