Monday, March 16, 2009

Blame it on the Software?

Software fail. Sometimes at very critical times. But can you make it the 'default' excuse even in cases where the process is supposed to be under a lot of human supervision?

I experienced a small incident where people seem to depend on software too much that when something goes wrong, they blame it on the the software entirely. Although, clearly it was their mistake in the first place and they were supposed to verify the outcome of the software anyways.

So here's the story... I am planning to attend a conference in Spain in April, and since Sri Lankans need visas to enter almost any country in the world, I had to apply for a Schengen Visa at the Spanish Consulate in Boston. They took 2 weeks to process the visa application, and when I got my passport back, I noticed that they have issued the visa from 18-04-00 to 10-05-09. This is absurd because I only asked the visa for 7 days and they had given it for more than 9 years! Had they given the visa for 9 years forward from now, I would've been extremely happy as I could have avoided any future paperwork messes and the ridiculous amounts of money they require to process the applications. But clearly, this was a mistake. So I reported it to avoid any confusion (and with the recent luck I have been having with travel visas, it was definitely better to be safe than sorry!).

Their explanation was very simple: it was a mistake in their software. Now, tell me, do they have some very complicated OCR software to automatically figure out the date I want to go to Spain by processing all the paperwork I submitted? Even if that was the case, shouldn't they at least check the dates of the visa manually before issuing it? If a software was doing all the processing, why did it take them 2 weeks to process the application? My guess is that, it was a small typo and they failed to spot it. One thing that surprises me most is the lack of a software based control to ensure the 'visa issued date' to be less than the 'visa valid from date'. Anyway, after my complaint, I got the visa for the correct time period. But it made me wonder about the correctness of the software that are used by Government agencies. If they can't do a simple date check like this, I fear what other pieces of controls these software might be missing! Even more worryingly, it is sad to imagine they might be using the data collected through such buggy systems for making decisions that might affect somebody's entire future!