The US was hit with a number of storms over the Christmas holiday weekend. This disrupted air travel for many airlines and their customers, but one of the worst hit was Southwest Airlines. They accounted for most of the cancellations, over half of their scheduled flights at one point.
A number of places reported talking with Southwest employees who blamed the lack of tech investment by Southwest over time, noting this caught up with them. The Chief Operating Officer disagreed, saying that their scheduling system is the best in the world, even as the CEO noted that their scheduling software couldn’t keep up and they fell back to manual operations.
Most of us likely have no idea of how Southwest software works or the scope of the problem. This airline does tend to operate differently than many others in that they mostly fly point to point, rather than using hubs. Possibly they have the best point-to-point scheduling software in the world, but it still couldn’t keep up with the storms covering much of the US.
There’s an interesting perspective on Facebook, supposedly from a pilot with 35 years of experience with SouthWest. If you don’t want to click, his view is the hands-on CEO retired years ago and accountants were appointed as CEO and COO. They improved the money flow, but neglected investments in tech and weren’t aware of how the business really runs day to day. The infrastructure and software deteriorated, and they’ve had many small issues, but issues that were bigger than other airlines. They’ve started turning around with a CEO that is more hands-on, but they’re digging out of a hole.
Like many of you, I’ve built and operated software over the years. I sometimes realize just how hard it can be to keep up with the demands of customers for adjusting how our systems work. I also know that it’s easy to slow your investment in a system that appears to works and limit your efforts to just maintenance work. Allan Hirt wrote about this.
This does bring up the issue of investing in systems and maintaining them over time. I see why many companies would prefer to purchase software and let someone else manage the investment in ongoing development. I also know that for companies that see software as strategic, likely there needs to be regular investment, upgrading and refactoring code, as well as finding ways to scale higher and use resources more efficiently. Especially for databases.
The battle between enhancing software and reducing technical debt is a constant one. I see this struggle being one that project managers and developers never agree on, but in the companies that seem to thrive, there is a balance. Perhaps it’s splitting the sprints, perhaps it’s allocating regular time during each development period, or maybe there’s another way.
One thing is certain. We need to find a balance. Otherwise we might get into the situation where a complete rewrite or replacement of software is warranted; a situation that is almost always very costly.