Why does so much software suck?

In the United States, tractors built during the 1980s and 1990s are in big demand. “Tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software,” Adam Belz wrote for the Star Tribune in January 2020.

The tractors are extremely reliable and if something breaks down you can get out and fix it or call in a local mechanic. When new tractors break down the farmer must wait for a highly expensive technician to come out who will need to use a computer to help them fix the problem.

Half of the problems faced by car owners are caused by software, according to a 2019 study by J.D. Power. “It’s an issue that J.D. Power claims is down to manufacturers’ desperation to introduce new technology and thus increasing the number of ‘potential problem areas’,” James Fossdyke wrote for motor1.com. I can relate. My car keeps telling me I have low pressure in my tires. I don’t. We kept bringing it into the garage only to find out there was no issue. “I remember the days when we used to test the pressure with our foot against the tire,” the mechanic said, half-jokingly. That’s what I do now.

When it comes to the essentials, it seems, the difference between a 1980 tractor and a 2020 tractor is not that great. However, the difference between a 1980 tractor and a 1950 tractor would have been huge. A 1950 tractor would be an antique compared to a 1990 tractor. For many types of farms, a 1990 tractor does the job just as well as a 2020 tractor and is much simpler and cheaper.

In the last forty years there has been a huge investment in information technology. At the same time, productivity and return on assets have declined. “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” Nobel laureate Robert Solow stated in 1987. Between 2010 and 2020, productivity growth in the UK was 0.3% according to the Royal Statistical Society (RSS). “The UK has just had its worst decade for productivity growth since the early 1800s,” Harriet Grant wrote for The Guardian in 2019.

We have too much software and too many features and we’re racing ahead embracing smart speakers, the Internet of Things and AI. In nine out of ten organizations I’ve consulted with over the years, information technology was bought based on magical assumptions. It was as if the very existence of the technology within the organization would create magical productivity and other amazing things. Except that it didn’t.

Most software sucks. Humans are really bad at designing software that is useful and usable because humans are really bad at choosing software that is useful and usable. Software and technology are still caught up in the features arms race, the power, bandwidth, storage arms races. So few of us take the time to stand back and say: What do we actually need this thing to do?

For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity
Tractors built in 1980 or earlier cause bidding wars at auctions.

In-Car Tech Causing Reliability Problems, Study Finds

And the statistic of the decade award goes to … 0.3%

2 thoughts on “Why does so much software suck?

  1. Mike

    The recently released internal Boeing emails around the 737 MAX scandal focused on that team’s derisive comments towards regulators and airlines, but one particular email gave me pause, and ties into your post. When discussing training requirements (specifically, how Boeing could get around expensive simulator training for pilots) one employee said:
    “ I that skill is not very intuitive anymore with the younger pilots and those who have become too reliant on automation.”
    That’s just one person’s opinion, but how does increased reliance on software erode our intuition? How does a journeyman learn their craft if the menial tasks are handled by a machine?

    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      Good point. I think there’s a general movement away from human skill and interaction towards software-mediated worlds. Also, with Boeing, what we see are the results when they tried to use software to compensate for engineering design flaws in the plane. They thought software would fix the problem and it didn’t.


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