Friday, March 11, 2011

Good Engineering

It's heartbreaking to watch the folks killed, wounded and displaced by the earthquake in the Pacific Ocean. The fury of nature mostly focused on Japan. Surprisingly the damage was not as much as expected in Tokyo. The big city was rattled, nevertheless, but relatively unscathed compared to the lesser known towns and villages. the casualties would have been unthinkably large had the buildings buckled in Tokyo - one of the cities in the world with highest population densities.

How did Tokyo manage to evade the inevitable? Someone twitted - Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building code. How profound. Not to belittle the unfathomable suffering of the victims, I couldn't help but think about the parallel to my own profession.

Engineering is not about being superficially creative; it's about reliability and trustworthiness. What good had been to build the highest tower in the world if that toppled over killing thousands and destroying far more in property? The true appreciation for engineering comes if something does not happen when things don't go as expected. When building a database infrastructure, or managing one, the true effort of a DBA is manifested in things that do not occur. Corruptions do not happen, rather than recovery being a necessity, or, security breaches never occur as opposed to scrambling to contain the damage of a breach. When things don't happen, the DBA is likely doing his or her job most effectively. It's not flashy webpages, or nice reports; it's plain simple non-events that differentiates [to borrow from the oft-repeated and near-cliche] men from boys.

I have a simple mantra (well, actually one of several) - success is not an accident; it's planned. Carefully planned engineering artifacts saved the day. Carefully planned processes save the organization from the perils of life - be it tsunamis or attempted credit card thefts. The success of the projects I execute, I believe, depends on how well it was planned - how prepared I was for all contingencies. There are three very important things in any project - details, details and details. Sometimes people around me get a little impatient that I pay too much attention to planning and details before starting the action. Well, without detailed analysis, I don't see how you can succeed in a project. Dumb luck, may be; but definitely not because of effort.

One of the other overlooked factors in success is standardization. It goes for building a good layout or an architectural plan that influences future projects. For years, I have been developing and enforcing strict guidelines in my own organization, to address this eventuality - just in case. Time and again, it has proved invaluable by preventing small and large mishaps, just like the building codes did in Tokyo.

Because of what the engineers did, Tokyo was spared; not because of its good luck. Millions of people should thank the unsung heroes that made it their mission to pay attention to the detail and plan very carefully. And scores of CEOs, CIOs and shareholders should thank the unsung heroes in their own organizations who saved them from corporate perils by making sure nothing happens.

Planning ... details ... boring; but important. Not something you will see in headlines, sadly, though.
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