Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Sue the faulty software-producing bastards!

A few weeks ago, I saw an article on boston.com on a group of recent law school grads who are using their new skills to sue ExamSoft Worldwide. Among ExamSoft’s products is bar exam software that students in 43 states must use if they want to take the exam using their personal computer, rather than doing things the stodgy, old-fashioned, but slightly more technology-proof method: paper and a mitt-ful of freshly sharpened, bright yellow Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2’s.

It seems that the majority of those taking the bar exam prefer to use their PC, even though it costs $125-150 vs. Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2, which is free.

I really have no idea what the setting for the bar exam is, but I gather from what I’ve read that students go to a center in their state where the exam is administered, and, if they have ExamSoft installed, they can download the exam questions and fill in the answers digitally.

Apparently, they put there answers in, but don’t do the uploading at the center where they take the test. They have until midnight of test day to get home and upload in the privacy and technical splendor of their own home.

I don’t really get the taking it home part, but I guess I’ll just have to assume that you can’t alter your answers once the time is up and you’re asked to put your Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2 down. Which would be metaphorically speaking, for today’s tech savvy students. Maybe they’re asked to raise their hands, step away from the keyboard, unplug and remove the battery, shut their lid…

Maybe the reason that they have to go home and do their uploading on their own bandwidth is that the system just can’t handle 50,000 would-be barristers simultaneously uploading their answers. Or the individual test centers just don’t have the bandwidth.

But this July, a lot of those who’d elected to take the exam electronically found that they couldn’t get their answers to upload. And as the midnight deadline approached, these would-be barristers had visions of failing the bar – no upload = zero on that portion of the test – and ending up as baristas instead.

All this stress after three years of being pounded in class by Professor Kingsfield knock-offs, spending a few months beating your head against a bar review course, and borrowing $200k to finance law school in hopes that you’ll at least be able to pull off a couple of gigs as an hourly wage court appointed attorney.

Oh, the humanity.

ExamSoft has said that the problem wasn’t one of scale. Their product could, in fact, handle all the potential lawyers. It was a matter of some changes they’d made to the product. Their VP of marketing, Ken Knotts, sounded downright insouciant when addressing the issue:

….‘‘Unfortunately, (recent) upgrades, made in an attempt to improve the exam taker experience, played a role in the post-exam processing delay that some bar exam takers experienced on July 29, despite system field performance review and ongoing monitoring.’’ (Source: boston.com)

Ah, the old blame-it-on-the-customer routine. After all, if those exam takers hadn’t been looking for an improved experience, none of this bad stuff would have happened.

Knotts said in a statement that the company is not aware of any student who missed his or her deadline. ‘‘We absolutely sympathize with the bar applicants who experienced a delay, and we again offer our sincere apologies.’’

Well, hell hath no fury like a law school grad whose electronic answer sheet has been scorned.

Catherine Boohoo Booher is one such law school grad:

‘‘They knew that this was happening and we’re already so unbelievably stressed out as it is,’’ Booher said. ‘‘They’re not getting punished, they’re not apologizing for adding to our mental anguish.

‘‘Had they just come out and said, ‘Oh, my God, we are so sorry’ and refunded my money, maybe it would have been different.’’

ExamSoft is pretty much taking a “no harm/no foul” stance, so let the mental anguish class action suits begin!

I see this as just another one of those glitches - some large, some small – that we can expect to find more and more of as we become more and more dependent on living by, with, for, and on technology.

A few years ago, I was in a store and there was a systems failure of some source. The clerks were freaking out because they had to compute the sales tax by hand. You’d have thought that they were being asked to figure out how to get an out-of-orbit spacecraft back to earth with a slide rule.

What’s going to happen if there’s some sort of crise de GPS, and we have to read a map? Will there be anyone left on earth who remembers how they work?

And god help me if I actually need to remember anyone’s phone number. I think the only ones I still know by heart are my dead mother’s, my dead aunt’s, and my dead grandmother’s.

Perhaps because my career has been in technology, I have quite a refined understanding on how it can fail us. All the testing in the world, and something that you didn’t anticipate can still happen.

Way too many folks, however, have such blind faith in technology that they expect it will all work “six nines”, i.e., that everything will work 99.9999% of the time. And when it doesn’t, they can’t handle it.

I’m sure it was the no fun zone for those taking the bar who had problems uploading their exams. Nerve wracking, for sure.

But see you in court?

Shouldn’t they at least wait and see if there were actually any damages?

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