How to spot a computer error (Part One)


It amazes me to think how much Post Office Ltd (POL) rely on their subpostmasters to report errors in the Horizon computer system.  Without such reports Horizon would presumably still have hundreds if not thousands of errors in it.  Yet to become a subpostmaster the requirements are limited.  An aspiring subpostmaster has to apply for the position and along with his application form submit a business plan.  They then have to attend an interview during which the will explain how they intend to profit from having a Post Office.   Business plans can be daunting for some to prepare so applicants can pay £600 to POL – sorry the NFSP – and they will prepare the business plan for the applicant.  POL – sorry the NFSP – will also advise the applicant on what to say during the interview.  I don’t know the statistics for failures at the interview stage but as the NFSP – sorry POL – are so desperate for subpostmasters there can’t be many.

Something missing I hear you ask?  Well yes indeed there is.  Strangely enough no aptitude test is required, no computer experience is required and certainly no experience of running a post office is required.  A business plan prepared by POL – sorry the NFSP – and an interview is all you need.  Stranger still is that if the applicant changes his mind and decides he would rather apply for a job as a counter assistant with the NFSP – sorry POL, then they WOULD have to take an aptitude test before they even got to submit their application!  Bizarre and should I say?? … OK I will … Beyond Belief!

So to help out the now current subpostmasters with no aptitude and computer experience here is an idea of what it takes to identify a computer error, because you will need to and if you can’t then if it causes you a loss you will have to pay for it.  No need to ask the NFSP – sorry POL – well actually both – because they believe there are no errors in Horizon, a fact unfortunately you cannot rely on.  Oxymoron time – yet they rely on you to report the errors otherwise they would continue to exist and hundreds of claimants would have to get together and sue the NFSP – sorry POL – for the lack of robustness in their computer system.

Let me give you an example of what an error might look like.

The most serious error I ever discovered during my time at Citibank was while I was working on a project in Budapest.  Citibank’s computer systems for Central and Eastern Europe had been centralised and ran out of Warsaw but there were a few satellite systems still local to Budapest which required an overnight feed of data from Warsaw.  Paper reports on this data were prepared and each morning various clerks analysed these.  As it happens I was working in the Credit Risk department at the time and across from me was a young lad who had to analyse an FX Risk Report every morning from one of the paper reports I mention above.  I was in Budapest for several months so I got to know what his job was and the contents of the report.  Over a couple of weeks it suddenly dawned on me that the physical size of the printed report that landed on his desk each morning was getting smaller and smaller and he was finishing his task earlier and earlier.  So I investigated and found that the data that was being sent from Warsaw was not being refreshed and the local internal system was dealing only with the trades that were still live hence the reduction in the size of the report.  It was quite a serious matter at the time because the effect was to provide the FX traders with more Risk Appetite than they should have had to trade and the consequences of that could have been in the millions of dollars.

The bug was found in Warsaw and the feeds started coming through normally again.  I am pretty sure that someone else would have found the same bug eventually when the report had dwindled to nothing or huge FX losses had been made however it was only because I was seated opposite this clerk for an extended period of time that the error was noticed earlier.  Worth noting that the effect of the error remained unnoticed by the end user of the system for a period of time presumably because he had no computer experience, wrong aptitude, and his National Federation Support People had helped him with his CV to get the job.  Lucky Citibank didn’t seek retribution and ask him to pay back money they had lost otherwise he would have had to find 500 or so other Citibank employees in a similar situation and counter sue the bank.

However to be fair I was a computer programmer and analyst and it was my job to notice these things.  During my time at Citibank, in fact my whole IT career, I was working on bug fixes all the time, because in the most part the system with the bug in it had not taken account of exceptional circumstances that could arise.  Programmers can’t think of everything.

There are many noticeable effects of bugs and errors in systems but many are also hidden from the user and are exceptionally difficult to spot.   Surprising, irrational perhaps, that POL – NFSP – POL can’t remember which one now – rely on people with no computer experience to report these effects.

More to follow on finding bugs in software systems …



3 thoughts on “How to spot a computer error (Part One)

  1. To be fair, at least POL allow this level of ineptitude at all levels of the organisation.

    How would PV have got so high, without incomnpetence

    Not to mention the inept AVDB

    These people have taken the Peter Principle to levels he wouldn’t have had the effrontery to dream of

    And then there’s Mrs May………..


  2. And to draw the comparison with Mr Rolls x/e yesterday, you are able to tell this story now because it was so incredible, so remarkable, that it stuck in your mind. It may be one of several similar incidents. But over time incidents like this stand out. This is why Rolls may have exaggerated not their importance but the time spent on them.

    I have similar non-technical stories about saving company from industrial relations disaster when new owners hadn’t got a clear about the consequences of their actions.


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