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Trusting Systems

By Steve Jones,

Computer technology has become more and more integrated into all sorts of businesses. These days when I look at the ways in which automation and technology is embedded in business, I'm amazed to think that I worked in businesses that didn't have any personal computer systems early in my life. Unfortunately this integration comes at the a price: dependence. We depend more and more on our systems working as expected for businesses to continue to operate.

Most businesses can tolerate some issues and failures in their systems for a short period of time. As much as I want to maintain 5 9s of uptime, I've never been in a business that really required that level of stability. I've had systems go down that management claimed were critical. They've been down for a couple days, and the companies didn't go out of business. We have a lot more tolerance than management would like to admit. If you work with a 24x7 environment like Amazon's online store or a banking application that is generating revenue every second, that might not be true, but for most of us, in most organizations, for most systems, we can tolerate some downtime.

However the effects of some failures can't easily be measured. American Airlines had computer issues recently and had to delay or cancel 400 flights. I'm sure there were some costs in compensating customers that took other airlines, or received vouchers for services. However, most of the flights were moved to later in the day, and I doubt there were many refunds. The short term costs of this computer issue were probably relatively small. Given the fact that some customers might have skipped or moved flights, with a change fee, there might not have been any absolute short term loss.

However it's impossible to know how many other businesses were affected. Sales calls that were missed and not rescheduled, people that missed events that were important to them and they'll never be able to attend, or even penalties paid on contracts for the failure to deliver something in person. What's also impossible to know is how many people will reconsider booking flights with American in the future because they lost their trust in that company.

That's really the bottom line for most of our management and our businesses. If we can't provide reliable computer systems, management won't trust us, and their customers won't trust them. If that happens too often, we won't be employed, and at some point in the future, we might find ourselves unemployable if our reputation is such that we can't keep systems running.

Steve Jones

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