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TSB Fiasco: a parable for our time

Image: Stephen Craven

The late Douglas Adams told a story about (among other things) the origins of life on our planet.  In the tale, life was kick-started when an alien spaceship that had stopped for repairs exploded on take-off.  The reason the ship exploded was all too human.  The Captain sent a drone – an “electric monk” – to check that the ship’s systems were ready for take-off.  But the monk – a psychological devise designed (like social media) to tell people only what they want to hear – falsely reported that the ship was ready to go.  In fact, had the Captain sent one of the ship’s overburdened engineers, she would have discovered that the ship’s systems were still in a dangerous state of disrepair.  On the say-so of the monk, the Captain initiated the launch system, thereby causing the biggest non-natural explosion this planet has ever seen; instantly wiping out everyone and everything on board the ship and simultaneously giving birth to our distant protozoan ancestors.

If the story sounds familiar it is because it is one we have heard many times.  Consider the ill-fated Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized outside Zeebrugge harbour killing 193 passengers after its Captain had set sail with the ship’s bow doors wide open.  At the inevitable inquiry that followed, it turned out that the crewman responsible for closing the doors had been fast asleep in his cabin having been on duty for more than 12 hours.  Not hearing from the crewman, the Captain chose to believe that all was well, and made full steam for Dover.

Just a year before that ill-fated voyage, people around the world were shocked by something very similar.  Going to space is always a dangerous activity.  However, attempting to take off in sub-zero temperatures that may have frozen key components of your rocket is a particularly reckless thing to do.  Nevertheless, on the evening of 27 January 1986, managers at NASA pressured their engineers into acquiescing in a political decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger the following morning.  The engineers had raised particular concerns about the seals on the solid fuel boosters.  Since these were not designed to operate at such low temperatures, there was a risk that they would fail.  However, since the engineers were unable to quantify the risk or to determine what would happen if one or more seal failed, the managers pressed ahead with the launch.  So it was that just 73 seconds into the flight, Challenger’s main fuel tank exploded killing everyone on board.

It is in this context that we need to view the TSB computer fiasco – an attempt to build a shiny new computer infrastructure to replace the decades-old legacy system inherited from Lloyds bank.  An article by Tanya Andreasyan for Banking Tech is typical of the managerial bullshit that was being pumped out about the new system in the months before it all went wrong:

“’We have created a more digital, agile and flexible TSB,’ stated Paul Pester, CEO of TSB, at the unveiling of the bank’s new technology platform, Proteo4UK…

“Pester says the new set-up is going to save TSB over £100 million a year. At present, the bank continues to rely on Lloyds (the two were one entity until four years ago) for its core banking software, which is provided on a hosted basis and costs £220 million a year. ‘We are liberating TSB by moving to the new platform,’ Pester states. In addition to significant cost saving, it enables flexibility in choosing providers and partners, he explains… ‘It’s the technology journey that we are on together with our customers’…”

In reality, Proteo4UK turned out to be a turkey that has cost TSB any reputation that its advertising claiming that “We’re TSB, and we’re different from other banks” may have generated.  Not only has that goodwill disappeared, but after more than a fortnight of problems, so too have millions of pounds that will have to be paid to compensate customers whose monthly salaries did not get to them and whose direct debits bounced.

The story is familiar enough.  Instead of inviting the computer engineers to explain how best to upgrade the TSB computer systems, the management chose to invite the computer sales people – the modern equivalent of Adams’ electric monks – to tell them what they wanted to hear… that for a few million euros they could have a brand new system complete with bells and whistles that would be the envy of every other bank on the planet.  And as we could have guessed, this emperor turned out to have no clothes.  As Samuel Gibbs at the Guardian explains:

“The banking software at the heart of TSB’s troubles this week was doomed to failure from the start, an insider with extensive knowledge of the systems involved has said…

“By March 2017, the nightmare for customers that was going to unfold a year later appeared inevitable. ‘It was unbelievable – hardly even a prototype or proof of concept, yet it was supposed to be fully tested and working by May before the integration work started,’ the insider continued. ‘Senior staff were furious about the state it was in. Even logging in was problematic.’”

