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What was a project or spec that got put on your desk that could not possibly be done? How did you explain the dilemma to the "requester"? More importantly, did they understand after you explained the fundamental issue?

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I don't really have many truly impossible requests come my way, but I will say that for the merely implausible requests, providing a realistic time (cost) estimate is a fun way to communicate the difficulty and get people to reconsider. :) –  fennec Sep 30 '10 at 1:44
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16 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

I was told to make the printer print faster.

Serious, and I was written up for failing. The boss wasn't very tech savvy and didn't understand why I couldn't speed it up.

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It would be nice if the fine folks at HP could figure out how to make their printers feed paper reliably. That would really speed up the print job since there'd be less time fooling around with the physical UI. :) –  dash-tom-bang Sep 29 '10 at 17:58
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You didn't try setting it to permanently print in draft mode? –  Kyralessa Oct 2 '10 at 22:50
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I wrote industrial printing code. We used to output the printers native language for more control ( and more speed). It is possible to print anything ( even photos) faster, but the code to do so ends up printer-specific and typically has to bypass the OS printer abstraction. It's not worth it till it is. –  Tim Williscroft Oct 21 '10 at 3:56
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(not me, but a co-worker) Long ago, I worked building Windows software that could control and monitor industrial machinery. One option for connecting to the machinery was to dial in via a modem.

A large customer called a high-level manager with a problem: They could not connect to a remote facility because they kept getting a busy signal (they were sharing the hardware line with a voice line or something)

When my coworker found that the problem was not a software fault, but that the phone line really was busy, the manager responded "That's ridiculous. Can't you code around that?"

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The sales´s guy asked me what should we do to stop bugs in product.

My answer was: Sell it only after we finish it! :O)

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Once I was tasked with creating a 1:1 translation of Access VBA code to PL/SQL. Things went relatively well, until I found out that deep within several nested IFs and LOOPs of a procedure, it would open a yes-no-dialog and ask for another decision by the user. The best I could offer, and eventually implemented, was to add another parameter to that procedure; if it ran into that branch, it would rollback, return a special status that instructs the GUI program to ask the user, and then restart the procedure with an extra parameter.

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8-10 years ago, we had to write "a web app" that did what our desktop product did in about 2 weeks. The website turned out to be almost all client-side Javascript scripting ActiveX to replicated the desktop product. The only server-side processing involved generating options for client consumption.

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Once I was asked by an old, nearly senile man to make a program to win a lottery.
I was like...
"Oh... (hahhahahahahahahahaha) sorry, it's just allergies, but go on..."

He showed me his "theories" he came up with after analyzing 20 years worth of records and that if I just made a program that followed his rules, he would pay me.
I made the program, gave it to him, showed him it worked according to his rules, got paid, wished him good luck and told him if he ever bet too big and lost too much money, it's not my fault in any way.

:X

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+1: I'd bet good money that he personally blames you because he's not rich. –  Steve Evers Mar 23 '11 at 15:34
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My friend asked me to make him a website.

With C++.

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That's not "impossible"... google for "Wt" and "CPPCms". It's overkill for a personal website but it's definitely possible and a bit hard but not too hard. –  Klaim Dec 15 '10 at 15:55
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I was once asked to fix a report because the data in it didn't match a different report (with different query criteria) that was run two months earlier. It took a year to get it through the user's head that even if the criteria had been the same, the data changes over time!

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I was asked to implement search, in 2 days for our enterprise app... not too bad. I can do that. I specifically noted:

Just so you know, I'm not google, so the fancy ranking and auto-suggestions and all of that... not likely gonna happen, especially not in 2 days.

3 days later: "But google does..."

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I was asked to figure out a way to determine when and if a thread would stop. This was so we could find and prevent all these multi-threaded bugs. Guess they'd never heard of the halting problem. (then again, they also didn't believe in locks, mutex's, or using any sort of synchronization methods.)

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You need a new job. :) –  Magnus Wolffelt Dec 15 '10 at 14:39
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Automatically generate a list of all valid search combinations that return results from the database. While not logically impossible from the standpoint of coding, given that the size of the database was always growing, it was highly unpractical and the sever would eventually slow to a crawl while trying to generate combinations.

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Implement all the features we'd already sold. I just kept my head down and kept working, and let the higher-ups realize what was going on.

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That happens more often than you'd imagine. Be glad you weren't written up for failing. –  wheaties Sep 29 '10 at 22:42
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I thought that was just standard business practice. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 15 '10 at 14:14
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Not assigned to me per se but just what my thoughts were on...

"Could we build [something that mimics Excel functionality] as an online product, in a few months time?"

Online spreadsheet functionality. The thing that the two greatest software companies in human history (Microsoft and Google) are working on. And you want to create a basic engine plus functionality that doesn't currently exist in either. In only a few months time. Using the talent we have in-house.

Right...

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That's depressingly common. "But but but...Google can do it! If Google can, why can't we do the same?" "Uh...for starters, we have 10 developers, they have a few thousand. How is that comparable, even in raw man-hours?" "Well, Anything Is Possible (tm) If You Want It! Nothing Is Impossible (tm)! Can't you work on it Extra Hard (tm)?" "..." –  Piskvor Mar 23 '11 at 14:59
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I once was asked to fix regex that was being used to parse C# function declarations because the QA team had found a way to break it. This unfortunately is not a possible task as function declarations cannot be described as a regular language in C# (attributes, generic types, attribute arguments, etc ...).

I resolved the problem by simply explaining that it was an impossible task and detailing a few examples with nested generic types. Management didn't believe me at first (was 2 weeks into the job) but I was able to explain the problem to a couple of senior developers and they in turn convinced management. Eventually they decided to have a best effort regex and add a real parser in later.

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I and another couple of programmers were once asked why we couldn't find an algorithm to determine where holes were in 3-D geometries composed of triangles (STL files, for those who know them, and not exactly conforming to the proper specification of no-holes-allowed). My boss didn't seem to understand how hard it could be, because after all, he could just look at the rendered model and point to the holes in it.

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Hard to do, but one of those things where if you pulled it off, it would look very good on a résumé. –  rjzii Sep 29 '10 at 21:37
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@Rob: To add to the difficulty, he wanted it to work on all geometry problems, patch them "properly" (which entailed triangles sized the same as nearby triangles, mostly), and be able to get the feature whipped up in a week -- or maybe two, after testing. (I will give that boss credit that he at least understood the value of testing. Maybe not methodical, comprehensive testing, but at least of testing.) –  Caleb Huitt - cjhuitt Sep 30 '10 at 14:07
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It isn't an official assignment (yet) but the owner of this company keeps asking to put absolutely everything about our business "On the Cloud". Lucky for me, I'm not the one responsible with formulating a reply to this :)

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Every time I hear the word cloud I get a bit sick now, it has turned into a Web 2.0 thing for me. –  ChaosPandion Sep 29 '10 at 17:12
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Tell him that you guys get the day off on cloudless days because you can't access your data. (I've been reading Dilbert cartoons for too long.) –  MetalMikester Sep 29 '10 at 17:30
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People like that always remind me of the expression "head in the clouds." –  Mason Wheeler Sep 29 '10 at 17:31
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I think you ought to go buy a couple hundred model rocket kits... and have a great big 'uploading to the cloud' office party. –  GrandmasterB Sep 29 '10 at 21:29
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