Tiny VBA Tooltippery Tip

Project Euler 100/304

(in which we discover What Went On In 1997)

This morning’s iteration of the daily blog/news trawl for useful information threw up “Five tips for debugging a routine in the Visual Basic Editor“, all of which are sensible, although unlikely to be news to anyone reading this, if we’re honest.

Tip #3, “View variables using data tips”, however, reminded me of something that I don’t believe is widely known. Since the site seems to require a full-blown account creation that I can’t see as appropriate for a simple comment, I’m going to mention it here.

Hovering the mouse pointer over a variable while in VBA’s Break mode will show the variable’s value in a tool tip:

The smart VBA programmer

That’s fine: almost all the time we get to see exactly what we want. Above about (or maybe exactly) 60 characters, however, we get the leading part and three little dots:

Still no problem if we only want the start of the string...

What if we want to see what’s at the end of the string, though? Well, back in (I think) 1997, I managed to get my then employer to send me to VBA DevCon (no easy task, given that the location was EuroDisney), at which I happened to meet the Microsoft guy who actually wrote the hover/tooltip thing (it was in the VB4 editor first, I believe) and he told me that viewing the last 60-ish characters of the string could be achieved by holding down the Control key before moving the pointer over the variable name:


I don’t think I’ve ever seen this recorded. Of course, I haven’t exactly gone looking for it, so if you came all the way to the end only to discover that I was just repeating something that everyone knows, then I can only apologise. We’ll get over it.


(stackoverflow rep: 7576, Project Euler 83/257 complete)
In my band days we called it "Gaffer"

In my band days we called it "Gaffer"

Reading Joel’s1 Duct-Tape Programmer article this morning (in the interests of full disclosure I should admit without additional prevarication that I have a large roll of “Duck” tape in the second drawer of my desk as I type) one sentence smacked me metaphorically between the eyes:

“Shipping is a feature”

I was transported back a couple of decades to the time when the bank for whom I was then working discovered that it was building not one but two settlement systems (the things that ensure that what traders agree should happen actually does) in two locations: London and Zurich. In London we were targeting our DEC VAX/Oracle platform, while the Swiss were designing with their local Tandem Non-Stop installation. And we’d both have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling CEO…

It was decreed that The Wise Men (external auditors) be appointed to review the two projects and pronounce which should live and which should consign its members to the dole queue.

The Wise Ones duly decamped to Zurich to spend a few weeks working through the cabinets of meticulously-detailed standards-compliant design documentation that had been lovingly crafted over the past several months, with coding about to start. Then they came to see us. It didn’t look so good.

dried-up and crusty now...

dried-up and crusty now...

What documentation we had was months old (from a previous, aborted start of the waterfall) and coated in Tipp-Ex. Remember the white error-correction fluid we used all the time back in the 20th Century? When we still wrote “memos”? After a week of vagueness and frustration a set of presentations were scheduled for the Friday, at which we proposed to try to fill in the gaps.



London won.

Yay us, but how? On most objective measurements we were deficient when compared with our continental rivals, even we agreed on that. But on that Friday afternoon, I got to stand up to summarise the differences, positive and negative between the two projects, as seen by the London team. I think what may have swung it was the part where I got to say “our system has been settling trades since 3 o’clock this morning”.

In about nine months, one team had done everything by the Book (don’t know the title, but I bet it had “Structured” in it) and had reached the point where they had, well, a book. Lots of books, in fact – they’d worked really hard. In the same time, we built a system and even better, shipped it. I don’t think anyone had written any Agile books by then – even if they had, we hadn’t read them.

Our team hadn’t done an awful job by any means, you understand: there’d been a few weeks of up-front requirement-gathering/scoping.  We had a massive data model that we Tipp-Exed down to the minimum needed. We had an outline architecture that, through luck or judgement, proved to be appropriate. Probably best of all, though, we sat with our users while we built their system. Better, as we built different features we moved around so we were always within speaking distance of our domain expert (I don’t think we’d done the whole “domain” thing then – we just called them “users”). So  we seldom got very far off track while stuff got built, and we were, with hindsight, feature-driven and relatively lowly-coupled/highly cohesive at the component level, all Good Things. Mostly written in COBOL, too.

Looking back, we were lucky: we didn’t manage to repeat the magic and fell back into time and cost overruns with the next couple of large projects. At least we were still being paid, unlike our erstwhile colleagues in Switzerland.

1 I call him by his first name because we share so much; we’re only a few slots apart on page 13 of StackOverflow as I write this. Page-mates, don’t you know.

