My first MBA-style “how to do stuff” list. If I get time, I’ll even give it some forced-acronym like “The Five E’s of handling pressure” or something. This will sound a lot like a self-help book as well. You have been warned. If it’s any further warning, I would never read the crap below and follow it myself. So there!
I recently went through a major high-risk scenario at work. When you’re in my line of work, these things are your worst nightmares. We have computational theory itself against us – what we code cannot be verified for correctness by a machine. So we do the best we can, and hope it works. Literally. Even the “best of the best” amongst us is reducing the odds that something could go wrong, rather than improving the odds that everything is right. There’s a big semantic difference between the two.
An year ago, I’d have handled the situation very differently. Usual responses by a human include a lot of things. First is blame. Second is “how do I get out of this as soon as possible?” Third is, “how do I justify my actions”? etc. However, I realized I could handle the pressure with great enjoyment. I’ve been called a masochist before, but this wasn’t that. A few recent rules learnt in my diving world, played a huge role in preparing me to handle anything.
Anyone who has techie friends knows we love our jargon. You can’t walk into a bar in Bellevue without overhearing boasts of “mission critical” and “strategy” and “tactical decision” and all sorts of awesome that would make James Bond walk out in shame.
When you’re training for rescue scenarios however, it is VERY REAL. A wrong decision and someone dies. You can do everything right and someone can still die. Those words actually mean something. An “emergency” doesn’t mean “oh I need a promotion, so I’m going to make things seem important.” An “emergency” means “unless you act now, and use the next 30 seconds correctly, someone is going to die.”
But here are five things I learnt out of diving and rescue training that can really relieve your pressure when dealing with “mission critical” situations.
1. Have reserves for the worst: This is a fundamental rule you learn after you’ve been in horrid situations and have exhausted yourself earlier. Everyone else can say it, but you only mean it when your life is at risk. When you are trying to salvage a dive halfway through, and someone’s reg starts to freeflow and he runs out of air, and you drained your resources in debugging a smaller issue, someone is going to die. When prioritizing, ensure that if at that moment, your entire company’s service went down or your product on millions of machines suddenly has some critical vulnerability, you have the energy to deal with it. If you’re using your reserve energy for anything else, you’re doing it wrong. Take a rescue class and you’ll gain the backbone to tell people to go away. They are important, no doubt, but are they important enough to burn your reserves on at that moment? Reserves are called “reserves” for a reason.
2. You’re not in a life-threatening situation: When you really have been in a situation from which you’re glad to have simply come out alive, you’ll find stress in life goes way down. Lost keys, or a disappointing interruption in internet connectivity, or some pissed-off coworker or whatever the heck you get worked up about, it’s not like you took your last breath, your reg won’t open, and unless you figure it out in 30 seconds, you’re not sure you will ever breathe again.
3. Use your importance: An year ago, I would have double-checked, questioned, and hesitated. Life-threatening situations teach you one thing: you’re the best chance the victim has. By definition you are the best person equipped to make decisions. Use that power. Make those decisions. That is not the time to educate a bystander on the physiology of emergency oxygen. It is not a time to build “consensus”. Nobody can validate your actions. That is the time to get that oxygen in the mouth of the victim as soon as possible. Everything else be damned! Also learn to hand over charge when someone more qualified comes along (a medical doctor for instance.) Life-guarding school should be mandatory to every MBA in dealing with “mission critical” stuff. When you’re dealing with an emergency, and someone says, “He should never have done that in the first place.”, you learn to treat that statement as “noise” rather than a discussion to be had at that moment.
4. Partial aid provided is better than full aid withheld: This is one statement they will drill into your brain every other minute. Derives from point 3 above. When you’re the BEST hope the victim has, everything that you do is helping. If you forget rescue breathing, that’s bad, but not the worst. Others didn’t know WHAT to do at all. As an owner of some task at work or in life, YOU know how something works. YOU have more information than anyone else involved. No matter how disturbed you are, or how tired you are, or how pissed off you are. YOUR bad decision, is statistically likely to be better than someone else’s random guess.
5. Look Cool Doing it: Perhaps the big point I learnt from GUE folks. If you’re doing something, do it well. There’s no excuse to not have your skills up-to-date. Others derive their cues from you. When you falter, they lose confidence. In a way this derives from point 3 & 4: People have already decided you’re the best hope they have. If you’re the most qualified person, where your decision is likely to be the best one, if you panic, you’re making the situation much much worse. You won’t know everything. But that’s better than not knowing anything. Think of your last doctor visit. If your doctor is worried, concerned, sweating, and informs you that you have a cold, you’re not going to go home very confident. If you’ve not delegated, then you’re in-charge. When people begin panicking, your calm assertive behavior can do wonders to get everyone to focus. There’s a reason I mentioned those IT showoffs. With all that language, it is very easy to lose perspective of the fact that while things are BAD, they’re not THAT BAD. Don’t be the panicking doctor who kills their patient of a heart attack, while informing them they have a cold.
I learnt that applying points 3 & 4 can be quite valuable in emergencies. Whether it’s your service failing, a bad press release, a badly received feature, an angry coworker or whatever it is you’re dealing with. Learn to identify when you KNOW better than others. Learn to USE that advantage to take control because at that moment YOU’RE the best of the worst. Learn to identify a BETTER QUALIFIED PERSON fast and handoff! PROVIDE HELP even if isn’t ALL the help needed. Some help is better than none. IGNORE noise. Remember that all hell can break lose. Your company could go bankrupt. You could get fired. And yet it’s not like someone is DYING. When you face your first panicked diver or your first low-on-air emergency (and I’ve thankfully never had someone go completely out of air on me,) when you’re thinking about whether you’re going to see the surface alive, whether you’re going to surface alone, etc. you really do get a much better grasp on everything else that can go wrong on the surface – you’re ON THE SURFACE!