Frankly Speaking: Be Prepared

IT catches grief for having contingency plansVirgin Atlantic Airways did the right thing - and now it's getting grief for it. The problem? Virgin Atlantic created a Web page (www.virgin-atlantic.com/emergency) to alert customers and the press in case of a crash. It's a fill-in-the-blanks page that reads, "A Virgin Atlantic aircraft has been involved in an accident: The plane was flying from X(PLACE)X to X(PLACE)X on X(DATE)X. It took off from X(PLACE)X at X(TIME)X local time. The flight number is VS X(NUMBER)X. We are already working closely with emergency authorities involved and are channeling all our efforts into collecting information about the accident."

Hey, airplanes fall out of the sky. It doesn't happen often, and nobody's happy when it does. But being ready with a Web page means there's one less problem to solve in the chaos following a crash. Thinking ahead - planning for contingencies you hope will never happen - is the sensible, responsible thing to do.

But it's also politically incorrect. Airlines aren't supposed to admit a crash could happen. So Virgin Atlantic got grief in the British press when reporters discovered the page, and a spokeswoman had to repeat the obvious: A crash is "very unlikely," but creating the page was "definitely normal" procedure for being "completely prepared."

But next time, you can bet Virgin Atlantic will do a better job of hiding its contingency plans.

Corporate IT shops are catching grief these days for being prepared, too. Now that Y2K zero hour has passed without the collapse of civilization, Monday-morning quarterbacks are decrying the hundreds of billions of dollars it cost. One big whining point: All the money spent on Y2K contingency planning.

See, contingency planning isn't politically correct. All that time and money spent on what-if scenarios and warm bodies on call on New Year's Eve were wasted, according to this crowd. It would have been a lot cheaper, they argue, to treat Y2K system failures like fires or train wrecks: Just buy some insurance.

Let's walk through this slowly, because it's baloney, but it's very appealing baloney.

Insurance works because all the policyholders aren't likely to have the same catastrophe at once. If all of Geico's car insurance customers totaled their cars the same day, Geico would go broke. But they don't because car accidents are spread out over time.

There was no such time-spreading with Y2K. All the big Y2K smashups would have happened in a single day. And they would have cascaded, like an endless pileup on a worldwide freeway. If we'd relied on insurance instead of solving the problem, even companies that fixed their problems could be down the tubes right now.

But the vast majority of IT shops made a choice when they began their Y2K work.

We decided not to put our trust in insurance or lawsuits or vendor promises, or even our own ability to fix the problem.

Instead, we made contingency plans. We calculated catastrophe scenarios. We prepared for the worst.

Why? The business case was simple: If our systems went south and one of our competitors survived, it would walk away with our business and customers while we were haggling with the insurance company and screaming at vendors. If we needed the insurance, it would be too little, too late to save the business.

Did it cost more? Only in theory. What would a demolished business have cost?

Nope, we did the right thing. We planned ahead. So now, naturally, we're getting grief for it.

Maybe next time we should hide our contingency plans, too.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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