Chris Hadfield, the world-famous astronaut, opened the annual IP Expo in London in early October.  Interwoven with tales of life as a Canadian astronaut were some nuggets that are as relevant to IT professionals as they are to astronauts.

He described the main job of an astronaut as “preparation for failure”. Working at the edge of technology means that stuff keeps going wrong. “Failure happens all the time”, he told the audience. “You are judged by your next actions, what you do to fix the problem”. 

“Preparing for success is easy”, said Hadfield, “That’s just cake and balloons”. What’s hard is being ready when the unexpected happens and that takes learning and lots of practice. “Never be satisfied with your performance. Learn and practice relentlessly”, he advised. 

Things can go wrong…

Whilst IT professionals aren’t working in zero gravity or dealing with temperatures ranging from -150 to +150 Celsius, we face the same challenges of working at the leading edge of technology. Things inevitably go wrong because they are extremely complex. They are also new, they are being asked to work in a novel way or in new combinations. That is why we need teams of developers to fix bugs and work on the next versions of software. It’s why we need a specialist and expert engineers to put these things together. It’s also why we need teams of people on service desks to sort things out when a failure occurs, or devices deviate from the expected course. And in the same way that astronauts have to be ready for the next failure, IT service businesses are judged by how quickly they can respond to a problem, their ability to quickly identify its cause and resolve it. 

When asked about the distraction of sweating the small stuff, Hadfield had some interesting advice. For IT experts, and for astronauts, the small stuff is vital. That’s your world and that is what you prepare for, the inevitable failure of a tiny component in a large and complex system. But great preparation means you don’t have to sweat over it when it does happen.  

Chris Hadfield’s keynote presentation provided a fascinating insight into the life and risks of an astronaut. For them, dealing with failure can mean life-or-death decisions. For the rest of us, with our feet firmly on the ground, the consequences of our decisions may be less severe but the lessons of being prepared are very clear.