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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Robert Glass has carved out one heck of a niche for himself: master of disaster. Through his columns in ACM Communications Magazine, and his 20 books (notably Software Runaways and Computing Calamities), he's become the IT industry's go-to guy on why software projects fail -- and what can be learned from those failures.
Of late, in the wake of the dotcom collapse, he's got plenty of new material to work from. Hence, ComputingFailure.com, a book that brings together the practical lessons of 40 new software and technology industry failures.
The book is an anthology of the best, most thoughtful news coverage on these failures, with commentary added by Glass himself. It goes well beyond the borders of the Web, including "traditional" failures in both the private and public sector. And it goes well beyond failures of technology. In fact, if these failures have anything in common, it's a failure (or, on occasion, pure venality) of all-too-human management.
Some of these case studies are as high profile as they come in the late, lamented "new economy." There's Pets.com, which couldn't even be saved by its sock puppet (worth remembering next time someone tells you branding is everything). Why did it fail? A fouled-up cost model that could've only worked with enormous volumes -- and not enough capital to ever reach those volumes.
There's Boo.com, whose incomprehensible site -- and utter lack of financial controls -- managed to burn through $135 million in practically no time. (Much of it spent redesigning its animated character, Miss Boo and running up the tab at New York's Soho Grand and other swanky joints.) There's even Netscape, which survives as a hollowed-out shell within the corporate megatitan now known as AOL Time Warner.
Not all the interesting dotcom failures made headlines. There's ePatients, which sought to build a global patient-to-patient support network, but instead fell victim to classic misunderstandings and disputes between its cofounders, venture capitalists, consultants, and CEO. Or, MetaFinancial (too much technology, not enough business development skills). Or Dressmart, another European clothing e-tailer that managed to avoid Boo.com's exceses, but still fell victim to the "expand fast at all costs to achieve first-mover advantage" philosophy which killed so many dotcoms.
Of course, technology failures aren't limited to the dotcom space -- far from it. There's InaCom, once one of the world's leading PC distributors, yet utterly incapable of adjusting to the dramatic changes in the PC business wrought by Dell and other direct sellers. There's the large Blue Cross licensee that wound up scrapping a gigantic investment in a new claims payment system that just wouldn't work (key lessons: "Don't assign anyone to more than one major undertaking at a time. Don't let a doomed project run on -- admit it's failed and announce the failure.")
There's Hershey Foods' disastrous new automated delivery system, which couldn't get candy to stores in time for Halloween. And there's Virginia's disastrous ERP implementation (to quote Enterprise Development: "The real way to implement a commercial ERP system like PeopleSoft successfully is to use the vanilla system pretty much as is, changing the business rules to match the software. Not so easy when some of those business rules are also state laws.")
The reasons for failure are legion: inadequate attention to development processes; constant changes in specs; failure to gain commitment from upper management; inadequate infrastructure; the wrong tools; and many others. For all these, however Glass turns out -- amazingly -- to be an optimist. "In our day-to-day lives," he says, "perhaps to some extent unbeknownst to us all, software is doing its thing -- and our things -- in a hugely successful way." Yes, it's possible to do software (or even dotcoms) right. It's a lot more likely if you know what to watch out for. And when it comes to that, there's no better guidebook.(Bill Camarda)
--Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer with nearly 20 years' experience in helping technology companies deploy and market advanced products and services. He served for nearly ten years as vice president of a New Jersey-based marketing company, where he supervised a wide range of graphics and web design projects. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000