How NOT to Cut Code Like Facebook

Facebook's shiny new, radical, "ground-breaking" Messages functionality is seriously, badly broken. Say it ain't so, Richi! Sadly, it is, as you'll discover in today's episode of The Long View...

Last month, I talked about Facebook's radical software development methods, highlighting the good and bad points from an enterprise development perspective. Earlier, I also covered Facebook's new messaging functionality (a/k/a Project Titan), and how implementing similar functionality for business email would be disastrous.

This time, I want to highlight how Facebook's development methodology has gone badly awry. It's a sorry tale of overconfidence, not-invented-here syndrome, and lousy customer relations.

Messages FAIL
I was one of the "lucky" ones to be invited to try out the Messages functionality soon after it launched. I guess someone reasoned that my 25 year experience in the email field made me a good beta testing candidate. Sadly, the new Facebook feature failed for me right from the start.

As soon as I'd agreed to switch to the new feature, I was presented with a generic error message:

Something went wrong, but we're working to fix it as soon as we can. Please try again later.

It's been like this for many weeks. Every few days, I diligently "try again later", but no luck getting a different response. Incoming messages get silently ignored.

I must admit to a wry smile crossing my lips. When I watched the live video announcement of Facebook's new Messaging feature, I couldn't help but see a team of young software engineers who had little idea how to create a reliable, large-scale email system -- let alone one that included all the ground-breaking unifying functionality they were talking about.

Sadly, this sort of ignorant attitude is all too prevalent. Who cares about all the lessons learned by previous generations of engineers? We're so much smarter than them. And we have the power of NoSQL! We can knock this thing up in no time.

Oh dear, I must stop this train of thought, before I become Glyn Meek...

It's not just me
A browse through Facebook's Known Issues page makes it clear that many people are experiencing similar problems, even though the new Messages has only been rolled out to a minority of users.

It's also clear that Facebook isn't being transparent about the problems -- despite them having been reported for several weeks, I can find no official acknowledgment that the problem exists. There's plenty of user discussion of the failure, but nothing actually from Facebook despite this being the page that users are directed to, to discover known issues (the clue is in the name).

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike
So it's off I go, to the Facebook Help Center. Here, there are a few other known problems discussed with Messages, but none that match my symptoms. The page suggests I try the Community Help page, but all the discussions there seem to point back to the generic page I just came from.

So I choose the closest problem description and submit my error report. As you might expect by now, although I receive a generic auto-reply, I hear absolutely nothing back about the problem.

A couple of weeks later, I went through the same exercise, with the same fruitless result. This is ridiculous on so many levels, quite apart from the embarrassing failure of its new feature, Facebook needs to be more transparent about known problems.

The obvious result of it hiding widespread problems like this is that their support mailbox gets swamped by people asking the same questions, over and over again. Questions that they'd needn't have asked if they'd been told "It's a known issue; sorry, we're working on it."

PR is as PR does
But, hey, I can play the Media card, right? I reach out to Facebook PR for comment. Back comes this utterly generic response from a generic Facebook spokesperson:

We're aware of the issue that affects a small number of people and our engineering team are working quickly to get it resolved.

Surprisingly, my followup questions go unanswered, so I can't tell you why Facebook's taking so long to fix it and why there's been no acknowledgment of the problem. That was Monday, but I'll let you know if I hear anything more from them.

In conclusion: watch out!
Yes, the Facebook service is worth every penny I paid for it. But the worrying thing is this episode seems to point to a serious decline in the stability of the Facebook software platform. And it's a platform that's woven itself into the fabric of our online lives.

I can't help worrying that Facebook's oh-so-clever way of engineering software is causing some increasingly frequent and increasingly serious problems.

Agree or disagree? Leave a comment below...

This story, "How NOT to Cut Code Like Facebook" was originally published by Computerworld.

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