ORACLE: The parable of the ski patrol

By Doug Samuelson

Spring had come early, after a mild winter, and the party on the patio was in full swing. The group was full of good cheer as they traded stories about families, hobbies, and, of course, their work experiences.

John, a senior OR/MS analyst, grumbled, “I wish I could have gotten the computer systems guys at work to follow my suggestions about backup. We had a big server crash the week before last and were out of action for three days, with all kinds of hot-deadline projects getting postponed, rescheduled or just dropped. That was bad enough, but then when we had an after-action meeting to consider how to do better, I pointed out that consolidating all our files from a couple of big software packages on one disk drive that we controlled might not have been such a good idea. We got better version control, but when that drive died, so did we! So I suggested frequent backups to another drive, or better yet, another server.

“The boss objected immediately,” John continued. “He wanted to keep version control. Besides, he told us, there’s nightly backup of the whole system, so we should be able to get everything except the current day’s work restored easily.

“The only trouble with that,” John went on, visibly frustrated, “as I immediately mentioned, is that the restore has to be done by computer support staff who have 50 other things to do when there’s a big crash. So the boss’ plan was good in theory, but in practice....”

Everyone laughed. Brett, a computer scientist, consoled John: “Well, you had the right approach. Good for you! Maybe they’ll learn from this.”

“Not likely,” John demurred. “The other person who objected was, of course, the head of IT. His people got the idea immediately and were all for it, but he needed to think about the process issues, which is a nice way of saying that controlling how he and his people spent their time was much more important to him than how we wasted ours.”

Alan, another senior OR/MS analyst, laughed. “It’s the ski patrol problem,” he grinned. As the others looked at him curiously, he explained, “The ski patrol has way more serious accidents than anyone else on the slopes. The reason is that they’re hotshot skiers, so they have an overly optimistic view of what they can get away with. And, of course, they’re the enforcers, so there’s a macho sort of thing about not having to take the precautions they insist everyone else has to take. Finally, since they’re hotshots, they sometimes don’t realize when they’re pushing to their limits. Most of their accidents occur on what they intended to be their last run of the day.”

“Kind of like the way police officers don’t wear seat belts, because nobody can compel them to, and maybe they can draw their gun faster without the belt,” Mark, another analyst, added. “And that, plus the number of high-speed chases they do, is why car wrecks, with no seat belt, account for more fatalities of on-duty police officers than all other causes combined.”

“There’s another thing,” John admitted, ruefully. “Experts at anything not only get overconfident, they get set in certain ways of doing things and don’t notice the situation changing around them as fast as others. I’m afraid I’m a perfect example.

“Of course,” John said, “I’m telling everyone else to back up early and often. And so do I, but I’ve been doing it the way I did for years. I used to do weekly backups to a big external hard drive, but that meant taking the laptop to the drive, or the drive to the laptop, and connecting them, and waiting for a long backup run – a nuisance. So as bigger flash drives became available inexpensively, I got into the habit of copying just the recent stuff to a flash drive fairly often. Sometimes flash drives fail, so I’d use a few different ones, rotating from one time to the next.

“Trouble is,” John recounted, “the convenience and portability of flash drives also means they’re small. When my main laptop’s hard drive had a catastrophic crash last week, I realized the hard way that I didn’t know where the most recent flash drive backup was, and because I relied on the flash drives, I hadn’t done a full backup to the external hard drive for a few months! I wasted days trying one flash drive after another, couldn’t even find one that I think was the most recent – they’re small, so they’re easy to misplace! Long story short, I’m up the creek from not following one key aspect of my own advice. I have a Mac, so for $300 I could have a wireless drive that will automatically back up everything at whatever intervals I set, as long as the computer is within wireless range – or as soon as it gets there after the interval. The automatic backups are a standard feature of the operating system now. But I wasn’t paying attention to the easy, reliable way to do it, because I had a method that had worked pretty well for years. Oops!

“Even when you are an expert, or perhaps especially when you are,” John concluded, “you need to review your methods once in a while to make sure they’re still better than the other ways you could do things! Complacency and inertia breed disaster!”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va.