TECHNOLOGY

A Simple Tech Failure Could Lose You $440 Million in 30 Minutes. Here’s How to Prevent Disaster

It could happen to anyone–and that’s why you should think about it now.

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BY Amy Webb - 08 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A few months ago, a friend from college called me in a panic. He's a smart, tech-savvy entrepreneur--a physical therapist who grew his practice into a regional health care company with multiple locations and his own line of branded exercise equipment. He'd installed a sophisticated computer system throughout all of his offices, which promised to automate mundane tasks such as scheduling patients and maintaining records. He was convinced that this new system would help eliminate human error, which had become an issue as his business grew.

Then, one day, the monitors went dark. His office was full of patients and the staff had no contingency plan. In an instant, everyone's trust in that magnificent technology was lost. He called me. "I can't get the computers to turn back on!" he shouted, short of breath, into the phone. "Something's broken--I can't figure out what! Years of data, all gone! What am I supposed to do?"

All business owners remember every catastrophic tech failure they experience. Few ever anticipate and plan for one. By the time we've psyched ourselves up to adopt a new technology, we believe it will work forever. It's easy to forget that people are still, for now, in charge of the machines.

Last year, Nest users discovered that their thermostats had suddenly turned off in the middle of winter, leaving thousands without heat. It was a glitch in the code a developer had written. In 2012, a team at financial services company Knight Capital Group accidentally deployed some bad software, which made the company lose $440 million in 30 minutes. In 1998, Toy Story 2 nearly vanished after a Pixar worker executed the wrong computer command and the system started deleting files. Two months of work disappeared in minutes; someone literally yanked the power cord and network connection from a server to save the rest of the files.

Until our robot overlords arrive to control all our systems, we must be smarter about our emotionally fraught relationship to technology--and take a cue from cognitive behavioral therapy by diving straight into our fear and anxiety.

How? If tech isn't your strong suit, graph your knowledge gap: What know-how are you missing, and who or what can fill in the blanks? Resources to know include security sites like Schneier.com and the How To channel on Cnet.com, professional associations you might belong to, and even, perhaps, an old pal. Then, designate key staffers to consider what crises might occur. Ask them to think about how your business uses a particular tool or device, and how it fits into company processes. List all of the hardware, software, and services you use daily, and then ask: What would you do if your connected machines went offline? If your staff lost access to email? If all printers shut down?

Think through each scenario. If your staff loses email, what's a realistic plan B? If your email system gets hacked or held for ransom, how will you respond? Write your answers down--on paper--and include the names of key vendors or individuals and their contact information. A solid plan will ensure you won't be paralyzed by fear, as my friend was, when a crisis hits.

That friend didn't have a disaster plan. But he did have me on the phone. I asked him if, by chance, his server was plugged into a power strip--and if that strip was under someone's desk. "Why would that matter?" he asked, rushing over to take a look.

Because people have feet, and we brush them against things when we're not paying attention. Like, say, the on-off button on a power strip. And, sure enough, a crucial one in my friend's office had been mysteriously switched off.