Have Programmers Have Ruined The World?

Programmers

Well, perhaps “ruined” is too strong of a word.  But then what would be a good word to describe a world where all of us are a little less free than we once were to transact business in the ways we might want to rather than in the way our systems and processes demand?

Not long before Covid slammed the door on such transactions,  I stopped at a Drive-Thru for some breakfast items.  How quaint that now sounds.  Anyway, I had a BOGO coupon. Which the guy in the window screwed up when he applied it to my order.  So I went back inside to get my change back.  

And then it began – the game of figuring out how to fix a customer’s problem – within the constraints of their computer systems.  It was a simple problem: Take the price of the expensive sandwich I should have gotten for free, subtract $1 for the erroneous discount already given, and there is the amount you hand your customer.  And lest you think my only reason for writing this involves a sub-$3 coupon dispute, there is more.  Which, of course, you know.

I had a case fairly recently where I took over for another attorney who left my firm.  He had sued a company for a client who was injured on the company’s premises.  Later, I discovered a second company who should have also been sued, and faced a decision.  To add that additional party to our existing suit, the rules would have required me to file a motion requesting permission to do so.  Which would result in a wait of unknown length for a ruling which 1) the judge could deny and 2) which might not come before a looming statute of limitations expired.  So I went with Plan B – I filed a separate suit and moved to consolidate it with the first suit because it involved the same accident and the same injuries.

This was a longtime practice in my area, and something commonly done.  Until now, apparently, when the clerk explained to me how the current electronic docket management system did not allow consolidations.  It was not a change in the substantive law or in the procedural rules which forced these two almost identical cases to proceed independently of one another, but a change in the court’s electronic docket management system.

In another example, Marianne and I went to open a bank account at the place we already bank.  “You can do it online” was the advice from the branch manager when I called.  Except that we could not (after spending about ninety minutes trying).  When we went in (with an appointment due to Covid restrictions), he had trouble too.  It had been so long since Marianne had opened an account that their system did not recognize her as a U.S. citizen – despite the fact that she is the same natural born citizen she was when she last went in (before 2002) to open an account.  Understand, the system did not show that she wasn’t a citizen, only that there was no proof that she actually was one.  The result?  The simple opening of a bank account at our own bank took about four hours, all together – because their system would not tell any of us up front (including the bank manager) what the problem actually was.

Don’t get me wrong, much good has come from computerized systems.  Things can be done more efficiency and with more consistent quality than ever.  But these advances come at a cost, almost always incurred when something unusual comes along.

Once upon a time, when a customer and a business had a problem to sort out, there were two people who worked out a reasonable solution.  Like the time I bought a gasoline can at a small hardware store.  There was something wrong with the can and I took it back.  “Just go get another one” said the hardware guy.  The result – a problem solved and a happy, satisfied customer.  The hardware store could deal with the defective can, probably by just giving it back to his salesman, who would, in turn, take it back to the company where he got it.

But today there are systems and processes that are carved in stone.  I get that they make the store more money (and yes, that old store is long out of business) and help deliver a better experience – most of the time.  But here is the thing – in order for a store manager to deal with an issue, a series of people involved in design and coding of a system had to anticipate the issue.  They do a good job doing this many times, but we who have the lived experience as humans know that no programmer will ever figure out in advance every possible situation that must be accommodated.

Two things have resulted – the first is a growing workforce of people who lack training to think about how to do their jobs.  There is also an ever-tightening zone of authority before having to call for a manager to solve an unexpected problem.  “How can we make this work for you” is something we hear less and less.  “My system won’t let me do that” is heard all the time.

Right before Thanksgiving last year my microwave oven quit.  I did some quick research online and found a good deal on a particular model.  I went to the store.  There it was on display.  I searched the shelves but one was not there.  When I finally got some help I was told that I would have to order it and have it installed, something that could be done late the following week.  Ordering it and having it shipped to the store for pickup (because I planned to install it myself) was not allowed, apparently.    “Oh, they don’t have to install it” was the not very helpful reply.  Waiting on the installers’ schedule (and paying for the delivery) was not what I wanted. What I wanted, however, did not matter.  If I wanted that microwave I would have to do it their way.  I went to another store that had my choice in stock.  I carried it home right then and I successfully installed it within the next couple of days.

