Plan­ning for That In­evitable Tech Dis­as­ter

It will hap­pen one day— and that’s why you should think about it now

Inc. (USA) - - TECH - Amy Webb Amy Webb is an author and fu­tur­ist and the founder of the Fu­ture To­day In­sti­tute, a lead­ing fore­cast­ing and strat­egy firm that re­searches tech­nol­ogy for a global client base. She is the author of The Sig­nals Are Talk­ing: Why To­day’s Fringe Is To

AFEW MONTHS AGO, a friend from col­lege called me in a panic. He’s a smart, tech-savvy en­tre­pre­neur—a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist who grew his prac­tice into a re­gional health care com­pany with mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions and his own line of branded ex­er­cise equip­ment. He’d installed a so­phis­ti­cated com­puter sys­tem through­out all of his of­fices, which promised to au­to­mate mun­dane tasks such as sched­ul­ing pa­tients and main­tain­ing records. He was con­vinced that this new sys­tem would help elim­i­nate hu­man er­ror, which had be­come an is­sue as his busi­ness grew.

Then, one day, the mon­i­tors went dark. His of­fice was full of pa­tients and the staff had no con­tin­gency plan. In an in­stant, ev­ery­one’s trust in that mag­nif­i­cent tech­nol­ogy was lost. He called me. “I can’t get the com­put­ers to turn back on!” he shouted, short of breath, into the phone. “Some­thing’s bro­ken—I can’t fig­ure out what! Years of data, all gone! What am I sup­posed to do?”

All busi­ness own­ers re­mem­ber every cat­a­strophic tech fail­ure they ex­pe­ri­ence. Few ever an­tic­i­pate and plan for one. By the time we’ve psyched our­selves up to adopt a new tech­nol­ogy, we be­lieve it will work for­ever. It’s easy to for­get that peo­ple are still, for now, in charge of the ma­chines.

Last year, Nest users dis­cov­ered that their ther­mostats had sud­denly turned off in the mid­dle of win­ter, leav­ing thou­sands with­out heat. It was a glitch in the code a de­vel­oper had writ­ten. In 2012, a team at fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pany Knight Cap­i­tal Group ac­ci­den­tally de­ployed some bad soft­ware, which made the com­pany lose $440 mil­lion in 30 min­utes. In 1998, Toy Story 2 nearly van­ished after a Pixar worker ex­e­cuted the wrong com­puter com­mand and the sys­tem started delet­ing files. Two months of work dis­ap­peared in min­utes; some­one lit­er­ally yanked the power cord and net­work con­nec­tion from a server to save the rest of the files.

Un­til our ro­bot over­lords ar­rive to con­trol all our sys­tems, we must be smarter about our emo­tion­ally fraught re­la­tion­ship to tech­nol­ogy—and take a cue from cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy by div­ing straight into our fear and anx­i­ety.

How? If tech isn’t your strong suit, graph your knowl­edge gap: What know-how are you miss­ing, and who or what can fill in the blanks? Re­sources to know in­clude se­cu­rity sites like Sch­neier.com and the How To chan­nel on Cnet.com, pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions you might be­long to, and even, per­haps, an old pal. Then, des­ig­nate key staffers to con­sider what crises might oc­cur. Ask them to think about how your busi­ness uses a par­tic­u­lar tool or de­vice, and how it fits into com­pany pro­cesses. List all of the hard­ware, soft­ware, and ser­vices you use daily, and then ask: What would you do if your con­nected ma­chines went off­line? If your staff lost ac­cess to email? If all print­ers shut down?

Think through each sce­nario. If your staff loses email, what’s a re­al­is­tic plan B? If your email sys­tem gets hacked or held for ran­som, how will you re­spond? Write your an­swers down—on pa­per—and in­clude the names of key ven­dors or in­di­vid­u­als and their con­tact in­for­ma­tion. A solid plan will en­sure you won’t be par­a­lyzed by fear, as my friend was, when a cri­sis hits.

That friend didn’t have a dis­as­ter plan. But he did have me on the phone. I asked him if, by chance, his server was plugged into a power strip—and if that strip was un­der some­one’s desk. “Why would that mat­ter?” he asked, rush­ing over to take a look.

Be­cause peo­ple have feet, and we brush them against things when we’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion. Like, say, the on-off but­ton on a power strip. And, sure enough, a cru­cial one in my friend’s of­fice had been mys­te­ri­ously switched off.

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