Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guest Blogger: The United Computer Outage

Today, I turn the keyboard over to friend, blogger, Internet savant and frequent Quarterbacker Ed Vielmetti. I'll be back tomorrow with some thoughts about Ed's thoughts. (If you like Ed's stuff, and you should, check out his regular blog, Vacuum).


On Friday night, the computer screens of United Airlines gate terminals were transformed from the windows on the teeming world of air transportation to inert, mute bricks. United's computer network had gone down, and with it the airline's ability to route airplanes, passengers, and baggage.

When an event like this happens, it's worthwhile to remember that for the most part catastrophic network failures are routine, mundane events. Any organization big enough to depend on their global network is also big enough to have senior engineering staff on call around the globe to make it work again after whatever glitch that took it out is found and fixed. The quiet dedication of network engineers to make the network work again means that there are no infrastructure heroes to congratulate for their work.

Unfortunately for the flying public, the lack of heroic measures in network rebuilding that night was accompanied by stony silence from United public relations and management, who were not able to get out ahead of the problem. With their main web site down for the count as well, United's crisis communications team did not spin up fast enough to get in front of the people through Twitter, Facebook, or whatever else they might have dreamed up in a pinch to get some kind of news out. Rather, it was up to the FAA to make the announcement, and to news organizations and bloggers and the irritated public to share details all by themselves.

Repairing global broken networks must always be the first priority in restoring service, and at some level I feel deep compassion for the United and their technicians who worked to get their system back
online. I only wish that someone on the technical team had a clear line of communications to a professional who could get in front of the public and tell people waiting in line what to do. If nothing else, this crisis professional needs to broadcast clear and unambiguous messages to United personnel - who after all don't have a network to turn to for their real work - and keep them from adding to the problem.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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