And these are just systems that deal with one company in one industry.  The old Econ major down deep inside of me wonders how anyone can expect a centrally planned economy to work when the home store has trouble selling me a microwave?

I am sure that some of you will tell me that my issues are more the result of bad software (often caused by poor input from the business implementing the software).  But isn’t that the problem in itself?  Somebody, somewhere, has to anticipate and accommodate every possible situation that will occur during the life of the electronic system.  Which cannot be done.

Perhaps I am old fashioned (don’t answer that) but I prefer to live in a world where the machines are there to serve me rather than the other way around.  

Photo Credit:

1970 photo of Student programmers at the Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany using IBM 026 keypunches via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 3.0 de license.

20 thoughts on “Have Programmers Have Ruined The World?

  1. Speaking as a programmer: the trick is to build in back doors.

    I was at Meijer on Saturday and one of the things I bought was foot powder. The sign said “buy one, get a second $5 off.” So I bought two.

    At checkout it didn’t discount the $5. So I asked the clerk, and she entered a $5 coupon on the spot, no approval needed.

    Meijer has a policy that gives clerks discretion up to a certain dollar amount, and a means in the software to allow it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I figured you would weigh in with a relevant addition to this discussion. I don’t doubt that lots of smart people work really hard to come up with good, user-friendly systems. And that many systems work well for 98% of what normally comes up. I also don’t doubt that much of the problem comes from the businesses themselves in telling you what they need – which probably miss things. Like when my clients leave out things I really needed to know because they didn’t think those things were important. Garbage in-Garbage out applies to a lot more than data, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The benefit of this system (at least for those selling the product) is no actual thought is required. Just say no – your denial excuse is right there. What harm is there in being a slave to software?

    Okay, I’m cranky this morning. But what you describe is rampant and very real. A coworker and I once stopped at a DQ. He desired Sandwich A with the bun from Sandwich B and was curtly told “we can’t do that” to which he stated “sweetie, do you comprehend the difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’? I hear a ‘won’t’ in your statement.”

    While I’m not much on posting videos, I recently used the video below in a training class I put together as it addresses exactly what you describe combined with the perk of a cashier not having to think – and it has a dose of mentoring at the end. I think those of us above a certain age can identify with this all too well.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You’re right, I can’t remember the last time I heard “How can I make this work for you?” but I sure have heard “The system won’t let me do that” a lot, as well as used it myself.

    My greatest gripes are the cost of these new systems and setting them up. A University professor buddy of mine told me that department funding used to be pretty loosey goosey but there was enough money to go around. Then the University spend a ton of money implementing an ERP system that keeps tight control of every dollar, but it cost so much that there’s precious few dollars left and a lot more time spent justifying what you get. What’s better?

    And when we get a new project at work I spend a solid week trying to cram it into SAP and our other systems, goodness knows why our CEO thought it was smart to use aerospace software to design tanks and platforms. I’d ask him, but he got fired after the new systems hobbled the entire company.

    Well I feel a little better now, although I did see a few flakes of snow this morning. Winter tires await this weekend, at least I can manage that myself without going into the system to requisition a service order.

    Liked by 2 people

    • All good points – and when you finally commit to a system, it is a major, major problem when you get dissatisfied and try jumping to another platform. I did that with a practice management system at my old office. “Oh yes, everything will transfer over” they say up front – until it doesn’t, at least not in a form you can use.

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  4. You have identified a genuine phenomenon which everyone has experienced–but this is the first time I’ve seen it clearly written about. Such employees are “button pushers”: “Doing their job” to them means “pushing the buttons,” not “serving the customer in practical ways.” Not that they have control over the situation, because the inflexible computer system won’t let them do what is necessary and convenient in non-standard situations. As multi-national chains replace local independent businesses, the problem only gets worse and more Orwellian.

