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Why software fails

Why software fails - on AIR JAM The U.S Federal Aviati...

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Have you heard the one about the disappearing warehouse? One day, it vanished—not from physical view, but from the watchful eyes of a well-known retailer’s automated distribution system. A software glitch had somehow erased the warehouse’s existence, so that goods destined for the warehouse were rerouted elsewhere, while goods at the warehouse languished. Because the company was in financial trouble and had been shuttering other warehouses to save money, the employees at the “missing” warehouse kept quiet. For three years, nothing arrived or left. Employees were still getting their paychecks, however, because a different computer system handled the payroll. When the software glitch finally came to light, the merchandise in the warehouse was sold off, and upper management told employees to say nothing about the episode. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES We waste billions of dollars each year on entirely preventable mistakes 42 IEEE Spectrum | September 2005 | NA www.spectrum.ieee.org By Robert N. Charette AIR JAM: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration spent $2.6 billion trying to upgrade its air-traffic- control system, only to cancel the project in 1994. Gridlocked skies are still with us today.
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GRAHAM BARCLAY/BLOOMBERG NEWS/LANDOV www.spectrum.ieee.org September 2005 | IEEE Spectrum | NA 43 This story has been floating around the information technology industry for 20-some years. It’s probably apocryphal, but for those of us in the business, it’s entirely plausible. Why? Because episodes like this hap- pen all the time. Last October, for instance, the giant British food retailer J Sainsbury PLC had to write off its US $526 million investment in an automated supply-chain management system. It seems that merchandise was stuck in the company’s depots and warehouses and was not get- ting through to many of its stores. Sainsbury was forced to hire about 3000 additional clerks to stock its shelves manually [see photo, “Market Crash”]. This is only one of the latest in a long, dismal history of IT projects gone awry [see table, “Software Hall of Shame” for other notable fiascoes]. Most IT experts agree that such failures occur far more often than they should. What’s more, the failures are universally unprejudiced: they happen in every country; to large companies and small; in commercial, nonprofit, and governmental organizations; and without regard to status or reputa- tion. The business and societal costs of these failures— in terms of wasted taxpayer and shareholder dollars as well as investments that can’t be made—are now well into the billions of dollars a year. The problem only gets worse as IT grows ubiquitous. This year, organizations and governments will spend an estimated $1 trillion on IT hardware, software, and serv- ices worldwide. Of the IT projects that are initiated, from 5 to 15 percent will be abandoned before or shortly after delivery as hopelessly inadequate. Many others will arrive late and over budget or require massive reworking. Few IT projects, in other words, truly succeed.
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