Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017: Sully

One of my previous Memorial Day posts looked at a Clint Eastwood film about a veteran. Another Eastwood film conveniently found its way to my cable channel a few weeks go, also about a veteran: Sully. This film looks primarily at Chesley Sullenberger's time as a commercial airline pilot, centering on the mishap investigation around Sullenberger's decision to crash land his airliner in New York's Hudson river after a malfunction on January 15, 2009.

And once again, there are some parallels between this movie and the broken IT industry. The aviation world, once and arguably still one of the leaders in epitomizing the best of human endeavor, has grown large and complex, characterized by many silos of power. There are of course the regulatory commissions like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), pilots' unions, air traffic controller unions, additional administrations at the state and municipal level, and because there wasn't enough fun coordinating all of that (and the multitude that I don't know about and didn't mention) organizations like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were added.

One of the key problems in IT departments now is that the fragmentation of duties creates complication and reduces efficiency. This isn't a revelation, it's only the same thing that has driven comedic material about organizations (especially governments) for decades, perhaps centuries. This derision is well earned, with governments often characterized as a circus, a whimsical collection of nincompoops that take up too much time and too much money. In an arena with many warriors it's easy for each member of a team to forget the overriding goal to serve a customer.

Each part of the equation is fighting to be a bigger part, to preserve itself, and to survive and thrive. This is natural behavior, but can lead groups in an organization astray. The focus becomes "me" instead of "we" and each faction serves itself and the spirit of the greater organization is lost.

In Sully, the NTSB is largely painted as an organization looking to place blame on the pilot for the mishap. Although it's not directly stated in the film, it's hard not to imagine external pressures on the NTSB to find fault with the pilot. We've seen this sort of thing before, when insurance companies and their lawyers would choose obfuscation over clarity, choose a pyrrhic victory at the expense of justice. The greater good it seems, isn't served by the initiative and actions of a pilot with some autonomy to save lives, but instead by entities uninvolved in the actual incident who would save corporate dollars.

Of course this is largely just me being cynical. I have to give Eastwood credit for not openly using such obvious gimmicks to win the audience to Sullenberger's case. No, there would instead be other gimmicks used to create drama where there might not have been any. I don't know exactly how the hearings went, but in Sully, there were a couple things I didn't like in this otherwise interesting and well made film. It was hard to believe that the late breaking evidence appearing in pivotal moments of the film mirrored the timing of those events of real life. I also found it a bit too easy for the NTSB to shift so quickly from villain to adoring admirer; in real life I'd hope the NTSB isn't there to create drama but simply to approach an investigation with no expectation that the cause is pilot error or technical malfunction and to be interested in only one thing: the truth.

Ideally, each organization involved would be singularly focused on that truth, the biggest one being that not a single life was lost in the incident. Isn't this the reason for all these entities, to push for safety and standards to limit this risk to human life? Without passengers, there's not much need for a smart, experienced pilot and co-pilot, safety boards, investigators, flight crew and their training, and air traffic controllers. Every single one of the people involved in those groups should take pride in ultimately serving the same customer: the passenger.

I wish it was that way in IT too. Whether it is a new software project to create a system that improves communication or efficiency, or a hardware team that is responsible for getting the appropriate technology into the hands of the right user, or a software support team, or a business analyst, they should all understand they have the same goal. They should not be looking to put down one team at the gain of their own, or to value performance metrics relevant only to their particular space, but to understand that the production experience with technology is everyone's responsibility.

That would be a great IT organization indeed. In that world, everyone works together to provide for the one true boss: the customer. In that world, everyone is doing their part to keep the customer happy even though each may have a different role. A circus, but the good kind.

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