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“Due to a technical error…” - Telling Porkies

I recently received a letter in the mail (yes, it was a real one printed on paper and in an envelope) from my local council updating me on some proposed changes to the roads around where I live and work. The proposed changes are daft of course and won’t improve anyone’s life, it’s just another example of local councils showing how ‘woke’ they are and proving how much they enjoy wasting rate payers’ money on their vanity projects. The proposed changes will probably never happen anyway as my local council isn’t known for doing much of anything that requires effort or agreement, though they love wasting money having meetings to dream up new pet projects.

But back to my letter. It was addressed to me and a complete stranger (and no, I haven’t changed life partners recently), the postal address was correct and as it managed to get delivered to my address with at least one correct name on it, I decided to open it. At the same time, at work we received an identical letter from the council, which was addressed to a company we’d never heard of, though their company name started with the same letter of the alphabet as ours. It was addressed to our post office box so we decided to open that one as well, and lo and behold both letters said exactly the same thing.

Well, I got to thinking and quickly realised that whoever had done the mail merge had managed to mis-align the rows in the Excel spreadsheet they were using, which meant the whole mailout was skewed. It’s pretty easy to do and I admit to having made the same mistake myself. In my case, I managed to recheck and fix my mistake before any harm was done.

I decided to phone the sender of the letters (my local council) and point out the error. Well, I clearly wasn’t the first to do so and when I finally reached a human being after listening to a trillion options, the call centre operator had a script prepared which was read out to me with the intention of allaying any fears I might have had of identity theft.

I happily carried on with my life and a few days later received another set of letters from the council which explained that “due to a technical error” there had been a problem with the mailout, but emphasising that my personal data had in no way been compromised.

To be honest I wasn’t worried about my privacy or personal data, but what really raised my hackles was their lame duck excuse that the problem was “due to a technical error”. No, it wasn’t. It was clearly due to a human error, either through inexperience or incompetence, or maybe both. Why couldn’t they just fess up and say someone screwed up? It would have been so refreshing to be treated to a bit of honesty for a change. And why do ‘technical errors’ always become the scape goat?

When you work in a technology company and see the sheer volume of complex work that gets undertaken with very few errors occurring, you appreciate how rarely ‘technical errors’ actually occur and how frequently stuff-ups are caused by people. Yet no-one seems to put their hand up and say “I made a mistake, I got it wrong, I messed up”, they’d rather blame something inanimate like technology.

While technology appears to be an inanimate object with no feelings to hurt, it wouldn’t actually exist without highly skilled and highly trained technicians creating it in the first place. When you’ve blamed a ‘technical or systems error’ for something that clearly wasn’t and was most likely ‘human error’, yours actually, have you ever thought how the technicians of the world might feel?

At the sharp end, it’s akin to slander when you use the excuse that something failed due to a technical or systems error when it didn’t. It puts the software that you use under the spotlight and maligns the provider of that software, potentially damaging their reputation and losing them sales.

Another consideration to be aware of is that most software systems have a logging system that records absolutely everything that happens, when it happens and by whom. The police frequently use these logs as part of their forensic investigations to solve crimes, prove or disprove alibis etc.

Some years ago, a client’s consultant blamed a major deletion of their data on ‘the system’. The consultant was adamant that it was a system error and embarked on a major witch hunt to lay blame. In turn, we provided all the relevant logs which quickly exonerated our system from being the cause of the problem as the logs pointed the finger squarely on the consultant as being the perpetrator. Needless to say, we didn’t work with that particular consultant again, thankfully.

When there is an outage that is actually caused by a technical or system error, and there have been a few over the years, the provider is usually quick to put their hand up to it and take responsibility. Westpac Bank experienced a big problem in the early days of the first Covid lockdown in 2020 when their credit card system crashed, leaving already stressed shoppers at supermarket checkouts with no means to pay for their groceries using their Westpac bank cards. Westpac quickly accepted responsibility and apologised to everyone affected. All credit to them.

I come from a generation that saw computers become mainstream in most business operations in the 1980s and in those days anything that went wrong was blamed on ‘the computer’. Back then ‘the computer’ was seen as some nasty beast hiding away in a back room that had the capability to destroy peoples’ lives. In reality it was not much more than a calculator merged with a typewriter.

While the world of technology has taken massive leaps forward on the Information Highway since then, as a species we don’t seem to have come far in our human behaviour. Maybe it’s time to step up and stop telling such obvious fibs when we mess up. Taking responsibility for being human and fallible has far more integrity. Just a thought.


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