On a fateful dive to the Titanic wreck site, a submarine named Titan suffered a catastrophic implosion, resulting in the tragic loss of five lives. In the aftermath of the incident, several details emerged about choices made during the sub's design, construction and operation that compromised its safety.
In the world of software engineering, while the stakes might not be as high most of the time (there are exceptions of course like health & space industry, autonomous cars, etc), there are circumstances where they can be. Even outside of these extreme situations, the consequences of software failure can be severe, resulting in significant financial loss, damage to reputation, and even regulatory consequences in certain industries.
In this post, we aim to analyze the technical factors that contributed to this tragedy, and discuss the engineering lessons we can learn from this incident.
Lesson 1: Don't Skip on Safety Measures
Several safety measures were notably absent from the Titan's design and operation: no certification or inspections, no better comm equipment, no second sub for emergencies, no alternate escape design, and no post-dive non-destructive testing or periodic X-ray of metal components.
In software engineering, we have equivalent safety measures: code reviews, system audits, testing protocols, backup systems, and redundancy. Skimping on these is a gamble. Regular code reviews, rigorous testing, and having backup systems in place can mean the difference between a minor hiccup and a catastrophic system failure.
Lesson 2: Never Compromise on Quality for Cost
The Titan was built with several cost-saving components:
- a lower depth-rated glass viewing dome
- expired carbon fibre in place of titanium
- a cheap Logitech PS4 controller with known connectivity issues
- Amazon-bought non-marine rated LED lights
- non-marine rated electronic components installed in the interior
These choices reflect a dangerous prioritization of cost over quality. In software engineering, this could translate to using outdated libraries, prioritizing speed of development over thorough testing, or opting for cheaper, less reliable server infrastructure.
Software engineers must uphold a commitment to quality, even when faced with budget constraints. This might involve advocating for the use of up-to-date and reliable technologies, building in ample time for testing, and ensuring that the infrastructure supporting the application is reliable and robust.
Lesson 3: Expertise Matters
The CEO's choice to hire green college graduates instead of seasoned experts in the sub field may have saved money, but it likely cost in terms of experience and knowledge. This underscores the importance of expertise in safety-critical projects.
In the realm of software engineering, this can be a reminder of the value of experienced developers and architects, particularly for complex or high-risk projects. While junior developers bring fresh ideas and energy, the guidance and knowledge that seasoned experts provide are often essential in avoiding pitfalls and ensuring the robustness of the end product.
The Titanic submarine incident provides valuable lessons about the dangers of cost-cutting in safety-critical systems. While most software engineers won't face life-or-death scenarios, the principles remain the same. Prioritizing quality, valuing expertise, not skimping on safety measures, ensuring adequate provisioning, and thoroughly justifying costly decisions are all essential practices. The risks in our field may not always be as immediate or tangible as in submarine engineering, but they are real. System failures, data breaches, loss of trust, and considerable financial impacts are just a few of the potential consequences we work hard to prevent. As we reflect on this tragic event, let's remember the crucial role we play in building reliable, robust, and secure systems. Our actions can indeed be the difference between success and failure, between smooth operation and significant disruption.
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