hand-waving and subject matter expertise

From this recent project I’ve been dis­cussing, I have one more point. Our cus­tomers can make trans­fers into oth­er accounts. The ven­dor told us that it would “hard fail” if the cus­tomer tried to go over their bal­ance. “Hard fail” sound­ed fan­cy, and we were assured that it would pre­vent penal­ties.

How­ev­er, I was able to show that cus­tomers could go over their bal­ance once the fees were includ­ed, and it would­n’t fail. There were actu­al­ly a num­ber of ways a per­son could trans­fer more than they had to give. Turns out “hard fail” was­n’t any­thing fan­cy, and it only hap­pened at one point in the process, rather than it being a con­tin­u­ing thing. Busi­ness got involved, said the inter­nal peo­ple had con­trol over whether to assess the penal­ties and that they “prob­a­bly” would­n’t assess those penal­ties. Final­ly, a per­son who had done that kind of work spoke up to assure us that he had nev­er seen a penal­ty not assessed.

It’s anoth­er bat­tle I lost. (I lost a lot of bat­tles on this project, but there were also just lots of bat­tles.) The finan­cial insti­tu­tion assumes that peo­ple won’t be that fool­ish, or per­haps the insti­tu­tion just likes those penal­ties.

I learned a les­son about thor­ough­ly under­stand­ing process­es. Before the true mean­ing of “hard fail” came to light, and before a sub­ject mat­ter expert spoke up, it was just hand-wav­ing. We test­ed it with our assump­tions that there were fail-safes involved, when there weren’t real­ly. It took push­ing the issue and not giv­ing into the hand-wav­ing that we were able to make an informed deci­sion about the process.

The project also taught me not to trust any­one, par­tic­u­lar­ly ven­dors, when they talk about behav­iors. When they say some­thing is “as designed”, they often mean “no design” or “designed with­out thought”. The prod­uct was exhil­a­rat­ing to test, because it was so very bro­ken, but it was also immense­ly frus­trat­ing to be stonewalled by the ven­dor at most steps.