First there was the ransomware attack on Continental Pipeline a month ago, making much of their computer system inaccessible. This shut off 85% of the oil to the East Coast, until a ransom of about $5 million was paid to regain access to data and hardware.

A few weeks later, JBS, an international meatpacking company underwent a similar attack, causing the closing of meat plants that are among the largest in the U.S.

Now we learn that the tax information of Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and others of wealth have been stolen or hacked from supposedly secure IRS data bases.

If it could happen to them, it can happen to any of us.

While various hacks and attacks can be very costly, there is a valuable lesson we can take away.

Computers systems by their power, capabilities, and astonishing speed—when they are working as they are supposed to—can give us a sense of extraordinary mastery over our environment.  When the system failures happen, however, they can send us into panic, may cause quite dedicated and highly competent CIOs to lose their jobs, and if we are not careful even lead to health-threatening stress to the owner of the business.  The human toll in morale and personnel can far outweigh other losses.

The lesson is this: the sense of invulnerability that technology produces is an illusion.  Everything about computer systems can collapse in an instant, and we need to be both mentally and organizationally ready if we are to prove resilient.

Keeping this lesson in mind can mitigate one source of the stress I have both experienced personally at times and observed repeatedly in clients—the sense of being a helpless, isolated victim in the face of system failure.  “Why us and why now of all times?” sums up this mentality, as we feel overwhelmed with a sense of shame, extreme disappointment, frustration, and even betrayal.

Not to be gloomy but to help you see that you are not alone, consider some recent highly visible failures:

  • During its busiest month of the year, British Airways, in an industry with scarily thin margins, suffered a complete computer outage in 2019. Over 100 flights were canceled and 300 delayed.
  • Boeing’s software failures doomed the 737 Max aircraft – killing 346 people.
  • Boeing’s NASA new spaceship narrowly averted self-destruction due to software errors, which also prevented it from reaching the International Space Station.
  • In February 2020, some 100 flights at London’s Heathrow airport were disrupted due to problems with departure and check-in systems.
  • Two years earlier, the personal information of millions of Facebook users was gathered without permission by Cambridge Analytics.
  • Tesla recalled 135,000 cars in 2021 to fix computer memory problems that could cause loss of some features.
  • During the Covid shutdown, some companies such as Ameriprise prohibited use of Zoom for videoconferencing due to security issues with the program.
  • Yahoo believes that confidential information on 500,000 users was stolen in 2016, including unencrypted security data.
  • The vaccination scheduling software of a New Jersey hospital was found responsible for setting appointments of which 70% were duplicates.
  • And of course, most of us remember the disastrous roll out of the Obama Care web site, for which developers were paid $250 million.

How can such things happen to us, you might ask, when we have put so many resources into prevention?  The answer is that even when some of the most intelligent and highly paid, Ph.D. rocket scientists in the world work for you, major errors happen.  Back in 1999, NASA lost in flight a $125 million Mars mission which turned into a comedy of errors.   Engineers at JPL in Pasadena used the metric system in calculations and software commands, while their colleagues and mission partners at Lockheed Martin in Denver used the Imperial system of feet, inches, and pounds.

What further lessons can we take from all of this?

  • The dazzling capabilities that make computers indispensable can easily lead us to forget that they are human inventions operated by humans.  Thus errors and failures are to be anticipated.  This is especially true with new features, and “upgrades,” that are often, more accurately, downgrades in terms of usability, efficiency, and dependability.
  • High tech hype has oversold its products to the gullible.  One TV commentator recently said that Bill Gates’ major accomplishment has been to show that it is possible in the U.S. to become a billionaire while making “crappy software.” Computer programs and devices are not as dependable as we are told, and they are definitely not as much fun—neither PC, Android, nor Apple, by the way.  They do not work as swiftly and thoroughly as depicted in movies about police and military operations.  You are not a “dinosaur” for expressing these truths, though thin-skinned techies may dismiss your feedback with this kind of insult.
  • It is the job of the IT department to maintain calm in the face of system crises.  Their typically Stoic demeanor does not mean that they have all the answers or that they don’t care.  Give them time to figure it out.  Most are doing their best, and there are some technological quirks that are a mystery to everyone.

As the true-to-life movie “Apollo 13” dramatizes so brilliantly, the greatest technological inventions are no substitute for well-trained, committed, dedicated, and creative people.  It is they upon whom your business survival will depend when the inevitable failures occur at the worst possible times.  Find, nurture, respect and reward them.  Amid disaster, be a paragon of firm, focused, confident leadership, and you will also earn their loyalty.