Friday, 29 June 2012

So what went wrong at Natwest?

A lot of questions need to be asked over RBS’s computer problems – but if we want to stop this happening again, we need to listen to the answers.

An easy answer. But not a useful one.
So there we have it. For anyone who questions the value of software testing, here is a prime example of what happens when you let a bug slip through. I know we’ve already moved on to another banking scandal, but in case you’ve forgotten: many Natwest customers failed to get paid owing to a botched system upgrade. This has led to all sorts of consequences, and the obvious question of how this could be allowed to happen.
Except that when people ask this question, I fear most of them have already decided on the answer, which is that RBS is a bank and therefore Big and Evil and responsible for everything bad in the world from Rabies to Satan to Geordie Shore. That answer might make people feel better but does little to stop this happening again. In practice, what went wrong is likely to have little to do with the credit crunch or banking practices and a lot to do with boring old fact that any bank – no matter how responsibly they borrow and lend – runs on a highly business-critical IT system where any fault can be disastrous.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Is superfast broadband always a good thing?

As superfast broadband gets adopted by more and more people, we must not shut out those people who cannot have this.

Are you listening to me, Network Rail? Look how quickly this image downloads on my site.

One of the perks of being a software tester is that you can take your work home with you and tell managers of other public-facing software (especially websites) what they're doing wrong. I've recently been arguing with Network Rail over the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station. No complaints about the redevelopment itself (anyone who's actually used this station will be able to tell you why); my problem is pages like this one. Can you spot what's wrong with it? Possibly not, if you've got a fast internet link. But if you're on a slow internet connection, it takes ages to download the pictures and chews up your bandwidth – about 5MB for three images. And to illustrate just how unnecessary this is, here is the full picture you have to download in order to view a small (304px × 172px) image.1

This is an example of lazy programming that suits the majority but excludes the minority. This is nothing new – it is been going on ever since the internet began. In the 90s there was Netscape Mail's HTML-only e-mails (absolutely and totally utterly vital so that you can write in multi-coloured Comic Sans font), instantly rendering them unreadable to people on text-based programs such as pine. Then came Internet Explorer's dominance and the web pages that didn't work in any other browsers, or worse, did work in other browsers but blocked them anyway because “it's designed for IE”. Meanwhile, we were plagued with Flash-only websites, removing perfectly decent text content away from many users with sight disabilities. What all these have in common in that all of this was completely unnecessary – it wouldn't have required any more work to make websites accessible to everyone, just a little bit of thought.