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Unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat
or why we love the firefighters but not the safety board
In 2012 the world experienced a new potential pandemic threat: the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), this was the 3rd newly discovered respiratory virus in ten year, after SARS (2002) and H1N1 “Swine Flu” (2009), with the potential to create a pandemic.
The western countries, especially Europe, responded with “Who cares?”, this new disease was nicknamed “Camel Flu” and most world leader didn’t even brush up the pandemic preparedness plans that were lying somewhere in the archives since the H1N1 “almost pandemic”.
In the meantime parliaments around the world were searching for money everywhere, the economic disaster started with Lehman Brothers was just starting to subside and they needed money to kickstart the economy.
So our plans became obsolete to the point that there was no pandemic preparedness at all.
Seven years later a new strain of a virus terribly similar to the deadly SARS emerged in China, in the city of Wuhan. The response from the Asia-Pacific region was swift: they got their SARS/MERS playbook and went into a strict lockdown and used the emergency stash of reagents to develop a new test to find and isolate contagious citizens.
The rich western world laughed and kept drinking its martinis, like SARS or MERS, this was an Asia-Pacific problem.
As we know, it really wasn’t.
You would assume that people would be really upset at their government, that they’ll be asking for accountability: “Who fucked this up so badly??”.
You would be wrong.
The notion of being at war with the Virus (capital V for emphasys) drove approval polls upward, all western leaders saw their approval rating surge in the 80s (with the notable exception of Donald Trump).
Isn’t this weird?
We love heroes, our own culture is full of hero stories, in fact we have codified a way to tell stories about heroes (the Hero journey).
As a counterpoint, let me tell you a different story:
Bruce Wayne is the young heir of the Wayne Industries’ fortune, his parents were murdered during a robbery just outside of the movie teather were the family went to watch “the mask of Zorro”. What makes Bruce special is that, thanks to the teaching of his butler and mentor Alfred, he understood that his parents were killed because of the corruption and gigantic income inequality of Gotham City. He becomes a political activist and uses the Wayne Industries technoloy and his personal wealth to lobby for anti-corrupution laws and to create clean jobs in Gotham.
A nice story but I am not sure if Christopher Nolan would make a movie out of this.
And this is the same everywhere, you can buy a firemen calendar but not a “fire prevention office” calendar. We idolize firefighters, they risk their life after all, but hate the fire prevention people for their pesky attachment to rules and requiremens that make everything sooo expensive.
How is this connected to the tech industry?
Our industry isn’t any different, we hate preventive work and idolize those people that jump into the fire of a big outage and single handedly save the company.
And this is one of the most toxic cultural aspects that I have encountered in my professional life.
Aren’t heroes great?
Sure, if your definition of great is: let’s never care about problems until the situation is so fucked up that we need to jump into a call at midnight.
Shit happens of course, but there is a difference between a system that fails because of lack of maintainance, ownership and bad decision-making and a system that fails because nobody can beat Murphy.
Can we try to make this better?
Who gets to be promoted in your company? The engineer that jumps into the fire when there is an emergency or the one that regularly writes documentation and tests? I know the answer already.
But we can change this!
If you are an engineering leader you can explicitly make a demonstrable level of quality part of non-functional requirements of your products and, more importantly, a requirement for promotion from Senior and above.
If you are and individual contributor you should make the impact of your work visible, one of the biggest problems with preventive work is that is very difficult, even for someone that believes in its importance, to get budget for it, to calculate the business value: How many times your documentation was read? Is it part of onboarding? Can we measure how often tests have caught an error before it goes into master?
Or you can vote with your feet as many are doing these days.
You can add preventive work in your retrospectives. In my previous life I added the question “What could have gone terribly wrong but didn’t?” in our incident postmortems to highlight if something didn’t happen because of hidden preventive work or just sheer luck.
Sometimes asking the right questions is all you need