Despite ongoing problems, cost pressures led to urgency among managers to launch the new system. Nevertheless, a planned launch in Autumn 2017 was put off, ostensibly due to the interest rate rise:

“[TSB owner, Banco] Sabadell pushed back the switchover to April to try to get the system working. It was an expensive delay because the fees TSB had to pay to [Lloyds Banking Group] to keep using the old IT system were still clocking up: Pester put the bill at £70m.”

So it was that the system was launched disastrously prematurely on 23 April 2018.  Shujun Li, a professor of cybersecurity at the University of Kent’s School of Computing said of this decision in an interview with Wired:

“The conversion of the systems – the data and the interface accessing the data, which links up to the banking system – clearly has not been well-tested before it went online.  The scale of the problem we saw is incredible. It’s impossible if they had done systematic testing of the system. For me, it’s clearly a case of management, rather than purely a technical problem.”

The article goes on to explain that:

“Standard banking practice after making a technical IT change is to then undergo verification testing to make sure the change that’s been made doesn’t throw up new problems. According to [Brian Lancaster, of BLMS Consulting], these tests are rigorous, and the decision to then allow the system to go live to customers is not taken lightly – not least because once you dig yourself into a hole, you have to keep digging.  ‘It’s very hard to go back once you get further banking transactions going through the platform’.”

What we find in the TSB fiasco – and the other examples above – is something called “crackpot realism.”  As John Michael Greer explains:

“Crackpot realism is one of the downsides of the division of labor. It emerges reliably whenever two conditions are in effect. The first condition is that the task of choosing goals for an activity is assigned to one group of people and the task of finding means to achieve those goals is left to a different group of people. The second condition is that the first group needs to be enough higher in social status than the second group that members of the first group need pay no attention to the concerns of the second group.”

The owner and managers at TSB had a goal of escaping the costs incurred from the legacy computer system inherited from Lloyds; itself a cobbled together antiquity adjusted and patched for all of the other mergers, acquisitions and bail-outs that the now publicly-owned bank inherited.  That overriding concern drowned out the many warnings given by the lowly technicians and engineers who could see from day one that catastrophe was looming.

It is important to understand this because it answers one of the most common questions raised by techno-utopian fanboys whenever someone points out the engineering limits on their preferred vision of a high-tech future – “If it is impossible, how come so many skilled engineers and technicians are working on it?”  Running an advanced industrial economy without fossil fuels must be possible because the brightest scientists and engineers on earth are employed to make it happen.  The same goes for the patron saint of the age of progress, Elon Musk’s attempts to defy the laws of physics with everything from battery powered haulage trucks to hyperloops and manned colonies on Mars.  Greer deals with this point too:

“Consider, as an example, the plight of a team of engineers tasked with designing a flying car.  People have been trying to do this for more than a century now, and the results are in: it’s a really dumb idea…  Engineers know this. Still, if you’re an engineer and you’ve been hired by some clueless tech-industry godzillionaire who wants a flying car, you probably don’t have the option of telling your employer the truth about his pet project—that is, that no matter how much of his money he plows into the project, he’s going to get a clunker of a vehicle that won’t be any good at either of its two incompatible roles—because he’ll simply fire you and hire someone who will tell him what he wants to hear.”

Politicians are no different (other than that they’re dining out on someone else’s money).  They simply don’t want to hear objections to their pet project or policy; no matter how ridiculous it is.  So for those whose livelihood depends on pleasing the Minister, telling the Minister what the Minister wants to believe – irrespective of how dumb that might be – is the only thing that stands between them and the dole queue.  Which is why, for example, the town of Tourouvre-au-Perche in Normandy has a one kilometre solar roadway that will take hundreds of years (if ever) to repay its five million euro cost… and why it is merely the first instalment of a 2.7 billion euro plan to build 600km of useless solar roadways.

Fracking, nuclear power, zero-carbon electricity, electric cars and all the other crackpot schemes that our politicians want to believe are somehow going to solve the coming trilemma of economic failure, resource and energy depletion, and environmental collapse are the same; shiny promises from slick salespeople that bear little resemblance to what the hard-pressed engineers can actually deliver.

That is our collective future – like TSB’s computer system – a fantasy based on impossible dreams sold by the sociopathic sales departments of the tech industry.  It is a future in which our children and grandchildren will cast damnation on our souls for eternity for failing to get around to doing what was possible while we chased the impossible right up until the moment of failure.

As you made it to the end…

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