A response to The Coming Software Apocalypse (an article on The Atlantic)

This is a response to The Coming Software Apocalypse, an article on The Atlantic published on 26th September, 2017.

The approach that the article suggests for programming is Model-based design. I would like to cover some of my own past experiences with bugs that existed in the code I wrote and how the lack of confidence in the foolproof-ness of a piece of software leads to hours spent in thorough (not exhaustive) testing.

1. undefined leads to 15,000 emails

During the past summer at Elanic, there was a typical problem in the ExpressJS based backend that powered the primary REST API that runs the Elanic mobile applications. There were three ways for a user to sign-up:

a. Using their Facebook account b. Using their Google account c. Using an email ID and a password

(c) was majorly used on the iOS application where OAuth2 logins weren’t yet implemented. The issue was that when a user signed up using an email ID and a password, the email ID wasn’t verified. i.e. people could sign up with fake email IDs like [email protected] and get away with it.

Solving this is pretty straight forward. When a user signs up, check if they are signing up with type (c) and then, send them an email with a link that consists of a verification token. When they click on the link, we will get the GET request and using the token we can mark their account as verified.

If the email ID doesn’t exist or is not controlled by them, then they will never be able to verify their email. EEZY PEEZY!


I thought about it a bit more and realised that there is one more case in which we would want to verify the user’s email and that is in when the user updates their profile and changes the email from there. In that case as well, we would have to verify the new email ID. (And if required, send an email to the old email ID informing them that the email ID has been changed. This wasn’t required.)

So, now there are two places we want to send the verification email: (a) when the user signs up with an email (b) when the user updates their email.

Now, the way the code was structured, the UserProfile model had a function UserProfile.updateProfile({ filter, update, options }, callback) and that was the right place for this code to be. Primarily because updateProfile was being called from across the application, and if in the future a flow is introduced where the email might change from somewhere else, this would take care of it.

So, I wrote something like this.

The routes looked like this (server.js)

// POST /users
// Creating a new user
function PostUsers(request, response, next) {
  let params = request.getParams;
  let profile = new UserProfile();
  profile.email = params.email;
  profile.password = hash(params.password);
  profile.save(error => {
    if (!error) {
      sendVerificationEmail({ email: profile.email });
      return next();

// PUT /users/:id
// Edit a user's profile
function PutUsers(request, response, next) {
  let params = request.getParams;
  let userId = params.id;

  let filter = { _id: userId };
  let update = _.delete(params, "id");

  UserProfile.updateProfile({ filter, update }, (...) => {
    return next();

And the model function updateProfile:

UserProfile.updateProfile = ({ filter, update, options }, callback) => {
  if (update.email !== undefined) {
    sendVerificationEmail({ email: update.email }, () => {});

  mongo.update(filter, update, (err) => {
    if (!err) {
      return callback();

Since I have spoiled the problems in the code for you, you probably found the problem?

It’s the first line of UserProfile.updateProfile! I check if the update.email is undefined or not. While I was writing this, I was convinced that this will check if the email has changed, because there would be no point to send the unchanged email alongwith a PUT call right? Why waste bytes on the wire for things that haven’t changed?

Well, I got hit right in the face! Turns out BOTH the Android and the iOS application send email alongwith the PUT call and let the backend deal with the change (or not). Worse still, even PUT calls from an internal tool called the “administrator panel” also sent this parameter! And internally, profiles are edited a lot to change tags, etc.

During the next 4 days, there were nearly 15,000 emails sent out of the Mail exchange. Several frequent users who had their profiles being edited from the internal tool received the “verify your email” mail multiple times, as high as 20 even.

This was one of the simplest features to implement, but there was still some nuance! THAT is the reason this experience stuck with me, even 3 months later.

2. My ongoing struggle with Merge Sort

I have been implementing sorting and those kind of things for quite a while now. I keep re-implementing them just to keep up-to-date and warmed up in my primary langauge for competitive programming: C (although I write it in a .cpp file and compile it using g++, more on that later)

Every time I implement Merge sort, I almost always start with the function signature int * merge(int *arr, int n) whereas the actual signature should be int * merge(int *arr, int begin, int end)

The first signature can still be worked, but I like the second one for it’s verbosity.

Then, you find the middle as middle = (end + begin) / 2 and call merge on the first and the second halves.

Anyway, there’s no particular bug here, I am just stressing on how although I know this algorithm inside-out, I still need to write it and test it with a couple of arrays before I can integrate it into my larger file. (The few times I was over confident about it and directly started building atop the merge sort I wrote and thought worked, I spent a significant amount of time going back and forth and finally realising that I had flaked out in the first function I wrote!)

My final code has been buggy in fairly limited instances. Through the development process, of course, there are several basic mistakes I make and discover and fix and move on. The iterative process that is so common is the one I subscribe to as well.

A couple of points about the article,

Newcombe isn’t so sure that it’s the programmer who is to blame. “I’ve heard from Leslie that he thinks programmers are afraid of math. I’ve found that programmers aren’t aware—or don’t believe—that math can help them handle complexity. Complexity is the biggest challenge for programmers.”

I am not sure what programmer is “afraid” of math. Anyone who comes from an engineering background or any core science background is almost definitely not “afraid” of math. If he particularly means Finite Automata and FSMs (which they talk about in the article as being the holy grail for programming, sort of. Read the article for the full picture) then even that is incredibly common. Anyone who has taken an engineering course with an interest in Programming (even those who don’t have a major in Computer Science) will definitely do a course on Switching and Finite Automata or Formal Language and Automata or Finite State Machines themselves!

There was one thing in the article though, which I think appears fiercely to everyone who writes code for a living:

Programmers, as a species, are relentlessly pragmatic