Last week, I dragged you guys into the bowels of my technical support journey with the WordPress Happiness Engineers. Along the way, I offered some hope that the future wouldn’t hold too many of those technical travelogues:
“Computers can do those things, easily, but they have to know all the steps in the workflow, and they have to understand the complete range of values and the results of all those judgements. Well, the programmer writing the software has to know those things. Next week, I’ll share some comical-ish results of not knowing enough.”
So, what happens when everyone on the project is only able to see a portion of the picture? In a nutshell, opportunities for fraud and costly errors. There might be other stuff, but I did suggest that I’d make this somewhat comical.
Southwest Shipping and Delivery, Inc – If you’re old enough to remember the time before PCs, then you might remember computer terminals that offered 24 rows of 80-character lines. The challenge for developers in those days was how to get all the necessary information to fit on the screen and still have the display make sense. One of the things we used to do was to truncate certain fields.
The airfreight company I worked for contracted with shipping companies at every station to deliver packages that were too far from the airport. This practice was called “Cartage Beyond Shipping” and it was good business for our company and the local shippers who didn’t mind driving all over, in this case, Arizona. We paid these people for making those deliveries, and the person processing those invoices had to have enough information to approve the payment. She had an invoice number, and the name needed to match a known vendor. Unfortunately, we only had room to display 24 characters of that name – so, in the case of the sub-title above, “SOUTHWEST SHIPPING AND D” – That’s fine, right?
Well, not if the woman processing the invoice had a boyfriend in Phoenix who created a fake shipping company called “Southwest Shipping and Delivery Services of Phoenix.” The screen and the payment approval report both looked fine, but the money, in this case a bogus payment, would be sent to her boyfriend. They were caught by accident when the Phoenix Station Manager was visiting. He knew that they no longer used Southwest Shipping and Delivery, Inc.
Unidentifiable Payments – One consulting project I worked on was with a mortgage company that had “lost track of” $93 million. My team was assigned to find that money. After a review of the overall operation, we identified 23 distinct processes. We started reviewing each of those. I was given “Unidentifiable Payments” to research.
The woman in charge of this process, was about 20 years old, and had no special training in computers, accounting or mortgage processing. She was a secretary who had been give the additional assignment of tracking down these oddball payments. An unidentifiable payment was something like a check or a money order that just showed up in an envelope with no way to link it to a specific mortgage. You might ask, “how could that even happen?” I did. I was told:
“Well, some people, particularly in the south (this was 1985) don’t have checking accounts. So, they give cash to a family member, and that person writes a check for them. They send the check in, but sometimes they forget to include the coupon or the account number.” The woman went onto explain: “I hold the check, because they will get a late notice, then they’ll call. Those calls are routed to me, and I can fix the whole thing.”
Great plan, except:
1) Due to the high volume of loans, the bank had to increase the size of the account number. Until that project was complete, the origination system wasn’t assigning account numbers to new mortgages. That meant they couldn’t print a coupon book. The developers told the mortgage service clerks to match payments by the last name and the address on the check. This was safe, because the processing screen would verify those items and the payment amount.
2) Because of a different problem that was causing an internal delay in processing payments, the bank had stopped sending late notices.
When I asked the woman how many calls she received on a daily basis, she said “none lately.” When I asked what she did with the checks, she unlocked a drawer in her desk. There, neatly filed by last name were $2.3 million worth of uncashed checks. It took our team several weeks to track down each person, sometimes calling the local bank for assistance, so we could tie the checks to a loan. Then, it took several more weeks to calculate what should have been the principle and interest remaining on the mortgage that the system considered to be in default.
I’m out of room for today, but I’ll return to this theme.
Additional signs of spring are on today’s gallery.