    The worst examples of this are the 3 major credit agencies (Experian, et al.–Why we need THREE of these monsters I don’t know.) You can’t talk to anyone, and even if you do, you have to go through a tedious and time-consuming procedure to fix any errors or discrepancies that affect your credit rating and aren’t your fault. And they have no reason to care whether you are successful or not. I make the joke that I’d much rather deal with Mr. Potter at the bank [It’s a Wonderful Life] than the automated system or modern-day “associates” who are locked into the inflexible procedures you describe. At least I can TALK TO and MAKE A DEAL with Potter. And Potter doesn’t use voicemail! [And he’s not calling from India!]

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it seems that almost every business is either going maximum efficiency at minimum cost (which requires standardization of everything) or custom/bespoke everything which is pure customer service but slow and expensive. There seems to be very little in the middle anymore.

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  5. The old photo at the top reminds me of my university room-mates – they were the only two females in the computer science program in the late 70’s and spent many an all-nighter in the computer lab programming in something called COBOL, in the days before Steve Jobs had even invented Apple.
    I had the same experience trying to buy a microwave before Thanksgiving one year, and as I needed it sooner I went to another store where I could buy one off-the-shelf. Maybe the first store excelled on inventory management but they are losing sales too.

    Sadly, your post is all to true. I find that stores are the worst for using the “computer excuse” but it has invaded all areas of society – last week I tried to book a flu shot online through the local health unit. I created an account and picked a day but it wouldn’t let me proceed to the next page so I called and they redirected me to the tech support person who didn’t know why it didn’t work, so he decided to book me in manually (I had a vision of him penciling me in with a good old fashioned pencil!) but by then (noon) the clinic was full, so we had to pick a day two weeks away. After we had the chance to get the shot at our local pharmacy, I tried to cancel the online appointment but there was no place on the website to cancel – so I had to call and leave a message on someone’s overloaded voice mail system (we are experiencing higher than normal phone calls due to COVID testing etc). A few days later I got an email that the appointment was cancelled, but it left me longing for the days when you could just talk to a person or walk into a clinic and take a number.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess people have been dealing with the tradeoff of one-size-fits-all for low cost since the day’s of Henry Ford’s Model T, but now we are adding a one-process-fits-all for almost everyone in certain areas.

      I am old enough that the one computer class I took in college involved occasional use of the school’s mainframe via punch cards. And more than once I would walk across campus to be greeted with the sign on the front door of the building proclaiming that “The Computer Is Down”.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank goodness we have exceptions to the rule on this topic. Southwest Airlines has built a reputation on “making things right”. They flew us to/from Austin last weekend and we had to change our flights going (missed it) and coming back (weather). In both situations the change was made effortlessly, with a smile, and without penalty. Clearly SWA has the software to accommodate the unexpected. From my days at Hewlett Packard, I know there are too many business operations programs sold as one-size-fits-all. You’ll pay more for the programming to make them really fit your needs (which is where the real money is). But I suspect most customers shoehorn the out-of-the-box program, which results in helpless employees and frustrated customers. More important to this topic I agree: the bigger concern is a mindset that cannot think outside of the box (i.e. chained to software or processes) to figure out another way to take care of the customer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And it’s not always the software. Companies have been offering limited choice for less cost ever since Henry Ford sold Model Ts only in black. Sometimes it’s just the business model.

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  7. At least once a day I say (or perhaps mutter) that the world moves way too fast for me and I’d like to jump off and return to a simpler era. Maybe it is just too much digital age … yes, if not for the digital age, you and I would not be “chatting” in this forum. Today Comcast decided to do an upgrade from 1:00 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. … nice timing as I’m sure I’m not the only person working from home these days, nor all the students in all levels of school. Not too considerate of Comcast which reported it as an outage and afterward, an “upgrade to enhance your Xfinity experience.” (Likely going to 5G.) People saying they cannot do things as the equipment is not compatible, don’t seem they want to learn either – people are content to maintain the status quo and I must admit that I have that mindset too … is it because I am 64 1/2? Or is it digital and info overload? I can remember working at the diner, starting in 1973 and getting to work the cash register as I knew how to make change. The manager said of his own granddaughter who worked with me on Saturdays: “don’t let her near the cash register – she doesn’t know how to give back the right amount – what do they teach you kids in school these days anyway?”

    Liked by 1 person

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