Can you ever get credit for averting a disaster?

avoiding disasterYou never get credit for averting a disaster, only for mounting a rescue operation once it’s in motion. At least that’s my experience from decades working in and around software development.

I’ve seen the debate play out time and time again: How much time and effort do you invest upfront in planning, analysis, quality assurance, risk mitigation? How much is enough? How much is too much? What’s the cost of averting a problem versus fixing the problem after implementation? We all know it costs more to fix it after Go Live, but was it worth the cost of avoiding, if the problem never materializes?

This is similar to the debate we are having across the world today. What is the cost of averting a catastrophic surge on our medical resources? How much of our wealth are we willing to give up to save lives? Does it depend on the number of lives? We’re investing up front in “flattening the curve”, but will we believe that the costs were worth it when it’s all over?

If a software Go Live is a success, no alarms are raised, no high impact problem reports are sent up the chain of command, no emergency meetings are called, or ‘business continuity plans’ activated. There’s a celebration cake, some nice words of thanks to the dedicated team, some photos taken and everyone moves on to the next project. It obviously wasn’t that complex or that challenging — there were no outside witnesses to the heroic work that went on behind the scenes.  The impact of the quality checks and testing on the final smooth implementation can get lost in the final assessment. Remember Y2K twenty years ago?

The projected COVID-19 deaths in the US are gradually dropping as we wrap up several weeks of Stay At Home orders across most of the nation. This is fantastic news! We achieved the objectives set forth by #flattenthecurve initiatives. This is the result of bold public officials making tough decisions — these are the unsung heroes.  And, I can already hear rumblings and second-guessings as to whether this was needed, precisely because the projections have dropped. Wait, don’t forget, that was the whole point. Questions are being asked as to whether the cost to the economy was worth it. This is sounding familiar.

If a software Go Live is a disaster, a hotshot SWAT team swoops in to the rescue. These saviors are treated like royalty — their heroic work is on display for all to see. Heroes are born that become legends of department lore. The unheard voices that had asked for more time to check, review, and test get buried or take the blame. Lessons learned are captured, After Action Reviews are conducted, and improvement task forces formed. We don’t want to repeat this ever again … until we do.

We’ve witnessed COVID-19 disasters in many places across the globe. There were many unheard voices trying to issue warnings and caution. Some were buried and some may be looked to for blame before it’s all over. New heroes have been born. We’re doing military style flyovers to honor our doctors, nurses and medical professionals. Infectious disease experts, scrounging for research funds, mostly hidden in their labs until this point, have found themselves on the international stage. They are getting fan mail … and some hate mail too, I”m sure. I hope they have their grants written so they can strike while the iron’s hot. We want to be better prepared next time … until we forget.

Reading about the 1918 Spanish flu has fascinated me the past few weeks. As with software projects, it would seem that we do repeat mistakes and we do forget. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel seems to have got it right when he said  “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

What will the future say about the decisions made and the resulting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic? I’m sure we’ll already know a lot more in a year from now. However, wouldn’t you love to come back in 100 years to find out what history will write about the year 2020?


“We will meet again”

QEII Speech - April 5I’ve always loved that WWII song “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when …”. If you’re too young to know about it, take a minute to listen here. It’s a sweet mix of hope and melancholy. The Queen’s speech yesterday evoked a connection to a time when the western world was called on to tap into our reserves of “resolve”, “self-discipline”, “fellow feeling”, and ability to work “together”.

“Together we are tackling this disease,” she said. “If we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it.” As the royal  correspondent to the BBC put it “This was not a warrior-queen’s speech; it was about collective effort.”

I’ve often wondered what it must have felt like to live through the dark and uncertain days of WWII. Looking back from the vantage point of victory and post-war economic success, it’s hard to imagine that the outcome did not seem inevitable in the middle of the crisis. The raw feelings of hardship, doubt and despair has been dulled by the passage of time, and the passing of the generation that lived through it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps giving us a glimpse into some of our grandparents’ and parents’ struggles during that war. They were uniquely shaped by that experience. They have been called “The Greatest Generation”, as if we could never surpass their achievement or grit. Maybe we will get to prove ourselves too?

I found the Queen’s speech a welcome, soothing antidote to the political finger-pointing and chaotic leadership I read about in the US press everyday. She’s calling on the “Britons” to come together to overcome. This is a message needed even more desperately across the Atlantic in a country built on rugged individualism. The speech is a very straight, low-tech, unglitzy, zero drama delivery. It’s a message of “we shall overcome”, and this is how.

It’s worth listening to. You won’t regret taking 4 minutes out of your day to hear some great-grandmotherly wisdom in this clip (Click HERE).