Some companies you can trust, and some you can't

All companies have computer problems, how they deal with them separates the men from the boys.

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
4 min read

All companies have computer problems, how they deal with them separates the men from the boys.


When I was away from home recently for an extended period of time, I tried to change the shipping address on my Netflix account. What should have been trivial became a problem because the Netflix web site made assumptions about the format of the address that didn't apply in my case. Every time I entered the address, their system reformatted it. I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to enter the correct address, so I contacted someone at Netflix for help. The person I spoke with sympathized and offered a way to fudge things to get the good data past their system filters. What I remember from the experience is the good customer service, not the problem.

Over the time I have been a Netflix customer, they repeatedly showed themselves interested in providing great customer service in other ways too. Thus, I trust they are telling me the whole story. Recently, I ordered their Roku box for watching movies over the Internet. I didn't care a lot about online movies and at $100 the price just about matched how much I cared. I could have taken it or left it. But, because I trusted the company wouldn't have any hidden gotchas, I ordered it.

Now, Netflix is all over the news for a massive system failure that affected all 55 of their distribution centers. Here too, what I'll remember is not the screw-up, but the way they handled it. After all, computer systems fail, it happens to everyone. Before I knew there was a problem, Netflix sent an email message apologizing. That makes an impression. And, now that the problem has been fixed, they are offering a 15% rebate on the monthly fee to affected customers. The take-away from this, at least for me, is that they dealt with the problem honestly and fairly.*


Amazon.com offers a file storage service called S3 (Simple Storage Service). Not long ago it suffered an outage of a few hours. I don't use S3 so my interest was marginal, but I did run across the after-the-fact accounting of the problem from Amazon. It was fairly technical and explained the internal functioning of the system in a clear way and detailed what when wrong and how the problem was unanticipated. They explained how they fixed the immediate problem and the steps they would take to prevent a recurrence in the future.

I was impressed with how Amazon came clean, even Netflix is mum on the technical details of their problem. This inspires confidence and if I ever need a web service that Amazon offers, I would not hesitate to use them.

Netflix and Amazon stand in stark contrast to the companies described a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal.

Credit Card Breaches

Recently the US government charged men in five countries with stealing credit cards from a number of retailers. The poster boy for this credit card and ID theft ring was TJX, the corporation behind the T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and A.J. Wright retail chains. The breach of their computer systems has been extensively publicized, it was even featured on 60 Minutes. From what I've learned, their computer security was disgraceful. But, at least they came clean.

The crime ring in question hit other outfits besides TJX. In Some Stores Quiet Over Card Breach three Wall Street Journal reporters describe how other companies didn't tell their customers about the data theft.

Boston Market and Forever 21 "never told their customers because they never confirmed data were stolen from them".

Of course, it can be impossible to tell if data was copied. Certainly bad guys getting credit numbers over a WiFi network wouldn't leave any trace, and neither would other types of breaches. According to the New York Times, BJ's Wholesale Club, the Sports Authority, OfficeMax, DSW and Barnes & Noble had their wireless networks breached.

The Journal reports that OfficeMax, Barnes and Noble and Sports Authority "wouldn't say whether they made consumer disclosures".

The best companies at disclosure were BJ's Wholesale Club, DSW and Dave and Buster's. Each disclosed the breach to their customers shortly after they became aware of it.

There is more detail in the article and it's definitely worth reading to form your own opinion on which companies you can trust and which you can't.

*Still, Netflix needs some better computer nerds. Speaking as a techie, a three day outage is inexcusable. No doubt, more than one thing went wrong to cause such an extended problem. Human error is likely on the list as is poor up-front planning.
See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.