Let it burn

Is it firefighting…or arson?

Wouldn’t it be great if you lived in a world where nothing went wrong? Where everything went according to plan? Where you had unlimited money and manpower? Imagine what you could accomplish with such a vast amount of resources and stability at your disposal. All of your estimates would be 100% accurate. None of your projects would ever fail. You would get promotion after promotion. The world would be at your fingertips.

Sadly, the only thing at your fingertips is Cheeto dust.

You see, the real world doesn’t work that way. While you’re hoping for that lucky break, good ol’ Murphy will hit you in the face with reality and break your nose instead. Sure, a production fault might not be that bad by itself, but combined with your operations lead calling in sick, your car breaking down, and your office building evacuated because of a gas leak, you’re looking at a crummy day. Things tend to go wrong in groups, and minor incidents can cascade into irreversible failures. Your whole company can go down in flames, and you’ll be the one picking through the ashes.

Some people respond to these crises by entering “firefight mode”. They heroically work overtime to fix the emergency issues that arise, performing hacks and other ungodly acts to stave off disaster. It seems to work — the fires get put out, and the tired, drained heroes go home until they have to fight the next fire.

Organization hail those who rise to the occasion and provide solutions to emergencies as heroes and applaud their quick thinking and action. It’s not entirely undeserved, either. Organizations can benefit tremendously from having a skilled team in place to deal with the inevitable failures.

The problem is that the fires never stop coming. Companies that continually firefight will never build the momentum needed to grow, advance, and succeed. As intoxicating and alluring being a hero fighting these fires can be, it’s not a good long-term solution for an organization.

Constantly being in firefight mode is like applying a bandaid on top of a gunshot wound — it’s the treatment of a symptom, not a fix for the cause. Because they spend all their time putting out the fires, they never actually find time to figure out why fires are arising in the first place. An organization that always has bugs rise up in production that need to be heroically fixed might actually need some better quality assurance in the form of testing and code reviews prior to deployment. If a company’s servers are always going down, perhaps it would be more worthwhile to invest in better resource monitoring and appropriate scaling techniques instead of calling in ops at 2 AM to bring the server back up. The true fix is the less glamorous but significantly more important work of fire prevention — ensuring that these emergencies never happen in the first place.

As a manager, it might be difficult to find time to stop fighting the fires. People never stop calling. Clients never stop having issues. It’s hectic, and things understandably fall through the cracks. I’m telling you now that sometimes it’s OK to ignore the fires. Go ahead and let things burn down while you put in the fire breaks. It might cause more damage in the short term, but in the long term it’ll give you and your organization the freedom and flexibility needed to move past firefighting and towards growth.