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Thoughts from an outback breakdown

On a recent road trip I was reminded about the importance of DevOps feedback loops and application supportability.

I enjoy driving into the Australian outback. This probably explains why I prefer to take the back roads. On my last trip I did just that; forgoing the fast highway for a more sedate but picturesque route. Deciding to fill up at a small country town gas station on my way home I hit a snag. The marvelous electronic park brake system wouldn't disengage. It was late and I was stuck up that proverbial creak without a paddle - 200+ miles from home.

Once the profanities had subsided and the cold realization that I was stuck took hold, I started some problem solving.

Being bushwhacked by lousy support
Following numerous failed attempts to disengage the electronic parking brake I thought it best to read the supporting documentation. Lo and behold, opening the glove compartment revealed a 500+ page owner's manual - all hail the documentation gods!

Sadly my euphoria subsided and the cursing returned - buried half way through the manual was a rude awakener - "in the event of a parking brake malfunction we recommend you contact your nearest dealer for an inspection." Solid advice, but the nearest dealer was 200 miles away and that'd involve a costly tow.

Lessons learned - by nature, software applications are complex, but supporting them doesn't have to be. As we develop more intricate applications put yourselves in the shoes of some poor schmuck who's being dragged out of bed at 3:00am to fix up a problem. Like me, they'll benefit from clearer documentation, instrumentation and monitoring methods that guide them to a solution in context of their position or role.

Always beware of automation myopia
Usually there are lots of decent folks who offer help when your car breaks down. In my case that involved a number of real and pseudo mechanics. The funny thing was that every one of them (me included) focused their attention on the offending electronic system; never once considering a workaround. So after much scratching of heads, the general consensus was - "dude, once you have an electronic problem like this you're sort of stuffed."

Lessons learned - in the fast-paced digital world we increasingly put our faith in automation. So much so that we've lost touch with our tech skills and experience developed over many years - it's become atrophied. Automation is fine, but just like pilots who rely too much on autopilot, we can make errors when confronted with unexpected conditions. Therefore tools should be capable of being enhanced by the skilled folks who use them and also help broaden skills.

In high praise of feedback loops
When you're faced with spending a night in an off-track motel you get kind of inventive. For me that meant checking out some mechanical forums from the one bar of mobile service on my smartphone. After a couple of attempts I found a site that laid out all the steps involved in manually disengaging the park brake system. The site even pointed me to a tool in the luggage compartment that was specifically designed to address this problem. Finally after some manual effort (and more cursing) I turned off the system and could drive the car.

Lessons learned - establishing and feeding back information and knowledge across teams is essential to improve the quality of software applications. In my predicament I only managed to acquire knowledge when one specialist had taken the time to document and publish it. Sadly in IT, knowledge is often withheld or the tools we use fail to leverage it in software development, testing and release processes.

Turning up the volume doesn't work
I have to admit that I did get prior warning about problems. Weeks before the malfunction I had been plagued with intermittent alarms that I'd ignored by cranking up the radio volume. Then after they subsided, I convinced myself that everything was fine.

Lessons learned - in IT operations, staff are constantly dealing with alerts. Too often persistent alarms are ignored because they fall within established baselines, but over time they lead to systemic problems. This is due to operator "alarm fatigue," exacerbated by monitoring systems lacking the fine-grained analytical capabilities needed to distinguish real problems from false positives.

Modern applications are a lot like modern cars. They're complex to a point that no one likes looking under the hood when things go wrong. Never forget that in the quest for delivery speed, application supportability and continuous improvement through knowledge feedback is critical to success.

More Stories By Pete Waterhouse

Pete Waterhouse, Senior Strategist at CA Technologies, is a business technologist with 20+ years’ experience in development, strategy, marketing and executive management. He is a recognized thought leader, speaker and blogger – covering key trends such as DevOps, Mobility, Cloud and the Internet of Things.

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