Editorial Cartoon - Titanic

A recent post on The Daily WTF highlighted a system that “…throws the fewest errors of any of our code, so it should be very stable”. The punchline, of course, was that the system threw so few errors because it was catching and suppressing almost all the errors that were occurring. Once the “no news is good news” code was removed, the dysfunctional nature of the system was revealed.

On one level, it’s funny to think of a system being considered “very stable” on the basis of it destroying the evidence of its failures. Anyone who has been in software development for any length of time probably has a war story about a colleague who couldn’t tell the difference between getting rid of error messages and correcting the error condition. However, if the system in question is critical to the user’s personal or financial well-being, then it’s not so amusing. Imagine thinking you had health insurance because the site where you enrolled said you did, and finding out later that you really didn’t.

Developing software that accomplishes something isn’t trivial, but then again, it isn’t rocket science either. Performing a task when all is correct is the easy part. We earn our money by how we handle the other cases. This is not only a matter of technical professionalism, but also a business issue. End users are likely to be annoyed if our applications leave them stranded out of town or jumping through hoops only to be frustrated at the end of the process.

Better an obvious failure than a mystery that leaves the user wondering if the system did what it said it did. Mystery impairs trust, which is a key ingredient in the customer relationship.

All of the above was written with the assumption of incompetence rather than malice. However, a comment from Charlie Alfred made during a Twitter discussion about technical debt raised another possibility:

Wonder if such a thing as “Technical Powerball”? Poor design, unreadable code, no doc, but hits jackpot anyway 🙂

Charlie’s question doesn’t assume bad intent, but it occurred to me that if “jackpot” is defined as “it just has to hold together ’til I clear the door and cash the check”, then perhaps a case of technical debt is really a case of “Technical Powerball”. Geek and Poke put it well:

Re-posted from Form Follows Function