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Titanic Lessons

The sinking of the Titanic was the largest maritime disaster of its time and indeed, has not been surpassed in terms of number of deaths since. The maritime industry learned from this experience. One of the results has been an avoidance of disasters of this magnitude. I think that the disaster has lessons that can also be of benefit to other industries.

Every new technology, or technology advance comes with high expectations. No one had built anything quite as large or opulent as the Titanic to that point so its owners can be excused for the hubris that led to calling the ship "unsinkable". When we build new systems, no matter how much better they are than the old ones, no matter what wonderful new technology they use, we should be wary of making unfounded claims for them. No ship is unsinkable and no system is without flaw. What we should be doing is making plans for addressing that flaw when we find it.

The fact that were places for hundreds more in the lifeboats that the Titanic launched compounds the tragedy. Added to that fact, is the fact that not all lifeboats were launched.  Lifeboats were launched well under full capacity because of a lack of coordinated effort on the part of the crew and coordination was lacking because of a lack of training. Had the crew and passengers been properly prepared with lifeboat drills it is likely that hundreds more could have been saved. No contingency plan, whether its a roll back strategy for a systems deployment or a plan to manage some other risk, can be considered fail safe without a test. The test might be a complete exercise of the plan, like the lifeboat drill, or a walk-through with subject matter experts. Only after the plan has been tested will you know how effective it would be in the event it should be triggered.

Lack of familiarity with the Titanic contributed to the disaster. The lookouts posted to the "crow's nest" of the Titanic could not locate the binoculars provided for the purpose of spotting icebergs. It is estimated that the iceberg that sank the Titanic was not spotted until it was 500 yards distant. We can't know if binoculars would have made it possible to spot the iceberg sooner, but they couldn't hurt. We should make sure that everyone working on our projects is familiar with the work they have to do. Providing them with the tools they require is not enough, we must ensure that they are proficient with them. If there is any doubt, arrange for training or recruit team members who demonstrate proficiency.

Communications were also an issue. The telegraph operator aboard the Titanic received numerous telegrams to the effect that the Titanic was heading into an area that was heavily populated with icebergs and some of these telegrams were posted on a bulletin board on the bridge of the Titanic. The last bulletin which alerted the Titanic to the fact that they were now in the ice field was ignored by the operator because he was busy sending and receiving telegrams for passengers. Communication is only successful when our communication is heard and understood (or we hear and understand those communicating with us). It is up to us to ensure that a communication warning of a project risk is not only received but understood. Warning the project sponsor of a risk is not enough, we must ensure that sponsor understands the risk, the probability of it happening and the impact of the event if it should happen. Then the sponsor can make an intelligent decision on whether to mitigate the risk, or accept it.

There are plenty of software development "Titanics". The next time you undertake the management of a software development project, learn from the mistakes of Captain Smith and don't hit that iceberg.
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