Thursday, 1 September 2011

Are website gremlins ‘black swans’?

Well, no they aren’t strictly – but what are black swans? Now, this is an interesting project management concept from IT. Black swans in project management terms are catastrophic risks that happen rarely but when they do, they have dire consequences.

We have used IT project management concepts of risk management in the past as the closest to our field of developing iMedia. The classic risk management assessment asks you to assess the risks to your project, starting with the most frequent and important, so that you control these away in the course of the project by various means. But, black swans would appear low on the traditional assessment, if at all. They are low probability but high impact. They are rare in threatening the business and if and when they do occur, humans have tended to sorted them out onerously. However if the technical system is not designed to deal with them and people come to rely on the systems, it can be too late once someone recognises what is going on. Also, the consequences to the business can be compounded by other factors happening at the same time that have nothing to do with the software.

Take a good look at the BBC Technology article on Black Swans earlier this week, where Auto Windscreens is cited as having been the second largest company of its type in the UK but after trying to implement a new IT system, it went into administration in February.

We have the story and the bubble as salient lessons in our sector – hope you’re all old enough to know about those! The article centres on research from Oxford Uni investigating massive IT project budget over-runs and the causes. Perhaps we should be thinking black swans too? Upgrades (for example) can be a big problem for shared hosting, since updating a web or database server on a system where they are shared by hundreds of different web sites risks some of them being broken by the changes. Unfortunately this results in shared hosting continuing to run using out-of-date software, including missing out of security patches.

And the website gremlins? This is a common concept where small changes to a site can have radical and unforeseen consequences. We’re quite used to the idea that any change must be checked out thoroughly and that it can have unforeseen impacts. Most of us rely on systematic testing to check out any changes, I imagine. But where non-professionals are building and repairing sites often for themselves, these gremlins cause lots of angst and can affect business badly too. Here are some examples to bring a smile to your faces – unless you recognise some of the consequences!
  • P9 forum has a classic rant – a bit old, but amusing nevertheless (I like the boffinus notaclueii).
  • Cast Fireplaces saw a change in customer behaviour when their website developed gremlins.
  • Smart Telecom aren’t immune either as a rant on their Broadband Customer Support thread shows
Look out for ‘Black Swans’ now!