Why, after a year with Adobe EchoSign, I’m taking my business elsewhere

Neal Stephenson was right about bugs. A jobless Belgian might hold the answer.

[August 11 2015 followup: the product manager for Adobe EchoSign got in touch and informed me that both bugs have been dealt with. They should be fixed in the current release.]

Imagine for a moment that you’re seated in the front row of economy class. You just took off. As the plane climbs toward cruising altitude, through the curtains that separate you from the business-class cabin, you notice a dark, wet stain at the door of the toilet. You look closer. The stain is growing before your eyes. Is the toilet flooding? Oh dear. If you were visiting a friend’s house, or even just at a restaurant, you would say something to someone. So you press the attendant call button. By the time the seatbelt sign goes off, the stain has spread almost to your feet, and you’re wondering if your luggage is getting wet.

“Yes, ma’am, how can I help you.”

“Hi. I think there might be a problem with the toilet up ahead.”

“Ma’am, that toilet is only for business class passengers. I’m afraid you’re not allowed to use it.”

“I don’t want to use the toilet. See the floor? It’s wet. It’s spreading. In fact, you’re actually standing on the wet spot.”

“That toilet belongs to business class, and you have an economy fare. I’m very sorry but I’m not going to be able to assist you.”

The attendant reaches over and draws the curtain shut.

“But if you’d like to upgrade your fare, we could move your seat to business now for only $360. We take cash and all major credit cards. After your upgrade, if you still have trouble with the toilet, I’d be happy to help you then.”

That, in a nutshell, was the email I just got from Adobe Echosign tech support. And this has happened not once, but twice, with different issues. It’s a symptom of a larger problem that Neal Stephenson first identified in In the Beginning was the Command Line (1999):

Commercial OSes have to adopt the same official stance towards errors as Communist countries had towards poverty. For doctrinal reasons it was not possible to admit that poverty was a serious problem in Communist countries, because the whole point of Communism was to eradicate poverty. Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can’t go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.

Adobe EchoSign is e-signature software. You give it a PDF. It takes care of collecting the signatures. It’s brilliant when it works. It’s saved me countless hours. Over the years, millions of legal contracts have passed through EchoSign. As you can imagine, this is the sort of software that needs to be rock solid. And if it isn’t, I get a feeling like somebody should say something to someone.

For background: I took computer science in school. I write software for a living. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of lines of code; I’ve authored protocol standards used literally every second of the day by millions of people; I won’t bore you with the details. The Golden Rule applies to my profession same as any other. If you were a chef eating at somebody else’s restaurant, and if you found, mixed in among the green leaves of your Caesar salad, the green lid from the bottle of Caesar dressing, you’d call someone over and say, “I think this belongs in the kitchen.” No harm, no foul, just a professional courtesy; mistakes happen, and better that it happened to a fellow chef than, say, a Michelin reviewer.

So, when I found a race condition in Adobe EchoSign, I could have shrugged and said, “well, that’s a one-in-a-million weirdness, I’ll just send the agreement out again.” Instead, out of a sense of civic duty and professional courtesy, I submitted a bug report. If it happened to me, it could happen to somebody else, and I assumed that my report would eventually wend its way to a brother programmer deep inside Adobe, toiling in a sunless cubicle, who would recognize a serious, mission-critical software error when he saw one, and would, out of a sense of professional responsibility, do something about it. This ethos might be smeared across an organizational process that triages, classifies, prioritizes, and assigns “regressions” for evaluation and rectification; but, I hoped, somebody, somewhere, would care enough to investigate.

Commercial OS vendors, as a direct consequence of being commercial, are forced to adopt the grossly disingenuous position that bugs are rare aberrations, usually someone else’s fault, and therefore not really worth talking about in any detail. This posture, which everyone knows to be absurd, is not limited to press releases and ad campaigns. It informs the whole way these companies do business and relate to their customers.

