Welcome to the United States, we’re sorry but the system is down…

I have nothing but the top-most respect for immigration officials at US airports. They sit all day quickly interviewing people who barely speak English, making sure no unwanted person is allowed to enter the US.  Not an easy task regardless how you look at it; and last week I was able to see how this task became even less trivial, for them the officers and for us the travelers.

We arrived in the US on a flight from Costa Rica on a Sunday evening, I am guessing that my flight had something like 120 or 130 passengers and crew.  After disembarking we proceeded to the immigration section and right away noticed something was wrong.  There was a line of about 1,000 passengers; but while all the immigration officers were in their places no one was interviewing passengers, all were talking among themselves or simply resting and staring at the sealing.

When we got to the line we understood the problem as the person in charge of managing the line came to us and said: “Welcome to the US, we are sorry but the system is down“, then after seeing the frustration in our eyes she said this had never happened before and she couldn’t tell us how long we would need to wait.

Here I need to say that my wife is a genius!! Her maternal instincts immediately kicked-in as she told the line manager that we were traveling with 2 small children and had a 12-hour connection in less than 90 minutes…  this gave us direct access to the beginning of the line (and generated angry looks from many people standing in front of us).

When I got closer to the boots I realized how not-out-of-the-ordinary the immigrations computer system was, and how I had already seen situations like this happen to my clients and even to me as a customer.  From the conversations between the officers I understood that the system had fallen some 15 minutes before we arrived, the computers had frozen and they were not able to process any visitors.

During the next 20 minutes I saw how an “IT related officer” (on Sunday night you won’t expect a real IT geek to be around, right?) tried to troubleshoot the problem.  He went through the rest of the officers’ boots and asked them to do different operations based on a printed guide he had with him.  Stuff like resetting the computer, trying to access via a secondary account, taking out stored laptops and trying to log into the system, nothing seemed to work and everyone remained standing there.

The gateway to “the land of opportunity” was right in front of us but it was being blocked by a simple computer that would not connect to a remote system and allow it to make sure neither me nor my family were a “Persona non grata” in the US.

Then, all of a sudden something magically positive happened; one of the officers was finally able to log into his computer and regain partial access to the system.  It took him twice the time to process each person, but 10 minutes later we were able to continue our journey home by stepping out of immigration, getting our bags, rechecking them to our flight to Israel, and reaching the gate running 5 minutes before the final boarding call.

I imagine that in due time the posts managed to get back on-line and eventually all the people in the line, that by the time we left already numbered a couple of thousand, got through the system (or not!).  But this certainly changed the plans and trips arrangements for many passengers, some of whom arrived late to their homes while others must have certainly missed their flights altogether.

This is just another example of how we are all dependent and controlled by Information Systems (in more ways than we care to accept), and how a flaw in one of them can turn our day (or trip!) into mayhem.  Nothing we can do, but learn our lesson well and make sure that as Testers we add “alternative system access and recovery” scenarios to our test plans, to make sure other people will not need to suffer due to the fact that we did not foresee out-of-the-ordinary scenarios that will eventually happen to our systems under test.

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