Five Lessons from Ten Years of IT Failures

IEEE Spectrum has a wonderful article series on Lessons From a Decade of IT Failures. It’s not your typical series in that there are very cool interactive graphs and charts based on data collected from past project failures. They are really fun to play with and I can only imagine how much work it took to put them together.

The overall takeaway of the series is:

Even given the limitations of the data, the lessons we draw from them indicate that IT project failures and operational issues are occurring more regularly and with bigger consequences. This isn’t surprising as IT in all its various forms now permeates every aspect of global society. It is easy to forget that Facebook launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Apple’s iPhone in 2007, or that there has been three new versions of Microsoft Windows released since 2005. IT systems are definitely getting more complex and larger (in terms of data captured, stored and manipulated), which means not only are they increasing difficult and costly to develop, but they’re also harder to maintain.

Here are the specific lessons:

  1. The Staggering Impact of IT Systems Gone Wrong. Some scary big numbers here and as the article points out, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    • The themes: Modernizing IT Systems Is Difficult and Expensive; Digitizing Health Records Is Difficult and Expensive; Banks Rely on Unreliable Technology; Even Brief Stock-Exchange Glitches Are Costly; Even Brief Air-Travel Glitches Are Costly.

    • The failures are measured across a few dimensions: money, people impacted, time wasted. For example: $200 Billion U.S. Army Future Combat System Program Terminated; DOD Cancels Interoperable Electronic Health Record System Project ($1.3 billion); New London Heathrow T5 Baggage System Melts Down (US $32 million, 10 days, 140,000 people).

  2. Overcomplexifying, Underdelivering. Trying to replace multiple systems with one seems almost to be doomed to failure. Nearly all exceed their initial budget estimates while delivering a tiny fraction of expected functionality.

  3. The Life Cycles of Failed Projects. As we’ve learned, more money and more time can’t prevent project disasters. Failures grow larger and more hopeless over time.

  4. The IT Failure Blame Game. Failure reports tend to assign blame to inanimate technology that can’t defend itself or get fired. For example: Airbus Blames Design Software Incompatibility for Airbus A380 Two-Year Delay

  5. Monuments to Failure - Coming Soon

This is the kind of series where you can take your time and wander about. It may feel a bit like wallowing in the misery of others, IT has had it’s share of spectacular failures, but try and have fun anyway. We are only human.

The Making of "Lessons From a Decade of IT Failures"

Why Software Fails (2005)

The Exterminators - A small British firm shows that software bugs aren't inevitable

Risk Factor Blog