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Education: It's That Simple

I'm at 35,000 feet in the air on a Virgin America flight from New York to San Francisco as I type this. The in-flight entertainment center just went out, and we're all left wondering what to do now. Then the really bad news hits: With the entertainment system down, the flight crew can't process food orders. We're trapped on a six-hour flight, we can't eat, we can't do anything. We are prisoners to failed technology.
I'm at 35,000 feet in the air on a Virgin America flight from New York to San Francisco as I type this. The in-flight entertainment center just went out, and we're all left wondering what to do now. Then the really bad news hits: With the entertainment system down, the flight crew can't process food orders. We're trapped on a six-hour flight, we can't eat, we can't do anything. We are prisoners to failed technology.The irony is, I'm willing to pay more to fly Virgin because of the company's embrace of technology. Heck, I once applied for a job with the airline. I received no response, sadly, or this mishap might have been avoided. But we digress.

The big question is, Why there is no low-tech backup to the computerized food-ordering system? I mean, we can live without movies, but start depriving us of snacks, and things can get ugly. Is it due to lack of planning or simply because a secondary process is not needed very often? And in a wider sense, why don't IT groups look outside their realms to plan for these worst-case scenarios?

I always hear cost as the single factor for a lack of backup systems and processes. But let's turn that around: Why is it that backup systems must always cost millions of dollars and CPU cycles and involve IT? And why is it that IT pros are the ones to take the blame when business stops due to a slavish reliance on computer systems?

Surely Virgin could have instituted a low-tech, simple way to get sandwiches to passengers. Now take this problem and move it to a situation where the mission is more critical. As I see it, we have two choices: Build systems so robust that they never fail, or educate the business to understand that failures happen and they take ownership if they rely solely on IT and provide no funding or planning for redundancy.

We need to do better educating the business on all topics related to IT. Set proper expectations and spread the ownership and liability around. IT professionals are not superheros. We live within the limits set for us, but far too often take the brunt of outages as if they are solely our fault.

The answer is to educate, educate, educate. Build working relationships with your executives and LOB leaders. Have clear and concise discussions on a regular basis about concerns, wins, and the intersection of possible and practical. Teach them where limitations exist, but not solely or even mostly from a technical standpoint. As much as you care about the projected cost of toilet paper in the office restroom is how much they care about your techno-geek speak.

Ensure they are owners in decisions. Many IT professionals feel they give up respect and authority when they cede decision-making authority. I dismiss this idea. People will respect you more when they know you are competent, and show it by being transparent and making good team-based decisions.

Communicate. When an issue arises, explain clearly what happened and why it happened. Don't point blame such as, "You wouldn't authorize this, so it's on you." Play nice and show in your PowerPoint or Excel scorecard that the redundancy wasn't funded, but don't say by whom.

So, to the good people at Virgin America, thank you for great flights and lots to keep me busy. And fortunately, no one died of starvation, so you're off the hook this time. But for the future, can we get a backup sandwich system?

Editor's Choice
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer