February 27, 2015
We’ve all been there, that dreadful moment when no matter how much tedious testing you’ve done, the sleepless nights spent coding until dawn, and what do you get in return: A bug! In order to lighten the mood and make your problems seem less disastrous in retrospect, I want to share with you the biggest software blunders in history. I hope you get as big a kick out of it as I did. The next time your software goes awry, or you’re down about having to spend your weekend testing, remember these situations and their catastrophic effects on their company’s business and you won’t feel so badly anymore.
Just as a forewarning, many of these blunders could have been easily avoided by testing the software beforehand. If you’re not running both integration and unit tests on all of your programs before release, you risk this chance of catastrophic failure. If you’re running a .NET application it’s essential to test each individual unit of code to make sure it runs appropriately by itself. For instance, a tool like Typemock allows you to run these tests fluently. To make sure all of the individual pieces of code work together in the system use a .NET platform like Microsoft’s asp.net mvc and you should be thoroughly covered from ending up like one of these guys.
Check out 9 of the biggest software blunders of all time:
Michigan Inmates released months before sentencing time
In 2005, 23 prisoners being held in the Michigan Department of Corrections were released early due to a computer programming glitch. While these inmates received a pleasant surprise, an undisclosed amount of prisoners were kept in jail beyond their imminent release dates.
IRS costs America $300 million in the matter of…seconds
You wouldn’t think the organization hunting Americans down to pay their taxes would be the same organization to cost them a portion of their trillion-dollar deficit at the time. In 2006 the Internal Revenue Service, working without an automated refund fraud detection system to call out potential fraudulent cases in returns claiming funds, cost America $300 million in damages and another $21 million to fix it.
Microsoft customers accused of pirating
Someone on the Windows team within Microsoft accidentally installed a bug-filled preproduction software on all of the Windows servers. For 19 hours, all Windows XP customers were told they were running pirated software, while Windows Vista customers had some of their most important features turned off. Not only did this create a lot of disgruntled customers, but it tarnished their name with bad publicity and all could have been easily resolved by testing software before deploying it.
Dangerous Criminals on Parole in California
If you thought the Michigan inmates being released early was a serious consequence, that’s a pity story compared to what happened in California. In 2011, 450 high-risk violent criminals were released from a California county prison due to a mistake in the computer’s programming. The state was asked to reduce the prison population by 33,000 with an obvious preference toward non-violent offenders. Instead 450 felons were released, and according to their classification they didn’t even have to meet with parole officers making many of them free to this day.
50 Million-Wide Blackouts
Darkness spread throughout 8 U.S states and all of Ontario affecting 50 million people in 2003. PC Authority described the cause as a race condition bug. This is the result of two separate threads of a single operation using the same element of code. Without proper synchronization, the threads will tangle and inevitably crash the system. In this case the race condition bug demonstrated its capabilities with 256 power plants going offline, causing major disruptions in cellular communication.
Radiation patients undergo their last therapy session
A tragic accident occurred in six radiation patients where they were delivered the wrong type of therapy. The software that powered the unit wasn’t tested properly. This resulted in a defect where the operator, upon changing the mode of the device, would send the machine two sets of instructions. Because of this incident all of them suffered from radiation poisoning, which claimed several of their lives.
Osprey Aircraft Crash
Around Christmas time in the year 2000, a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey (a hybrid airplane and helicopter) suffered a hydraulic system fail. One of the hydraulic lines broke in one of the engine cases as the Osprey was shifting from airplane to helicopter mode for landing. According to the Marine Corps major general, the trouble was compounded by a computer software anomaly. Following the hydraulic failure the flight control computer stopped rotating the engine pods.
LAX Flights Grounded
Due to a single piece of faulty embedded software, tons of incorrect data was sent out on the U.S Border and Customs control network during a 2007 incident. This lead to the LAX airport shutting the entire place down for 8 hours; no one was allowed to leave or enter the airport. More than 17,000 planes were grounded until they resolved this issue.
UK Border and immigration system flaw
A similar faulty piece of embedded software caused one of the costliest software failures of all time, with estimated costs up to 1 billion pounds. The UK’s system was incapable of dealing with backlog cases and this resulted in 29,000 applications on backlog. The department also failed to locate 50,000 people when they were asked to find them.
Now that you’ve seen some of the biggest software blunders of all time, it makes your own problems seem rather petty, right? This is not to undermine the importance of learning from every mistake and of course testing, testing, and more testing. According to research by KPMG, 50% of these software incidents occur because of software coding errors or failed IT changes and are avoidable.
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