The Bad New Days

One product of my youth and inexperience is that when people around me reminisce about the “good old days,” I almost invariably don’t remember when said days existed. For instance, in Montana, old ranchers always get together and remember the “good old days” when we had “real” winters; for reference, in my lifetime I have seen 3+ feet of snow on both August 22 and June 19, and I didn’t have a Halloween costume that wasn’t quickly retrofitted to work with snow pants until I was 13. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how hellish the “good old days” must have been, given what they’re being compared to.

All that said, one area in which I wish for “good old days” of some sort is in tech support. Unfortunately, I don’t remember tech support ever being a useful and quick source of information; it’s always been terrible (perhaps because, being a CS person, I only call it when I have something I can’t fix, which is a bad sign), and it only seems to get more so with wonderful advances like outsourcing call centers, and expanding layers of voice menus. (The only counterexample to this: I called Creative one time to ask a question about a particular hardware component of a sound card; not only did an actual human answer the phone, but she actually solved my problem immediately, and was friendly to boot. That’s it, though.)

Even so, though, most companies at least tend to bother to support software, especially if they sold it to you. Even Dell, who is terrible (which is why I no longer buy things from them). And especially if you paid an awful lot of money for it.

There is, however, one extraordinarily large counterexample to this principle, and it is for this reason that this company regularly wins my own “Worst People In the World” award– and by regularly, I mean whenever I need to talk to them. The company? Gavel and Gown Software. The product: Amicus (which means “friend” in Latin; I assume they called it this because “hellish demon-spawn that kills productivity and loses your data for no reason” doesn’t sound as nice in Latin).

So admittedly, I don’t have a great blog readership, meaning that I do know that a not-insignificant chunk of the people who read this actually know what this software is (hi, mom and dad!), but for the rest of you, it’s a domain-specific software program for lawyers, allowing them to do case management– keeping track of hours spent, phone calls and numbers, deadlines, trial dates, lots of stuff. Like a lawyer BlackBerry on crack. Very useful, assuming you’re a lawyer and it’s working.

Note well, however, that last condition: “it’s working.” This software is incredibly badly written. I wouldn’t allow my Java students to get away with it, but then again, my Java students have never written code this bad (and remember, I’m the guy who submitted “Code So Bad It Needs An Apology” to The Daily WTF).

I’ll just make a brief list of things wrong with this, in the hope that you’ll get the idea– but note that this is just a selection, far from everything that’s bad:

  • All networking is over NetBIOS.
  • Not only that, but no NetBIOS code is included, so the program requires you map the server’s program folder as a network drive.
  • There are no permission restraints, and so the program requires that all clients (I.E., lawyers, not technophiles) have full read/write access to said network drive– that is, the program folder for the server installation.
  • There are no locking paradigms, so if two lawyers edit the same file at the same time, someone’s change might get lost– or alternately, it will corrupt the database.
  • The database? Visual FoxPro. Not good.
  • To link with its accounting program, Amicus Accounting (note, this is written by the SAME COMPANY), Amicus directly manipulates Accounting’s database files– again, written in FoxPro, and again, with no locking.
  • The database can be corrupted by any client exiting improperly– for instance, due to a power outage. Again, not the server– ANY LAWYER KICKING THEIR CORD.

I could go on– for days– but I won’t, because you’d probably stop reading. Suffice it to say that if I turned this in for any class at Hopkins, I’d be shot dead on sight by my professors. And they’d be right.

Here’s the sad part; this wasn’t programmed by a student– at least, not officially. No, this is “Enterprise” software. That means it costs a lot of money, as in multiple thousands of dollars (gotta scalp those lawyers, I suppose). So you’d think, then, that when their software breaks itself, through no outside intervention, they might, oh say, provide recovery tools?


Well then, surely you could call them and get a recovery tool?


You can at least call them and have them recover it, right?

No, and to cut out the next fifteen questions: you can’t call them.

If you attempt to call them, they will redirect you to their Sales department, who will tell you that you must pay them $700 (yes, that’s right, SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS) to speak with their Tech Support. That’s before they do anything, before you even know if they can help you (and they usually can’t), before they charge you extra for any services rendered.

For software that broke itself.

Not for them to come out and fix it; for them to TELL YOU WHAT THEY DID TO IT.

And when you complain about this, they will shout rude epithets at you (so much for nice Canadians– oh yes, did I mention this is a Canadian company? Probably so one can’t sue them into a grease smear on the dirt, which is a non-zero likelihood when catering to lawyers), then hang up.

The worst part? There’s no alternative. This is actually the best of the legal suites that exist. Not only do they not support Linux, they actually accuse you of being a Communist if you ask about Linux support. And their software… is appalling.

“But Brendan, you’re a CS person. You even have a shiny new degree. Why don’t you write a replacement?”

Well, that’s always the Open Source response, is to fix it yourself if you have a response. But that’s not really feasible– mostly because there aren’t enough people who owe me sufficient favors to help me write software this boring. And I shouldn’t have to write it myself– we paid thousands of dollars for this, then paid thousands more for an upgrade they said would help. They should have some level of accountability.

Maybe I’m just naive to think that– but if I worked for a company with that bad of a track record for customer support, I think I’d have a hard time not, oh say, slitting my wrists each morning.

Luckily, I don’t– and our customers notice.

Anyway, to all those of you out there starting companies to serve niche markets, like lawyers or doctors or basketweavers: they care about how they’re treated too. Keep that in mind.

For my part, I fly back to Hopkins tomorrow, to start the Great MSE Escapade. I know I haven’t written something retrospective about Six Apart yet, and I swear I’ll get to that soon, but at the moment, I need to find out how to bribe Lys to get in her carrier tomorrow morning.