Thanks to Neal Stephenson, I was prepared for Adobe’s response:

“Unable to reproduce. Ticket 296174 closed.”

Race conditions are the classic hard-to-reproduce bug. Think CERN’s supercollider. It may take hundreds or thousands of trials to trigger a result. (I just got lucky, I guess, but that’s why I’m in programming. Bugs find me the way salad lids find chefs.) Race conditions are not so much demonstrated as they are mathematically deduced, by close reading of the source code.

So I shrugged and moved on. Did I expect a frontline tech support specialist to put in the hours needed to prove the bug? No. In big companies, tech support lacks both access to the source and the authority to even raise bugs with the product team; their whole function is to insulate developers from customers.

That was a few months ago. In the time since I’ve built Legalese.io, an application which, if all goes well, will be responsible for generating millions of contracts over the next few years. The value prop is convenience, and document signing is an essential part of the workflow. As a result, I’ve become intimately familiar with the EchoSign API.

(This project, by the way, is closer to plodding craftsmanship than a leap of genius. The idea that software will eat law has been a long time coming and the direction it’ll take is pretty obvious to anyone with a CS background. Legalese’s relationship with EchoSign was prefigured by TechCrunch almost ten years ago. If this resonates, sign up.)

So when I found a bug in the EchoSign API yesterday, again I submitted it to Adobe. This time (ticket 332298) I got the response:

Apologies, but I did not see you were in a Team account.
Unfortunately Team accounts should not have access to the API, and we do not provide API support for team accounts.
If you have any other questions or concerns, please let us know.

Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry, I forgot I was in Economy; forgive me for pointing out problems in Business.

Sure, tech support is expensive. $40 a month doesn’t cover the cost of Adobe’s time; they want $299 to even hear about bugs in their API.

You know what? $299 wouldn’t cover the cost of my time either, if you paid me as a professional programmer to do software testing for you.

“Don’t do me any favours.”

As Cool Hand Luke might say, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

It’s expected nowadays: when a startup gets acquired, the founders leave, and it’s all soul-destroying maintenance and technical debt until the end of time. I’m not blaming the founders here — it’s the irony of startups that a lucrative acquisition often spells the beginning of the end for the product itself.

As Doc Searls, David Weinberger, et al first noted in The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999), markets are conversations. A customer griping is one thing. The founders of two competitors tweeting back within 24 hours is something else entirely. The brave new world that the digerati predicted in 1999 has come to pass: social media monitoring, engagement, and sentiment analysis are now industries in their own right.

But those industries don’t solve the core problem: it’s hard to scale soul. Why do hipsters prefer independent cafés to Starbucks? Why do management consultants envy their startup friends? Why are young lawyers disillusioned with the ethics of stretching their billings? Why don’t big software companies spend as much on post-sales support as they do on pre-sales marketing?

For Neal Stephenson, the solution is opensource: the Sisters Doin’ It For Themselves. If the people who find bugs can fix them, the ethos goes from “I should say something” to “I should do something”.

For Frederic Laloux, the solution is reinventing Adobe: to change the system from within. If Customer Success could talk directly to Product Engineering, then the bugs would get fixed, and the volume of complaints would go down, making everyone’s lives easier. Zappos, Twitter, and Medium itself are embracing Holacracy.

For me, for now, I’m going to deal with this in a language that the suits at Adobe will understand. EchoSign isn’t the only game in town. I’m going to look into HelloSign, DocuSign, RightSignature, Silanis, Prosigner, CoSign, and the dozens of other players in this space.

What will I look for?

Functionality, reliability, convenience, of course. A competent API.

But most of all I’m looking for a company with a soul: one with programmers somewhere inside, who care about the product enough to read and respond to bug reports, rather than a wall of offshored call-center operators whose only incentive is to make users piss off as fast as possible.

[August 11 2015 followup: the product manager for Adobe EchoSign got in touch and informed me that both bugs have been dealt with. They should be fixed in the current release.]

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