Ponzi Schemes Need Docs Too

Documentation in code is extremely important, even if developers hate doing it. We’ve all been there, stuck debugging some confusing code that has zero code comments. It made sense to the dev at the time, but they’ve long since moved on and you’re stuck supporting that bad boy.

GitHub recently released the results of their Open Source Survey, which polled active users to better understand how they were using the software. One of the primary insights they learned?

Documentation is highly valued, but often overlooked.

I just recently finished listening to Ponzi Supernova. This podcast provides some interesting backstory around the Bernie Madoff investment scandal that he confessed to in late 2008.

I won’t give away many details from the podcast, as it was very well done (and you should go listen to it immediately). But, I couldn’t help but to reflect on a very important point. In the podcast, it was suggested that the code comments from the application(s) used to generate the fraudulent transaction statements and other corroborating documents were used to confirm that the trading programs were specifically constructed to target or avoid ongoing audit activity.

That caught my attention, so I did some searching. Sure enough, I came across an article that detailed that the RPG programs included code comments specific enough to convince a non-technical jury that the application was indeed built and subsequently manipulated in a way to pass various audits:

So the pair resorted to what any normal RPG programmers would do: They added comments to the code.

“The programmers nicely commented the code, which made explaining some things easier, because they said this is what they’re doing,” Diedrich says. The jury didn’t have to try to read the code. They said ‘This is how we’re generating these numbers.’”

Perez and O’Hara also added comments to ensure their audit preparation was up to snuff. “There were comments in the code hat indicated, for this kind of audit we need this kind of information,” Diedrich says. “The code would say, ‘We don’t need this for this audit,’ so they commented it out from the code at times, then they would put it back in for the other audits.”

So, there you have it. Code comments are important to everyone, because you never know when you’ll be involved in a high stakes Ponzi scheme designed to defraud people of over 65 billion dollars.