Software has become so ubiquitous in our 21st century lives that we often take it for granted. We assume that it’s always going to work when we need it. Or, perhaps even more dangerously, we don’t fully understand the negative repercussions of an error, issue, or failure.
But not everyone has the same luxury of being aloof to the horrors of a software development failure.
As someone who is closely connected in this industry – and has a pretty good pulse on where it’s headed – I’ve seen firsthand how many companies and developers have suffered from software development shortcomings and issues (some that should have been prevented and others that cropped up out of nowhere).
So as a tandem piece to an article I published a while back on examples of failure in artificial intelligence, I’m going to use this article to focus on a few software development failures – some serious and others quite humorous. The hope is that it opens all of our eyes up to just how much is on the line when it comes to software development projects.
10 Real Life Software Development Failures
We tend to think large organizations, Fortune 100 companies, and hot brands never mess up in the same ways that our smaller businesses do. But the reality is that they screw the pooch on occasion, too. And when they do, the stakes are often much higher and more visible.
Here’s a look at some real life situations where software development failures caused massive waves and lasting ripples:
Heathrow Airport Disruption
In February of this year, more than 100 flights in and out of London’s Heathrow airport were cancelled, delayed, or otherwise disrupted after technical issues compromised the departure boards and check-in systems. As a result passengers were left without the critical information they needed about their flights. On top of that, there was limited functionality for electronic tickets (which have become quite common in recent years).
While a Heathrow spokesperson issued a statement and said they couldn’t share any more details about what caused the systems to be affected and/or which systems were impacted, they did promise to continue closely monitoring their systems. (But I can promise you, for all of the calm boilerplate statements they released to the public, there was chaos and shouting behind the scenes.)
Deadly Flaw in Medical Infusion Pumps
The company CareFusion designs and manufacturers advanced medical equipment for some of the top hospitals around the world. Unfortunately, they also have their fair share of recalls. And some of them are more dire than others.
In 2015, the CareFusion Alaris Pump, which is designed to automatically deliver fluids and medicine to hospital patients, had a software error that caused the pump to delay infusion. Thankfully the issue was caught very early on, but the consequences could have been dire – potentially leading to accidental overdosing.
But that’s not all. CareFusion’s week got a lot worse when just four days later they had to issue a Class I recall for a separate line of ventilators. The issue? A software flaw that could cause patients to suffocate.
F-35 Fighter Plane Glitch
A couple of years ago, a software glitch in an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet was identified to have a bug. The bug actually caused planes to incorrectly detect and lock in on the wrong targets when flying in formation.
As the company explained, each of the planes flying in formation must detect a target from varying angles. But the software was unable to differentiate between one target and multiple targets. In essence, the F-35s were seeing double. (And that’s not something you want when flying in formation at high speeds and high altitudes.)
Uber Software Bug Catches “Cheater”
Okay, let’s take a temporary break from the serious ones. Here’s one that’s pretty funny (unless you’re the main character of the story, that is.)
In France, a bug within the Uber app actually revealed a man’s affair with another woman to his wife. It ultimately led to a divorce and got Uber slapped with a $45 million lawsuit.
The bug, which causes Uber notifications to be pushed to a device even after you log out of the account on a specific device, actually sent several notifications to the Frenchman’s wife – clearly outlining his rendezvous to his mistress’ flat. The wife allegedly received the notifications because her husband had once called an Uber from her phone.
Software Bug Aids in Bank Heist
In 2016, a group of advanced hackers/thieves hijacked the Bangladesh Bank System and successfully transferred out over $81 million in four different transactions. They had another $870 million lined up, but a spelling error tipped off the bank and caused these additional transfers to be canceled.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
According to a release by the Bangladesh Bank authorities, there’s a printer set up to automatically print read-outs of all transactions made. But there just so happened to be a glitch in the system (which could have been caused by the thieves, I supposed) that interrupted this printing process. So it wasn’t until several delays later that the transfer receipts were tracked down. This gave the thieves ample time to “get away” and cover their tracks.
TSB Bank Outage Locks Clients Out
When you store your money in a bank, you expect to be able to access it whenever and wherever you want. But, alas, technology doesn’t always afford this freedom. And while you’ve probably experienced a minor glitch in online banking in the past, I bet you’ve never had to go through one like this.
In April 2018, millions of TSB Bank customers were locked out of their accounts after a “simple” upgrade to the software led to a massive banking outage. The system upgrade was planned, but apparently not well enough.
Immediately after TSB turned on the new system, customers began experiencing issues logging in. Others were shown details of other people’s accounts. There were also reports of inaccurate credits and debts. Many customers were locked out of their accounts for two weeks before regaining access.
Hospital Computer Failure
Also in 2018, Wales National Health Service (NHS) experienced a widespread computer failure that led to issues accessing patient files. In many hospitals and facilities, doctors were unable to see patient files. This meant they couldn’t access X-ray results or bloodwork. It also led to a backlog in appointments, since patients couldn’t be seen and the system didn’t allow for cancellations.
A $400 Million Software Glitch
To assist in the sale of the company to Tesla, SolarCity Corp retained an investment bank. But it wasn’t until after the $2.6 billion agreement was signed that the bank, Lazard Ltd., discovered they had actually undervalued their client by roughly $400 million. While the error was too late for the SolarCity shareholders, Tesla did make an offer to provide some stock to make up for the difference in valuation.
Missile Strike False Alarm
You might remember this one, because it was pretty big news at the time. Back in 2018, citizens of Hawaii were given a state-wide alarm to take immediate cover in the face of an inbound ballistic missile strike. As you can imagine, people panicked and did whatever they could to “protect” themselves. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I supposed) it turned out to be a false alarm.
The biggest issue with the entire debacle was that it took more than half an hour for the alert to be retracted. And while investigations would later show the problem to be the result of human error, they did find some very troubling flaws in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s alert origination software.
Toyota Car Accidents
A few years back, Toyota drivers began reporting a troubling issue: Their cars were accelerating without them actually touching the gas pedal. And after a few accidents, which were carefully investigated, it was discovered that software errors in the system were causing these dangerous issues.
According to reports, the software installed on these Toyota cars had a variety of issues like memory corruption, disabling safety systems, incorrect memory handling, and systems with single points of failure. Toyota eventually recalled millions of vehicles and the company’s stock price would eventually drop by 20 percent in a matter of weeks.
It’s Time to Take Software Development Seriously
Are you scared yet? (I’m kidding…)
This article isn’t meant to stop you in your tracks and make you run away from software. My intention is to remind you that software is imperfect. And yet at the same time, finding the right software development company is paramount to the success of your projects.
Software developers are a dime a dozen. Good software developers are rare. Sometimes it’s fine to outsource in-house tasks, but do your due diligence and look for an individual or team that’s both skilled and thorough. And once you find them, don’t let them go!
You can completely insulate your business from risk, but you can maximize downside protection. And a good software developer will take you a long way in pursuit of that goal.
Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.