Thursday, October 10, 2013

A TurboTax annoyance

My frustration with TurboTax got to the point last night where I said to my husband, "I have to sleep on this.  I know that something is intrinsically wrong here, but I haven't yet figured out what it is."
Like millions of other Americans, especially those who run small businesses or sole proprietorships and have complicated tax returns as a result, we often file for a tax extension, which means that our deadline is next Tuesday. 

Like tens of millions of Americans, we use tax preparation software to complete our return.  In our case, the historical choice has been TurboTax. 

Screengrabbed from the IRS website
First thing this morning, I finally figured out what the issue is:  When TurboTax generates a properly-formatted Form 1040 in PDF, it counterintuitively renders most of the document as readable characters but some of the document as an undifferentiated image. 

Let me illustrate what I mean and why it's potentially consequential to certain software users. 
Most of the document is a true PDF in which you can search text, select text, highlight, etc.
See??  Searchable text, just as you'd expect with any properly-rendered PDF of an official government document. 

Uh-oh.  Something is clearly not happening as expected.  A tax return prepared by a self-employed person should, indeed, contain the term "self-employed" somewhere within it, don'tcha think?! 

So is it corrupted, or what's going on??  A person who notices something like this is not going to feel confident about actually submitting the tax return to the IRS without an explanation for why this kind of thing happens.  There's a lot at stake, afterall, and with computers, sometimes a little quirky issue is actually just a symptom of a much larger issue.  You have to resolve it. 
This next couple of screengrabs tells the tale.
Looking for the search term "SEP" confirmed many instances of the word "separate", but no instances of SEP as in Simplified Employee Pension.  And that's just not right. 
And here's why - it's because much of the actual rendered two-page 1040 (not the supporting sub-forms) is not a document - it's just an image.  If you try to select specific text on it, Acrobat just draws a screengrab type of box instead of the target text becoming highlighted.  And in this case, I was unable to perform OCR on the document to make this go away. 

This was tricky to discover because not all of the 1040 was image.  The actual numbers on that part of the return were rendered as searchable text. 
You may wonder why in the hell this matters.  Well, it does matter to some people.  I work in a profession where errors and omissions are the big hairy motherfreaker of an elephant in the room.  In order to guard against them, people like me devise all kinds of tricky non-linear and non-literal methods of parsing our deliverables to ensure that E & O issues don't occur and thereby land us in litigation (or tax audit!).  When we come across an inconsistency or an irregularity of any kind, it has to be resolved or at least explained away before the work product can be released.  One of my simple quality control methods entails very rapid and redundant keyword searches to ensure internal consistency of representations in multiple locations.  When some undisclosed phenomenon prevents me from doing that, my brain hits the red button and the QA/QC process grinds to halt. 

Fortunately I didn't waste more than an hour or two figuring this one out (sleeping on it was the right move).  It just never occurred to me that some programmer would mix text and text image on the same danged page.  That's just irregular. 

And how many millions of other people have used TurboTax and yet I couldn't find a single other reference to this peculiarity on the internet that might have helped me cut to the chase??  Sheesh!!  I guess that's why blogging exists.   
Happy Tax Day.  But you can forget about rewarding yourself for all your hard tax deadline work by taking a breather trip to a National Park

Screengrabbed from this IRS page.   

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'm forced to moderate comments because the spammers have become too much for me to keep up with. If you have a legitimate comment, I will post it promptly. Sorry for the inconvenience.