The Glove Puppet Programmer

While I prevaricate over the four (!) drafts sitting at various stages of incompletion in my “Posts” view, I’ll take lunchtime out to reminisce about a non-contemporaneous* colleague and his unique status as probably the most expensive programmer I’ve ever had to deal with.

This particular individual, who was either French or French Canadian, had the singular identifying characteristic of a name that was a literal translation of a stuffed children’s TV character from my childhood. This in itself should have been a warning.basil_brush He had created the Credit Risk reporting system that a team of ten expensive contractors, myself including, were labouring feverishly to replace. On his own. As a series of Excel spreadsheets. With extensive VBA macros, coming from no discernible programming background. If you’re wincing, I’m not surprised.

Why am I asserting he was peerless in the cost stakes? Because the application he’d built actually worked. Badly, slowly, requiring regular manual intervention, occasionally obviously inaccurate and more frequently rather less so, but it worked. And we were trying to reverse-engineer it**, distinguish between the right and wrong parts and deliver something that was everything the old “system” was not. Well, almost: we did need our system to work.

This is one of the gems I discovered in the VBA:

    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 0).value = bv_sSTRATEGY
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 1).value = bv_sTRADENAME
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 2).value = bv_sTRADESTATUS
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 3).value = bv_sStructType
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 4).value = bv_sSTRUCTMODEL
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 5).value = bv_sTRANCHENAME
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 6).value = bv_iTRANCHENUMBER
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 7).value = bv_lTRANCHENOTIONAL

    ... are you getting the picture? We continue incrementing the offset for a while, until:

    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 29).value = bv_sCOMMENTDEFAULT
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 30).value = bv_sNEWTRANSID
    br_OutputWB.Worksheets(bv_sOutPutWSName).Range("A1").offset(br_lCount + 1, 31).value = bv_sCOMMENT

In case you were wondering, the “bv_” prefix signifies “By Value.” And yes, that does mean that each of those values appeared as parameter to the routine. I counted 32 in total. That’s thirty-two input parameters. You really should be wincing by now.

gogglesSeveral other routines also had the same (or 99% the same) code blocks. Our friend the cut-and-paste programmer must have really earned his money that day…

Oh yes, you should see an example of how our chum called his parameter-heavy subroutines. Consider acquiring welding goggles before looking at this, by the way.

Call SS_BuildMTMByTrade(br_OutputWB:=OutputWB, br_lCount:=lMMcount_SS, bv_dbFXrate:=GetFXRate(vMM_FXRates, RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHECCY").Column - 1).value), _
bv_sSourceFile:=m_sSS_MM_Source & IIf(bv_sTradeNamePrefix <> "", bv_sTradeNamePrefix & RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRADENAME").Column - 1).value, RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRADENAME").Column - 1).value) & "_" & "MM" & "_" & RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("MM_CSB").Column - 1).value & "_" & RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("MM_R").Column - 1).value & "_" & IIf(RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("MM_PW").Column - 1).value, "T", "F") & "_" & IIf(RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("MM_SCS").Column - 1).value, "T", "F") & "_" & Format(m_dSS_MM_Asof, "yyyymmdd") & ".xls", bv_dbParticipationFactor:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("DEALNOTIONAL").Column - 1).value / RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHENOTIONAL").Column - 1).value, bv_iShift:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("MM_R").Column - 1).value, bv_bIgnoreFirstCprty:=CBool(RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("IGNORECPTY").Column - 1).value), _
bv_dbSpread:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("DEALSPREADBP").Column - 1).value, _
bv_bUsePVFormula:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("USEPVFORMULA").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sSTRATEGY:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("STRATEGY").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sTRADENAME:=IIf(bv_sTradeNamePrefix <> "", bv_sTradeNamePrefix & RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRADENAME").Column - 1).value, RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRADENAME").Column - 1).value), _
bv_sTRADESTATUS:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRADESTATUS").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sStructType:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("STRUCTTYPE").Column - 1).value, bv_sSTRUCTMODEL:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("STRUCTMODEL").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sTRANCHENAME:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHENAME").Column - 1).value, bv_iTRANCHENUMBER:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHENUMBER").Column - 1).value, bv_lTRANCHENOTIONAL:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHENOTIONAL").Column - 1).value, bv_sTRANCHESUBORDINATION:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHESUBORDINATION").Column - 1).value, bv_sTRANCHECCY:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHECCY").Column - 1).value, bv_dtTRANCHEMATURITY:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRANCHEMATURITY").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sBUYSELL:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("BUYSELL").Column - 1).value, _
bv_lDEALNOTIONAL:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("DEALNOTIONAL").Column - 1).value, _
bv_iDEALSPREADBP:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("DEALSPREADBP").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sUPFRONTFEE:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("UPFRONTFEE").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sCOUNTERPARTY:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("COUNTERPARTY").Column - 1).value, _
bv_dtTRADEDATE:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("TRADEDATE").Column - 1).value, _
bv_dtSETTLMTDATE:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("SETTLMTDATE").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sREPACKVEHICLE:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("REPACKVEHICLE").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sCOMMENT:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("COMMENT").Column - 1).value, _
bv_lADRNOTIONAL:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("ADRN").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sCOMMENTDEFAULT:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("COMMENTDEFAULT").Column - 1).value, _
bv_sNEWTRANSID:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("NEWTRANSID").Column - 1).value, _
bv_BookName:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("BOOKNAME").Column - 1).value, bv_UniqueID:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("UNIQUEID").Column - 1).value, bv_KMVCorr:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("KMVCORR").Column - 1).value, bv_MarketCorr:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("MARKETCORR").Column - 1).value, bv_RunFlag:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("RUNLISTFLAG").Column - 1).value, bv_DataSource:=RgCursor.offset(lOffset, Range("SOURCETYPE").Column - 1).value)

