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Fly the Plane

Article by Deane Barker

There's probably no time when the Internet is under the strain it's under right now. Consider some of the following:

This all happened in the same week.

When volume changes this rapidly, who manages that change in infrastructure? No one expected this. It wasn't like most organizations had someone sitting around with nothing to do but watch for this. This is what Nassim Taleb dubbed a Black Swan Event.

There are absolutely organizations intended to handle volume spikes like this, but is it your organization? And is this what you're supposed to be worrying about?

Just recently, a government health service was struggling under unprecedented digital demand. Their infrastructure couldn't cope with the volume, and their website became unreliable. Keeping it running was detracting from what they really needed to do.

Episerver took this health service from their on-premise solution all the way to cloud deployment in 30 hours. They haven't had a service disruption since and have been able to concentrate on more pressing problems.

In aviation, they have a phenomenon called "Controlled Flight Into Terrain." This is when a plane is still airworthy, the pilot just flies it into something because they're distracted and don't realize something is wrong until it's too late.

Consequently, in aviation troubleshooting checklists, the first step is often clearly stated as "FLY THE PLANE," because when under pressure, it's easy for a pilot to forget that this is the most important thing. This is the critical path, the long pole in the tent, the load-bearing wall -- whatever you want to call it. If this thing doesn't happen, then nothing else matters.

In your business, what is your FLY THE PLANE task?

I suspect it's not, "deal with the infrastructure of keeping the website up." I'm not saying this doesn't need to happen, it's just probably not something that you need to do.

If you're in Marketing or Business Communications, you fly the plane by communicating your message and keeping your marketing and customers informed. You just need the website to be available, not get immersed in the details of making that so.

And this is true even if you're in Information Technology. Sure, IT manages infrastructure, but there's a difference between line-of-business operations and your external marketing and comms infrastructure. If you work for a bank, even in IT, flying the plane means keeping the online banking system up, making sure transactions clear properly at the end of the day, and ensuring tellers can log into the network. You can't get distracted to the point where you do a controlled flight into terrain.

A crisis tends to clarify things like this. When everything is on the line and you're responsible for doing your job as quickly and accurately as possible, you can't bother to deviate from that path. Everyone needs to do their jobs with focus and clarity.

What is it about managing infrastructure that you think your organization can do better internally than a cloud-focused company where this is literally the only thing they do? Put another way, what is the value-add for keeping this internal? What is the magic dust you are applying to that problem that makes it a worthwhile effort?

When I was in professional services, I once called a friend at an old-school ad agency and asked him if they were making any money building websites. After all, I said, "You don't still have a printing press in the basement, do you?"

He admitted that they lost money on web development. Their revenue stream -- the way they flew the plane -- was in strategic services and creative media buying. They got paid to think, not build. Website development was something they lost money on. It wasn't on the critical path, and it just caused distractions from their core business.

I get it -- we like to solve problems. And infrastructure is often a nice, juicy problem to solve.

But it usually just doesn't add any value, and in a crisis it distracts us for the things that really need to be done. For some organizations, it's a strawman problem -- something we concentrate on because it's easier to solve and makes us feel productive.

Infrastructure management simply needs to come off the table for most organizations, and this is never more obvious than when communication and performance is critical. Sadly, by that point, it's often too late, even if only by 30 hours.

Fly the plane. Concentrate on the actual mission of what your organization is meant to be doing.


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