Programming Problems: Computer Mistakes That Cost Millions

Man doing programming

Small things can lead to great disasters, given the right circumstances. An unwatched spark can burn down a forest. A single pebble can bring down an avalanche. And a few lines of codes can cost an organization millions of dollars.

Below are some of the worst computer errors in the history of the field.  Businesses and other organizations can learn a thing or two from these mistakes and hopefully prevent one from happening in their own networks.

Hospital Kills Patients on Paper

In 2003, the patient-management software of St. Mary’s Mercy Medical Center in Grand Falls, Michigan sent out bills to a variety of institutions and organizations claiming that approximately 8,500 of the hospital’s patients had died. The only problem was that none of these thousands of patients were deceased at all. To complicate matters, the bills had gone out to important establishments, such as the patients’ insurance providers and the Social Security office. This caused endless headaches for months to those affected as these organizations stopped giving out financial benefits to their supposedly-deceased clients.

The root of the crisis was a mapping error in the software that handled these sensitive records. Companies today can avoid such a large-scale mistake by investing in document management software that utilizes cloud-computing technology.

Meteoric Metric Mistake on Mars

The Mars Climate Orbiter was a $125 million satellite, which was supposed to be the first device to study the weather patterns of the Red Planet. Its handlers had scheduled it to achieve stable orbit over Mars on September 23 when it suddenly vanished. Engineers scrambled to find out what had happened to the multimillion-dollar piece of equipment. It turned out that the orbiter had dropped dangerously low and had collided with the top of Mars’ atmosphere, frying the fragile satellite.

The reason for this embarrassing failure turned out to be even more humiliating. Inspectors discovered that someone had mistakenly programmed the software controlling the satellite’s thrusters with the wrong units of measurement. The thrusters were supposed to calculate its force using metric newtons, but someone had programmed imperial pounds instead. This led to the satellite dipping well below what was safe for it, incinerating itself in the process.

Harrowing Headaches at Heathrow

Thoughtful young programmer coding on computer in the evening at home

In 2008, London’s Heathrow Airport opened its fifth terminal. The building cost over $5 billion to construct and came with a brand-new computer system to manage flights and scheduling. On opening day, mayhem and inconvenience greeted British air travelers as the software system encountered numerous glitches involving departures and baggage management. The terminal’s staff, who were not yet familiar with the new computer system, exacerbated the already-overwhelming issues of the terminal.

The situation resulted in three planes taking off without any of the passenger’s luggage on board. The malfunctioning software also caused delays in flights, stranding one plane on the runway for three hours as it waited for its load of baggage.  As it turned out, the simulation parameters that the software’s designers used on the system paled in comparison to reality. The sheer amount of luggage it was supposed to distribute overwhelmed the system and it promptly went haywire.

Inadequate testing, poor internal communication, and improper software. People can easily overlook these sorts of things, and they fester until they bring down achievements. Companies, organizations, and even individuals who design and maintain software need to be exceedingly vigilant and thorough in their work, for fear of causing the digital equivalent of a destructive avalanche.