The second line is about 900 characters long. Nine. Hundred. If you’re starting to want to make it go away, perhaps by clawing out your eyeballs, I don’t blame you.

Finally, for dessert, if you will, or maybe like one of those hot steamy towels presented at the end of some Indian meals, here’s our friend’s take on copying an array:

Public Sub CopyArray(ByVal bv_FromArray As Variant, ByRef br_ToArray() As Variant)
    Dim l As Long
    Dim i As Integer

    For l = LBound(bv_FromArray, 2) To UBound(bv_FromArray, 2)
        ReDim Preserve br_ToArray(1, l)
        For i = LBound(bv_FromArray, 1) To UBound(bv_FromArray, 1)
        Debug.Print bv_FromArray(i, l)

            br_ToArray(i, l) = bv_FromArray(i, l)

End Sub

From the blank line following the “Debug.Print” line I surmise that some operation may, in the distant past, have been occurring that made the routine more than a criminal waste of electricity. I hope the use of lower-case “L” is a soothing balm to your eyes, as is the continuous “ReDim Preserve” of the outer loop…

I don’t know the final cost of the project that replaced this, I elected not to renew my contract after nine months. I’d guess it didn’t exceed $10 million, not counting the possible losses incurred from trading on inaccurate information in the several years the “system” was live.

I’d call that dangerous.

*we worked at the same place but not at the same time, if that makes any sense

** specs? Don’t be ridiculous.

Fifty Candles (each)

(stackoverflow rep: 4675, Project Euler 72/240 complete)

The first programming language I learned was a peculiar version of BASIC, running on the ICL mainframe installed during my abbreviated university career. I seem to recall it used a magnetic drum as its primary storage device. My second programming language, and the first I was ever paid real money for working with, was COBOL. It was the lingua franca of business computing, had been around forever and I started to learn it early in 1979. It turns out that “ancient” old COBOL had at the time only been around for about 20 years. As indeed had I, and this year we both turn 50.

Ah, the fun we had!

Ah, the fun we had!

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (I remember vividly a school “handyman”, inexplicably nicknamed “Sausage”, who would repair desks by applying a large hammer to drive screws). I used COBOL for things to which it really wasn’t suited. For a couple of years, that didn’t just mean writing peculiar code, it meant punching cards on an IBM 029 punch machine.

Programming for work was done on paper coding sheets, converted into machine-readable format (80-column punched cards) two evenings a week by Hazel the Punch Girl. Times change.

Once upon a time all code was written on these

Once upon a time all code was written on these

It wasn’t as bad as you might think: we only got to compile or run our code twice a day anyway, the rest of the time involved pencils and paper. Lots of paper. Some things change less than others.

Anyway, designing, coding, compiling and testing/debugging a program was a mammoth task: it took months. Lots of months. I think in the three years I was a programmer in my first job I wrote about eight complete programs.

Virgin input to the 029...

Virgin input to the 029...

In all, I was primarily a COBOL programmer for about 12 years, although there were secondary activities in PL/1, Fortran and C in the same period. I haven’t written a line since some time in early 1990. Can’t say that I miss it, not even now that it has object-orientation, a scary concept for a language that didn’t even use to have data scoping below “global”.

So happy birthday to COBOL, whenever it falls during the year. I can’t say I miss you but you paid the bills for over a decade, and for that I’ll always be grateful.


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