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Will We Ever Have a Big Tech Roll Out That Doesn’t Glitch or Fail?



What’s the problem? Smart people abound. Smart people get hired. Smart people go to work to develop a new system or service. Smart people hype the roll out. The public shows up, eager to buy or try. Then boom. FAIL happens. What causes this? Sure, you can say that humans are involved and humans make mistakes, but one of the few maxims I live by is that no one ever begins a project hoping to fail. Or, in the case of business, no one ever begins a project hoping to tick off the customers they want by making it hard for the customers to give them money. So why are we growing increasingly accustomed to this kind of failure and increasingly skeptical about the success of any new sort of roll out?

Let’s take three examples here that have been in the news: Apple’s new product launches, the Affordable Care Act, and Chicago’s launch of the Ventra transit card system for public transportation.


First up, let’s separate Apple from the other two by one simple factor. Apple will make its money regardless of the woes its customers have trying to order its products. There is no other phenomenon I can recall like this in business and marketing, but there you have it. There’s another factor here that differentiates Apple from the other two examples as well. No one, repeat no one, has to buy an Apple product. In the other two examples, there are, in some instances, mandates, involved.

That said, Apple’s product launches are notorious for disappointing users who aren’t willing to go to great lengths to get in on the first wave. Online ordering should theoretically take care of this, aside from supply and demand issues (if there is no product, you can’t sell it- but that’s another issue). But, Apple’s online ordering system can come to a screeching halt with just about any new product launch, or at least the ones that involve iOS devices. Is this a case of being greedy and just not ramping up enough bandwidth to handle automated purchasing? Or is it a case that the databases that run these ordering systems just can’t scale up enough to handle the load? I don’t purport to know the answer, and Apple is obviously comfortable enough with the way things are that there isn’t a public facing move to make things smoother (like I said they will get their money in the end).

Going back to the human thing for a moment, there’s also a psychology here that companies selling products depend on, or at the least hope for. When something becomes hard to get or unattainable, some want it all the more. Standing in line for tickets to an event used to have a certain romance, but that has certainly lost its luster as it transitioned into online ordering. Of course, plenty will now stand in line at an Apple Store and I’m guessing we’ll see that shortly when new iPads go up for sale.

Transitioning away from products no one has to buy, and to things that might be necessary like the Affordable Care Act and Ventra cards, let’s take a look at those two fails.

I recently relocated to Chicago. One of the many charms of this city is that it is relatively easy to get around via public transportation. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) run the transit systems and have for years. But in this age of privatization, a decision was reached to hire a company, Cubic Transportation Systems, to handle a new system for selling and collecting fares. Smart people worked hard on all aspects of this, as far as I can tell. There was an educational campaign to inform system users about the changes and a phased roll out planned. That said, the system has hit enough glitches to raise the spectre  of a FAIL Whale.

The CTA has had to keep selling the old transit cards for the moment because the glitches are keeping many users from successfully completing a purchase. Tales of users not receiving cards bounce up against tales of users receiving more of the new cards than they ordered, and those bounce up against users who have no issues at all. Some users have issues with the new cards not working at turnstiles. Some have issues of being charged multiple times for the same trip.

By and large, this is obviously a less than acceptable roll out.

And then we come to the Obama administration’s, Affordable Care Act. Set the politics of this aside. That done, there is no way anyone can call the roll out of this government service anything other than a disaster. So, what happened to cause the failure? We’ll probably never know the real story, beyond the fact of the failure. Suffice it to say, this has given new life to the cliché that government can’t do anything correctly or well. But then again, private companies were involved here too, and of course now the government is looking for additional help.

Spinmeisters of all persuasions in cases like these resort to the age old tactic of saying they didn’t anticipate the demand. That’s like a guilty politician saying they are resigning to spend more time with their family.

Certainly budgets and human constraints have impacts on these kind of things, and certainly, regardless of planning and testing things can go wrong. But I find it somewhat disconcerting that as our technology and our use of it continues to advance, and be heralded for those advances, that we can’t seem to figure out how to make things work better when we launch something new. Are we becoming inured to these kinds of failures in such a way that we enable them to occur over and over again? For gadget lovers how many friends and colleagues have you heard say never by a Version 1 of anything?

I don’t have answers here. I have questions. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Again, for the record, I don’t think anyone starts out to create something that will fail. And I do think that humans are certainly capable of failure. I guess my biggest question is this: Given the wealth of technology talent we seem to have, and the wealth that seems to be created by this technology, why can’t there be some sort of marriage of talent and wealth to try and solve these problems? There are certainly no easy answers. But working to solve these issues certainly has to be potentially more fulfilling than creating yet another picture sharing app or mobile game.



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    10/21/2013 at 3:47 pm

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  2. Heath

    10/22/2013 at 8:34 am

    Scope creep and deadlines are the bane of any software development. Scope creep is inevitable when you have a project manager that doesn’t know how to manage projects and is a catastrophic killer of anything software. Deadlines are a necessary evil because if you don’t have them, nothing ever gets done, and if you do have them, things never get done on time. Inadequate throughput and bandwidth testing can hamper websites, hackers can as well. Unexpected things are exactly that, unexpected, and the effects that those unexpected events can cause are limited to the experience of the developers.

  3. Jen

    10/23/2013 at 9:34 am

    This is not an ideal world and unfortunately this type of fail or glitch happens all the time. We have a software company providing us apps on our ipad/iphone. We got so nervous every time they upgrade their system, because every time there is something went wrong. We had to go back and forth several times to get everything right. Looks like that is true for those big guys like Apple and Microsoft!

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