The Learning Curve

New tricks for an old dog.

A state of constant correction

Everyone has seen a movie scene showing an electric power station control room.  We are shown calm technicians sitting comfortably while scanning the dials, instruments and computer screens.  Then the warning klaxon goes off like an air raid drill and everyone jumps into action flipping switches and fiddling with dials.

A friend who works at such a power generating plant asked me, “How often do you think those alarms go off?”

I didn’t have a clue, and said so, but also that I hoped it was not very often.  In the movies it looked like a scary situation.

He told me that the alarms sounded about once every five or ten minutes, 24 hours a day, every day.  And, yes, it is a very frightening situation.  The design of very high pressure steam power generation has come a long way since Steamboat Willie, but the margin of error was narrow in a delicately balanced and highly explosive complex system. A single leak would send an invisible jet of super-heated steam powerful enough to cut a man in half without any warning.

Reigning in the machine beast is not a simple matter of turning a dial in an air-conditioned control room.  Someone has to go down into the belly of the beast to turn a valve by hand.  The workers are trained to wave a stick in front of them as they walk through the plant.  The idea is any deadly jet of high pressure steam from an undetected leak will cut the stick in half and give the worker notice.

What from the outside looks to be the dependable and seemingly effortless process that allows me to flick a switch to turn on a light actually requires constant focused attention by a lot of people, just to keep it working.

It was with that story fresh in my mind that I stumbled upon this week’s semi-brouhaha concerning’s recent change in software platform and business plan.  I don’t know much about what they were before and what they are now, but I do know that there was a big change and a few people are upset about it.  They call themselves “power users,” which is equally meaningless to me except as a possible code phrase for OCD.  They all wanted to go back to the old way.  The didn’t like the change.

From what I read, going back to the old way is difficult to the point of impossibility.  All the main technicians who were responsible for keeping the old system going have been replaced by a new team that designed the upgraded system.  The new people don’t know how to make the old system work, and those that do have left the business.

Don’t doubt that a high-volume web platform like requires constant careful attention like my friend’s electrical power plant. The main difference is that if blows up, nobody dies.


Written by Tom Fox

09/03/2010 at 3:17 pm

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