Four times software failure led to massive worldwide success

By Kevin Juhasz for Hack Reactor

Sucralose was discovered when testing chlorinated sugar for an insecticide. A search for stomach ulcer drugs gave us aspartame. The microwave oven was born out of researching the use of magnetrons for WWII radar equipment. An attempt to create a drug for angina led to a little blue pill that’s helped millions of men with another problem.

The scientific world is full of stories where a journey down one path led to an unexpected destination. The software engineering world is no exception. There have been several instances where someone’s software or bug led to something much bigger than expected.

Glitch gives the world Slack

Back in February 2009, a company called Tiny Speck began work on a MMORPG called Glitch. The game was a failure, moving back into beta shortly after its Fall 2011 launch and finally shutting down completely about a year later. However, the game ended up producing something that now has more than 8 million daily users.

The Glitch project, which was lead by Tiny Speck co-founder Stewart Butterfield, used an internal tool that allowed the game makers to collaborate on the Glitch game. About eight months later in August 2013, that internal tool became the popular Slack collaboration tool. Slack was named the best startup at the 2017 Crunchies. Slack, which has several million paying users, is available for iOS and Android, there are versions for MacOS, Windows, Linux, and there was even a version made for the SNES. The former game communication tool can now be used to collaborate in teams, messaging, integration with other services like GoogleDrive and GitHub, and application programming interface.

A disdain for competition birthed Instagram

Apparently, 2009 was a good year to create a tech product that would end up dominating as something else. This was the year that Kevin Systrom began work on the check-in app called Burbn, which he would further develop with Mike Krieger. While developing Burbn in early 2010, the pair decided that their mobile app was just too much like FourSquare, so they scrapped almost the entire project except for three things – mobile-phone photo sharing, commenting, and liking. They ended up creating Instagram, which today still reigns as the world’s leading photo-sharing app.

Only 19 months after its launch, Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion. Instagram currently has about 1.1 billion users, who post more than 100 million images on the site every single day. All of those users spend an average of 53 minutes of their day on the app. More than 80% claim they use Instagram when deciding to make a purchase and about 1/5 visit a business profile every day, which is one of the reasons there are more than 25 million businesses with Instagram profiles. Instagram is now valued at more than $100 billion.

A Netflix crash leads to Chaos Monkey

Back in August 2008, when Netflix still relied heavily on mailing movies – not streaming – for income, a database corruption led to 72 hours where the company couldn’t ship out any DVDs to its customers. Not a good place to be. Greg Orzell, a systems and software engineer at Netflix, was part of the team that began the project to move Netflix toward streaming in 2007. A few years after the 2008 corruption, Orzell had the idea to create a tool that would intentionally create breakdowns in the environment used by Netflix customers, as well as the team of which he was a part. The tool ended up being Chaos Monkey, which chooses a server at random and disables it during “regular” business hours at Netflix. The purpose behind this is to make sure that the Netflix system is resilient and that the engineers will be able to create systems that are capable of handling issues without a decrease in the quality of service to customers, thus avoiding a repeat of the 2008 debacle. Netflix then created Simian Army, a massive set of open-source testing tools designed to test the reliability, resiliency, and security of cloud services.

A coding bug creates the biggest crime-game series in history

Way back in 1995, DMA Design began work on a game called Race’n’Chase for PlayStation, Nintendo, and Windows 95. The idea was to create a world where players could choose the role of driver or police officer and engage in chases in various cities. The biggest problem with Race’n’Chase, besides the fact that it was prone to frequent crashes, was that testers found the top-down racing game to be incredibly boring – with the exception of one programming error. Rather than pull over racers, the computer-controlled police cars had a tendency to ram the cars and create fiery crashes. Bored testers spent more time trying to crash than they did chase. Because of this, DMA Design scrapped the racing and chasing and created Grand Theft Auto, where players thrive by being the most destructive and best criminals they can.

Grand Theft Auto abandoned the top-down look in 2001 with the release of Grand Theft Auto III in favor of a 3D view with a more immersive experience. While already popular, this move caused GTA to explode among users. During its 25-year history, GTA has spawned seven standalone titles that have sold nearly 300 million copies and generated almost $10 billion in sales, making it the 4th most successful game franchise in history. The series is also credited with helping boost the creation and popularity of open-world action games.

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