Saying Goodbye to Blockbuster

As fond of Blockbuster’s online service as I’ve been since I first signed up with them about two years ago, (I’ve rented 516 movies from them and have over 700 more in my queue as I type) it’s become obvious that it’s time to say goodbye and try NetFlix. Blockbuster has been getting progressively worse for months, and it’s not just the usual problems with poor customer service. It’s becoming obvious that they are in deep technical trouble, and they cannot dig themselves out of it. Their development staff is simply not able to fix their problems.

The problems started when Blockbuster launched a redesigned web site in late 2006. The new site was a little prettier, but much, much slower. In fact, it flat out didn’t work on either Firefox or Internet Explorer (on both Mac and Windows). The only browser that could handle it was Safari, and Safari was slow. Think about that for a minute: the site didn’t work in roughly 97% of the browsers people use. At the time I thought it was just Firefox, but more recently I started using a Windows box and noticed was also broken in Internet Explorer 6 on Windows. How they could possibly have gone live with such a broken site? And then not been able to roll back to the original site that worked? That indicates massive incompetence at multiple levels in the developer hierarchy over there.

Then, a few months ago, Blockbuster simply stopped shipping movies. They advertise one business day turn-around, but they have not delivered. You turn your movies in on Sunday, and then wait for up to a week before anything else ships. I have complained about this repeatedly. I usually get a form letter that does not address my question, and I have to respond to that before anyone at customer support actually pays attention to what I said. Then I have to go several rounds of e-mail with them before a movie finally ships. Sometimes I get a coupon for a free movie for my efforts. Usually I don’t.

Then a few weeks ago, it stopped being possible to update my queue. Every time I try to move or delete a DVD from my queue I get this error:

An error occurred while processing your request.
Reference #33.117cf648.1189811591.86fac3a

I confirmed with customer service that it’s not just me. Every single customer is seeing the same error. For weeks now no one has been able to manage their queues. They have no prediction when this might be fixed.

Blockbuster has some issues with customer support that are distressingly common. However this is way more than that. This is company killing technical inadequacy at work. Here’s what I think happened: Team A built the original site. They weren’t the best developers, but they got it going. Maybe they were hired guns or maybe they were internal devs. Either way, they left. Team B came in to redesign the site (probably hired guns but I’m not sure about that). They made a lot of mistakes, but got something up and running, barely. Then they left en masse. Whether they were just hired guns whose contract was up, or whether they were internal programmers who got pissed off and quit to look for greener pastures elsewhere I don’t know; but I don’t think they’re there any more.

I think what we have now is Team C: perhaps nice people but inexperienced and completely over their heads. They may be composed of college kids and entry level hires, or perhaps a group of outsourced devs in India. They simply have no idea how to fix the problems, and are making zero progress. If they’re internal, management is yelling at them on a daily basis to do something but they can’t. They don’t know how. Worst case scenario: they’ve actually lost the source code for the current system and are trying to build it from scratch. However all the yelling and general depression just makes them start looking for jobs elsewhere. The best of them get jobs elsewhere, and the group only gets weaker. Blockbuster Online is locked in a death spiral they cannot break out of.

If the real story ever gets out, I suspect it will become a case study in software disasters, and how not to manage a development team.

Can be saved? Without a lot more information about what’s going on inside, I have no idea. Possibly if Blockbuster were willing to pony up mega-bucks to attract some real heavy hitters, and if management were willing to do what the right consultants told them to do, they could still be saved. (Choosing the wrong consultants could nail their coffin shut for good, but if they do nothing they’ll expire anyway.) With the right help, they could probably be back online in a few months, and their local stores give them an advantage NetFlix can’t match. But I suspect they’re well past the point where average developers could rescue them. The hole they’ve dug themselves into is too deep.

Will they save themselves? Damned if I know, but in the meantime it’s Goodbye Blockbuster. Hello NetFlix.

Leave a Reply