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Shadow Inc. CEO: ‘We Own’ The ‘Catastrophic’ Iowa Caucus Failure

‘It’s pretty clear from what I read that they went with a smallish firm, a cheapish app, and then shortchanged the testing side,’ Rob Mason, the chief technology officer at app testing company Applause, tells CRN.

Shadow Inc. CEO Gerard Niemira took the blame for his app’s “catastrophic impact” on the first contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential race.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Niemira blamed a “transmission bug” for the failure that forced Iowa Democratic Party officials to delay announcing the results of the contest until the following afternoon, and even then only announcing the totals for 62 percent of the state.

“The app was sound and good,” Niemira told Bloomberg. “All the data that was produced by calculations performed by the app was correct. It did the job it was supposed to do, which is help precinct chairs in the field do the math correctly. The problem was caused by a bug in the code that transmits results data into the state party’s data warehouse.”

[RELATED: Who Is Shadow Inc., The Company Behind The Iowa Caucus Voting App?]

Niemira told the publication that the flaw was avoidable. In order to use the app, caucus workers were force to download another app that allowed their phones to use software that is not for sale on the app store. From there, the workers were required to know a certain caucus precinct ID, use two-factor authentication, and then enter a personal identification number. While Niemira said Shadow tested the app for “weeks” in sandbox mode, there were numerous problems with first-time logins on caucus night.

“Yes, it was anticipate-able,” he reportedly said. “Yes, we put in measures to test it. Yes, it still failed. And we own that.”

Rob Mason, the chief technology officer at Framingham, Mass.- based app testing company Applause, said it is “clear” the makers of the software did not complete the testing side. He said running a test in a lab, or with a handful of users, will not push the app hard enough to find its flaws.

“That’s not the same as Android and iOS devices of all makes and models in people’s hands, and pockets, with live users, different user names, with good entries, bad entries, good Wi-Fi connections, bad Wi-Fi connections, it’s very different in the real world,” he said. “In today’s market, that matters. That first impression, people expect apps to just work. Without testing, they don’t just work.”

Asked if it was realistic to expect any company to develop an app that must run perfectly over the course of a few hours, while in the hands of users of all skill levels, and under the glare of a national media spotlight, he said it is, “with testing.”

“This is all about making sure you bake testing into the plan and don’t shortchange it,” Mason said. “Anyone with a development background knows you cannot release software without an adequate test. Testing is essential in this day and age … obviously when you have a hard deadline like a caucus that is harder, but in the end, if they had known they hadn’t tested it, they should have pulled it and gone back to the old system.”

Suffolk University Political Science Professor Ken Cosgrove, a specialist in political marketing, said the real mistake could have been the decision to use an app in the first place.

“The nation of Canada uses paper ballots. It gets them all counted in an evening. It's more populous and more spread out than is Iowa,” he told CRN in an email. “They should have been sure the venue technology and their app could both support the things they wanted to do in the live situation before the real test.”

Shadow Inc.’s officers and those who work for its leading investor are the veterans of presidential contests past and present, including Hillary Clinton For America, and Elizabeth Warren’s current presidential campaign. Both Clinton and Warren have attacked Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in recent weeks leading up to the caucus. Cosgrove cautioned that while the people making the app have ties to those campaigns, the Iowa Democratic Party could have fewer vendors to choose from, and complaints could arise from nearly any one they picked.

“Is this a conflict of interest? It certainly looks it would be one to the Sanders folks who believe that the Democratic Party as organization is out to defeat their candidate again,” he wrote. “On the other hand, the universe of companies a political party is fully comfortable working with is more limited than what a business would be willing to take on. They certainly couldn't have hired a firm with Republican ties or something like Google that does business as it does. People would have complained about either.”

With limited information on Shadow Inc., a company that appears to have been formed about a year ago, Cosgrove questioned their operational and technical maturity.

“I don't specifically know about this vendor but the thing this hits on is how few of the marketing databases are really optimized for politics,” he said. “When the parties started doing the kinds of psychographic segmentation they routinely do now, they had to build their own databases on top of commercial applications. This fits right with that. If they could have found an outside vendor who would have built them a database like Axicom or someone like that, it would have probably worked better.”

Mason said given the ease of creating apps, far too many companies are cutting corners by extending the development cycle into what should be time for quality assurance. As a result, things fail during a public launch.

“It’s not the same as running it in the real world, on real devices, all the different networks, and technologies that are around, with real load from a lot of people,” he said.

The problem that presented poll workers in Iowa is akin to technical problems encountered on election night almost eight years ago by 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Cosgrove said.

“There was that famous Romney data failure in 2012 that's almost exactly the same problem as this,” he said. “Nobody really tested the app to see if it would really work on election night. This is very similar.”

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