Risky Assumptions and the Assumption of Risk

Long ago, in a land far away, a newly minted developer received a lesson in the danger of untested assumptions. There was an export job that extracted and transmitted to the state data about county jail inmates each month for reimbursement. Having developed this job, our hero was called upon to diagnose and correct an error that the state’s IT staff reported: the county had claimed reimbursement for an inmate held in a nearby city. This was proven by the fact that the Social Security Number submitted for the county’s inmate was identical to that submitted for the city’s inmate.

After much investigation, the plucky newbie determined that the identity of the county inmate was correct (fingerprints, and all that). The person submitted by the city was actually a former roommate of the person in question who had been admitted to the city jail under the borrowed identity of his old pal. It was truly shocking to realize that someone who had a lengthy criminal record would stoop to using another’s identity (although he did deserve kudos for being a pioneer – this was the mid 90’s when identity theft wasn’t yet in vogue).

What was even more shocking was the fix to be used: the county should re-submit the record with a “999-99-9999” value and the state would generate a fake SSN to be used for the remainder of the inmate’s incarceration. Since the city’s submission was first in, it would have to be considered “correct”.


The truly wonderful thing about that story is that it illustrates so many potential issues that can result from an assumption being allowed to roam unchallenged. Needless error conditions were created that delayed the business process of getting reimbursed. The validity of data in the system was compromised: across multiple incarcerations the same inmate could have multiple identities and multiple inmates could share the same identity over the life of the system.

Just as you can have technical debt, you can have cognitive debt by failing to adequately think through your design. One bad assumption can snowball into others(e.g. the “first in equals correct” rule could only be a poor reaction to the belated realization that the identity logic was unable to guarantee uniqueness). Just as collaboration can help avoid design issues, so too can adequate analysis of the problem space. Making a quick and dirty assumption and running with it leaves you at risk for wasting a lot of time and money.

[Photograph by Alex E. Proimos via Wikimedia Commons.]

One thought on “Risky Assumptions and the Assumption of Risk

  1. Pingback: Design Follies – ‘Why can’t I do that?’ | Form Follows Function

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