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The Big Con: It Happens in Software Too

I saw the film The Big Short recently with my wife, and if you haven’t already seen it, I strongly suggest you do. As we walked to our local cinema however, we were a little unsure what to expect. A movie about the financial crash? I had my doubts even a large salty popcorn would be adequate compensation.

It is based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. It stars Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling—such unsexy subject matter clearly requires a very sexy cast—and it’s an entertaining and illuminating re-telling of the 2007/08 sub-prime crisis and the ensuing global financial meltdown. It also lays bare the staggeringly unethical business practices of the banking industry that precipitated the collapse.

As you might expect, there is some industry jargon to wade through (CDOs, MBSs, credit default swaps), but the filmmakers have come up with some ingenious ways of making complex issues understandable. One in particular is to have the delectable Australian actress Margot Robbie sipping champagne and deconstructing the whole sub-prime mortgage swindle. Even my wife enjoyed that one!

The heroes of this particular story—and I use the word heroes very loosely—are the guys who realised it was all a big con trick, that the emperor had been strutting around for years completely and utterly stark naked, so they short-sold and made a killing. While my wife and I both loved the movie, we were left with a kind of bitter aftertaste. The revelations and the detail of what actually happened and the reminders of the whole 2008 experience started to gnaw at me as we walked home, the sheer arrogance, the amoral manipulation! “The Big Con” seemed a more apt title given the stratospheric levels of deceit and so called financial re-engineering and product packaging and repackaging that were going on. I hadn’t felt this irritated leaving the cinema since The Notebook.

But it also made me think about some of the parallels to my own industry: software. Are we really any better? And as we walked home, the sound of my teeth gnashing puncturing the peaceful suburban tranquility, the more I thought about it; despite all the good software does, I found myself getting even madder. Why? Well here are just a few thoughts:

  • Companies selling products they knew were faulty from the start, then asking their customers to pay them more money to FIX the products. Would an engineer sell a product they knew needed to be fixed? Okay, so it’s not a government bail-out, but still!
  • Companies giving their products fancy acronyms to sound more informed than their customers
  • When companies run out of genuine new products, they resort to repackaging the old ones as new—synthetic CDOs, anyone?
  • When product sales slow down, they simply pick through the contracts to see if more sales can be forced through. A kind of reverse incentive using a ‘friendly’ audit firm to twist your arm!
  • And if all else fails—change complex contract terms in the expectation that nobody has read them anyway.

Wow, was I mad! Still am. And you should be too. Don’t take it anymore; don’t fall for the big con! Don’t just do what you’ve always done, and definitely don’t believe everything the big software firms tell you. Try something different, try short selling. Best of luck!

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