Lessons for IT: Learning from Others’ Mistakes

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  May 11, 2016

Learning from mistakes committed by other people is the foundation of observational intelligence. The concept is embedded in numerous religious texts, with examples commonly cited from the Bible (Old and new Testaments), Quran, Upanishads, Sutras and Bhagavad Gita, to name but a few. It’s also part of the core curriculum for traditional grandparenting, as in, “Just because your friends (insert moronic or self-destructive behavior), you don’t have to do it, too.”

Given that rich history, it’s unsurprising that the concept continues to resonate and offer lessons, even for those in the most modern confines of business and information technology (IT). Here are four recent examples worth considering.

  • Sinking Boaty McBoatface – Deciding to name its newest research vessel according to the results of an online competition must have seemed like a great idea to Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). After all, the Internet offers easy access to interested participants. Plus, the last few years have been tough for science since the Internet also provides succor to markedly screwball concepts, pseudo-sciences and conspiracy theory/groups of every sort. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to NERC, though, was the Internet’s remarkable capacity for mischief. When “Boaty McBoatface” incongruously surfaced, then emerged as the contest’s clear favorite, concern must have morphed into panic. After Boaty won the contest with 124,000 votes (3X its nearest rival), organizers declared that, no offense intended, the new vessel would actually be named after famed explorer/broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. That not only disappointed Boaty’s thousands of fans but also supported the views of those who consider scientists humorless drudges and attracted publicity-hungry politicians demanding explanations for the turnabout. Lessons learned: Unpredictable sources seldom produce predictable results. Plus, the value of the “wisdom of crowds” changes dramatically if the crowd is dominated by wiseasses.
  • Ted Cruz’s Lucifer moment – The week before Indiana’s presidential primary vote on May 2nd was an exciting time for Senator Ted Cruz and those in the GOP who considered him the only candidate capable of hindering or stopping Donald Trump. On April 27th, Cruz announced that, if nominated, he would pick former candidate Carly Fiorina to be his running mate which generated a great deal of media attention. But on April 28th former House Speaker John Boehner reportedly said in an interview that he considered Cruz to be “Lucifer in the flesh” and that “I have never worked with a more miserable SOB in my life.” The former comment inspired a number of Satanists to decry the insult to their deity, while the latter led to Cruz saying he didn’t know and had never worked with Boehner. A few days later, a popular Internet meme about the curious resemblance between Cruz and the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the late 60s and 70s hit the mainstream when comedian Larry Wilmore noted it while hosting the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. That eventually prompted Heidi Cruz, the candidate’s wife, to issue a denial which, naturally enough, prompted even more unwanted attention and online hilarity. Cruz lost the Indiana primary handily and suspended his campaign the following day suggesting that ridicule can work like an exorcist in devilish political situations. Lessons learned: When the stakes are high, unexpected events become the norm, no matter how ludicrous they might seem. Plus, if you don’t own/control your own brand, others will do it for you.
  • Austin rejects Uber-nomics – In Austin, Texas, a solid majority (56%) of voters supported local rules requiring ride-sharing services, including Uber and Lyft to fingerprint their drivers and reject those with criminal records. The companies reportedly spent over $9 million to overturn the rule, and both said they would abandon service in Austin after the defeat. The companies could return if the Texas legislature imposes state-wide rules for ride-sharing companies, like those recently implemented in Iowa. But Uber and Lyft face similar regulatory battles in highly prized markets, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta. Plus, depending on the kindness of legislative generosity has its own price, including incurring the wrath of local consumers whose votes are overturned by demanding, uncaring outsiders. The Austin situation also underscores the irony of new “sharing economy” companies that supposedly love disruption but whine and turn tail and run from any reasonable compromise. Lessons learned: Here comes the sharing economy—looks like the greedy economy. Plus, avoid contentious processes unless you’re certain of the outcome, especially if they threaten your reputation or livelihood.
  • Apple iTunes removes/deletes customer data – On May 4th, composer James Pinkstone posted a blog about his recent adventures with the new Apple Music After signing up for a free trial, Pinkstone discovered that Apple had scanned his hard drive, uploaded 122GB of MP3 and WAV files to its cloud, then deleted those files from his computer. The process affected not just songs/albums Pinkstone purchased from iTunes but also files of his own compositions and songs he had copied from CDs and other legitimate sources. He also discovered that the service had erased alternative versions of songs in the iTunes data base, including live performances and outtakes. Moreover, though Pinkstone could access the uploaded files via Web-connected devices, the Apple Music end user licensing agreement (EULA) stated that the files would no longer be available if he discontinued the service, and also indemnified Apple against any liability for lost or damaged files, placing any/all risks for using the service on users. Fortunately, Pinkstone was able to recover his files by restoring them from a local back-up but his situation is worth considering in detail, especially given Apple’s efforts to increase its profile among and use by businesses. While Apple Music is clearly aimed at consumers, a service that scans, copies and deletes information from storage devices it does not own is uncommon and would quickly become extinct in the corporate world. In addition, placing all responsibility for errors and loss, including those caused by the service provider, on end users flies in the face of every enterprise service level agreement (SLA) I’ve ever seen. Lessons learned: While cloud can be a valuable tool, important or business critical information should always be backed-up locally. Plus, just because some companies ignore the fine print in SLAs, EULAs and other legal agreements, you don’t have to do it, too. Also, your grandparents were right.

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