Book Report: Dear Valued Customer, You Are A Loser by Rick Broadhead (2004)

Book coverYou know, reading horror books doesn’t keep me from sleeping like a baby (a colicky baby) at night. What do I read to give me chills and to keep me awake in the darkness, staring at the ceiling and contemplating dark things that might snatch my life away? Books like this book.

The subtitle of the book is And Over 100 Other Stories of Embarrassing and Funny Stories of Technology Gone Mad. It collects a number of humorous incidents where software or software-related processes have gone awry and made the papers, causing great embarrassment for the companies responsible. I wouldn’t call them epic fails, because in the 21st century, epic fails are fleeting. These are legendary failures still half-remembered and fully documented for posterity.

Reading through the book, one identifies some areas of risk to pay particular attention to if you’re trying to prevent your company’s failures from becoming the stuff of legend and Snopes articles. These include:

  • Preventing the leak of test data.
    In many of the stories, great fun happens when test data or placeholder material goes into production. Such as the titular “Dear customer, You are a loser.” email or the “Rich Bastard” test name in a mail merge. When you’re creating test data, don’t be clever or wry, since that might leak out. Play it straight. And for Pete’s sake, figure out how to purge it before it gets out there.
  • Review your CMS procedures.
    A lot of the news-stories-that-aren’t-real tales in this book come from instances where content authors somehow put their incomplete works into draft and they end up live on the Web site. This might be because the content management system has issues, or it might be because the content author has the ability to publish his or her own work and inadvertantly does so before the proper time. Sometimes, this happens without a CMS where code roll-ups get promoted with draft content. Regardless, you need to scrutinize those procedures to minimize the chances of this happening. As a bonus, one of the stories is about a journalist whose story gets promoted to the live site with disrespectful placeholders within it. Have I mentioned that’s a bad thing?
  • Not understanding practices of the users and building in problems through ignorance.
    Then there’s the story about the guy who got a license plate that said NO PLATE and ended up getting the tickets for every car in the state without a license plate. Or at least those where the police officers had written No plate for a license plate number. If you don’t know what your users’ habits are, you can walk right into a problem where their habits conflict with your software’s interface and abilities.
  • The impossible calculated numbers.
    The book is rife with the stories of impossible calculation results, such as the trillions of dollars in library fines, the bajillions of dollars in water meter charges, and so on. Does your software have a sanity check to flag outlying calculation results? If not, why not?

This book has a lot for the software quality professional to learn. It exposes patterns of failure we need to recognize and to account for in our testing and rolls up a whole lot of lessons learned meetings into a very browseable 300 or so pages.

Definitely recommended.

Books mentioned in this review:

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