What should have been a routine software upgrade at Ulster Bank last summer resulted in frustration and misery for thousands of its customers across Ireland.
About 750,000 people were unable to withdraw cash, pay their mortgages or transfer funds. Salary transfers, direct debits and social welfare payments were held up.
The debacle cost the bank an estimated €103m, including €52m in compensation, and seriously dented its reputation.
In recent weeks, a network failure marred what should have been a great day for mobile operator Three, which had just acquired O2 Ireland for €780m, gaining control of 40% of the country’s mobile market.
The outage was blamed on Virgin Media Business, a third-party provider.
For Mike Hinchey, director of Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre and a former director of Nasa’s Software Engineering Lab, these events highlight how software is critical to the smooth running of everyday life.
Hinchey admits to being exasperated by the “build an app and become a millionaire” culture that has grown up around the success of services such as Facebook and Instagram. As more and more people try to jump onto the programming bandwagon, the sort of books that promise to teach you “how to code in a day” are beginning to proliferate.
While Hinchey wholeheartedly supports people learning how to code, he feels Ireland must put more emphasis on professional standards and promote a public understanding of the importance of software as a resource.
Software and coding is a serious engineering discipline, he said, not just a lifestyle choice. He added: “There is a big leap between 13-year-olds generating revenue from apps to the development of air-traffic control systems where lives would be at stake.”
ICT accounts for €60bn or 35% of Ireland’s total exports, and €50bn of that is software. Hinchey estimates Ireland exports 80% of the world’s software. Yet the National Research Prioritisation steering group, set up in 2011, excluded software from its considerations.
While the numbers look impressive, we need to move from the low-value “shrink-wrapped stuff” to more lucrative bespoke one-off projects, such as systems for global banks, he added.
Hinchey returned to Ireland five years ago from Nasa to take up the role of director of Lero, which co-ordinates the software commercialisation activities of six universities.
Since he took charge, Lero has succeeded in winning a €300,000 contract with the European Space Agency, as well as others under the EU’s multibillion research and development framework. A €2.5m European Commission-funded research programme with Trinity College Dublin researchers will investigate how the principles of ecology can be adopted to design more stable software systems.
“It’s our job to sell Ireland. And despite all the bad economic news, people need to realise that Ireland is recognised as a serious centre for producing software.”
He said that his challenge on arrival at Lero was to get the universities to work together and function as a single voice when it came to winning lucrative software deals.
So far the strategy appears to have worked.
Last year, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and a consortium of top technology companies, including Intel and IBM, revealed plans to invest €22.4m over the next five years in Lero.
Under its education remit, Lero developed free teaching materials for primary and secondary school teachers to stimulate interest in computer and software development. At primary level, Scratch, a visual-based programming language, is being taught in more than 700 classrooms.
Hinchey learnt how to code at the age of nine when, in the late 1970s, he got access to his first computer. When he graduated from the University of Limerick, then the National Institute of Higher Education, he was awarded the president’s gold medal as a leading student in his graduating year. He was awarded an MsC in computation at the University of Oxford and a PhD in computer science at the University of Cambridge.
A yearning to see more of the world took Hinchey to the US in 1995, where he almost accidentally stumbled on a programme by Nasa to recruit from outside the American civil service. He found himself up against an impressive line-up of experts, including Nobel prize winners. He landed the job thanks to his expertise in self-managing software that borrows its structure from how nature and biology work.
About four years later, a vote in the US Congress was required to enable him to keep his job because he was not a civil servant in the US.
During his time at Nasa, he rose to the position of director of Software Engineering Lab, overseeing the software used on space missions.
“People need to realise that software is relevant and important in their day-to-day lives,” he said. “But think about it — everything you touch these days involves software. You cannot get up in the morning and go to bed at night without using software.”
The costly glitch at Ulster Bank last year, Hinchey said, was caused by the update of a simple enough application.
“It was a simple process that took weeks to resolve,” he said.
“People don’t understand how serious software is and the implications of it going wrong can affect people’s lives. In that instance, people didn’t get paid or couldn’t transfer money.”
Hinchey believes that to get beyond lifestyle apps and large-volume, low-value software exports, Ireland needs to build a base of experienced, qualified software engineers.
While the Irish operations of Google, Twitter and Facebook are engaged in sales and accounting activities, the valuable core software engineering takes place back in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of opportunities elsewhere for heavyweight software engineering.
“Some of the oldest software programs are 60 years old and were very badly written, and in some cases are still used in nuclear reactors today,” said Hinchey.
He is concerned about the quality of software because so much software is legacy-based. “[The software] has been there a long time and from different eras. And the software that is made today won’t be good enough in 10 years’ time.
“If Microsoft Word crashes on your PC, you can recover the document,” Hinchey said.
“But if a banking system goes down you lose accounts and information, and it can create an awful mess.”
In order to set higher standards for the quality of software programming skills, Hinchey is pressing for professional qualifications beyond third- and fourth-level degrees.
Ireland has a small voice, but the country can be a world leader in terms of accrediting skilled software practitioners, said Hinchey.
“By and large, Ireland’s software graduates are of a very high quality, but I’ve seen myself that people who have experience have a big advantage, and understanding how industry works is a serious advantage,” he said.
“Anyone from the IT industry would tell you that the people they’ve had as interns are much more employable than someone who just arrived from a degree programme, regardless of their grades.”
Hinchey said Ireland has made its mark as one of the world’s best places to produce software, but it needs to set its ambitions higher.
“The bespoke market is the big earner, where one-off projects for global banks, airlines and energy companies bring in lucrative revenues,” he said. “We need to be winning the big, one-off software deals that are worth billions.
“We are ready, we can do it.”