Technology Vs. Technical Expertise: My Ride On The ‘Highway Thru Hell’

I, like any other geek, rely heavily on technology; maybe a little too much. And, recently, that almost got my killed. That might be a slight exaggeration, but it is pretty close. Let me tell you about it and what it taught me about what we do day to day.

I frequently use Google Maps. It’s free; it usually works well for most things; and I haven’t had many problems. I have learned to rely on Google Maps. I take road trips and, without really looking ahead, I just plug in an address and head out on the road. Until recently, that was perfectly fine. I was relying on technology that usually worked instead of relying on technical expertise. I could easily have looked at a map or asked someone native to the area to which I was traveling, but that seemed unnecessary.

I recently made a trip to Portland for the OpenStack Summit. I decided to make it a road trip with several stops. Here’s my route: I stopped in San Francisco to visit a friend; Portland for the Summit; Seattle to visit Opscode; Kamloops, British Columbia to visit Kamloops Innovation Centre (KIC) and hang out with friends; and Salt Lake City to visit Salt Stack Inc. It was all planned fairly quickly and sort of on the fly. I used Google Maps to plot my course. I had no real problems until I reached Kamloops — except for getting lost once for a few minutes when my phone crashed during some city navigation, but it wasn’t a big enough issue to bother me.

On the trip to Kamloops, I had just left the Opscode office and put in my next address in Canada. Google maps gave me directions and off I went. What I didn’t know was that I was about to drive on the most intense highway in Canada, the section of British Columbia Highway 5 (BC-5) called the Coquihalla. It’s a highway so intense that it is the star of a National Geographic television show called “Highway Thru Hell.” The reality show features a tow truck company that rescues people and their vehicles on this treacherous stretch highway known for brutal weather conditions. There I was, about to drive the Coquihalla gauntlet during the last winter storm of the year… and I didn’t even know it, yet.

I could have asked anyone in that part of Canada and they would have given me the wise advice to take a different route. Instead, I relied on my typically good enough technology and wasn’t worried about fringe cases that could cost me a few minutes of my time. I saw a few signs on the way warning about using tire chains until a certain date, but I was only a week away from that date – how bad could it be?

As I hit the top of the summit, it was pouring sleet and snow. I was stuck at the top of a mountain in the slow lane. People with the proper equipment flew by me with relative ease. My car was slipping and sliding all over the road. It was getting to be night, the light was fading and the temperature was rapidly dropping, so stopping wasn’t an option. I had to continue. I relied on technology, and it had failed me.

To Google Maps’ credit, it did indeed give me the quickest route to my destination, but it didn’t consider any other factors. There were at least three times during the drive that I had absolutely no control of my vehicle and was fairly sure I was about to wreck. I can’t express that enough. I was absolutely sure I was going to be seriously injured or die.

It seemed like it took forever, but I finally came off the mountain, and it opened up into a bright sunny day, but here is the problem: the BC-5 summits twice. I went up what I thought was a slight hill climb and within minutes I was back in the same situation, driving in the same conditions with no warning whatsoever. This time it didn’t last as long and I never lost control of my car, but it was terrifying nonetheless. After the second summit, I finally rounded the corner to see Kamloops. The entire town was covered by the biggest rainbow I have ever seen, as if the town itself knew how horrific my drive had been. I was too shaken to even consider taking a picture.

So what does this have to do with Rackspace, technical expertise and DevOps? Everything!

Think about how often you use a technology simply because it works most of the time and because any issues you may encounter are minor. Well, that one fringe case could absolutely screw you. Sure, you can get a cloud server for a couple dollars, put your production web site on it and be good to go. You can use the technology and maybe never have a problem, or you can use the technical expertise and prevent even more issues. We have Rackers who literally spend a large percentage of their lives working on large scale systems, web sites, servers, etc. Why not utilize their expertise? We have an entire organization of people who can optimize, secure and manage your systems to mitigate as many of those fringe cases as possible.

If I had picked up the phone, or even shot off an email, I could have saved myself from a harrowing experience that happened because my good enough technology failed me in a major way. I had options, but I didn’t think I needed them. Don’t let a fringe case kill your web site. Pick up the phone, or send an email. Leverage our support team. Use our technical experts. The end product is always greater than the sum of its parts. If you think your business can’t afford managed support, take a good look at your budget and determine if your business can afford not to have it if something goes awry.

I am not usually one to offer up a sales pitch, but my white-knuckle experience on the “Highway Thru Hell” really made me realize the value of technical expertise over just technology, and how Rackspace as a company provides it.

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