Better Bugs

Posted by bob on August 5, 2013

The title of my blog “Better Bugs” comes from an apocryphal story I must have heard somewhere.  Apparently, the Big Boss of an organization had called an emergency meeting following a long and painful investigation.  The root cause of this problem had turned out to be a simple human error, followed by a chain of (predictable) communication failures.  In other words, everybody was doing their job, everybody was trying very hard, but this problem had just been missed at the beginning and then the follow-up later was not very good.

The Big Boss stalked back and forth in front of his employees, red in the face.  Most stared at the ground or up into space, as if they were communing with distant spirits.  The Big Boss's wide shoulders and massive forearms looked as though they might be able to place several employees in direct contact with those distant spirits—meaning “pow, zoom, to the moon!”  The smell of fear wafted from employee to employee.

Finally, a growl erupted from the Big Boss’s throat and swelled until distinct words were formed.

“I want better bugs, dammit,” he roared.

At that point, the Big Boss did something amazing and smart.  He simply walked out of the room, leaving behind a stunned group of engineers, programmers, and junior managers to sort out his words.

“What the heck?”  “Did you hear what he said?”  “What did that mean?”

Within a few seconds, the room was filled with anguished complaints, until one of the junior managers stood and waited for them to settle.

“I think I know what the Big Boss meant.  I will explain and we can discuss it further,” he began.

“I don’t believe he really wants any bugs at all.  But if he has to suffer problems, he is asking us to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  He means that it is easy to explain a really difficult and really intricate or tricky problem to a customer.  Everybody is much more willing to forgive when the bug is nearly impossible to find or shows up in a really sneaky way.”

“But instead, we have just spent a lot of time and effort these past few weeks chasing a very obvious problem that we should have caught in our checklists.  If we had just looked, we would have seen the problem.  Worse than that, when the problem was first reported, we did not listen to the customer.  At each step, we assumed that the customer was an idiot and that we could not be at fault.  But in the end, we are the ones looking stupid.  The worst part is that we had a nearly identical problem two months ago.  This should have moved up in priority on our checklists and we should all have been sharing that first bug report to make us all a little smarter.  Instead, I am afraid that we buried the mistake, hoping that nobody would notice.”

Heads were nodding slowly, as each person began to understand what the Big Boss’ strange words really meant.  Several checklists were updated that afternoon and the quality group organized some additional training.  No employees were called out, demoted, or fired.  But oddly, high quality photographs began circulating in emails.  Some of these were even printed and decorated the walls to remind the engineers to use the tools available to them to recognize and respond to simple, classic problems.  And while each photograph had a different caption, they all used the same heading: Better Bugs.