Lessons from the NFL: Avoid an Identity Crisis

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Mike Jones, writing for “The Athletic” outlines the way the Kansas City Chiefs were able to dismantle the Baltimore Ravens on the way to the Super Bowl. The Ravens, prior to this game, notes Jones, had been a very balanced team. They were “constructed” with a “strong run game that ensures balance” and keeps their multi-dimensional offense effective. Jones notes that throughout the season, the Ravens used their strong running attack to pave the way for more explosive plays from their passing attack, under MVP candidate Lamar Jackson. Coming into the game they were the NFL’s leading rushing team, “a unit that averaged 156.5 rushing yards per game,” featured a dynamic dual threat quarterback, and were “boasting the most balanced offense in the NFL.” Yet, in the game itself, this well architected league best rushing team only ran the ball 16 times for a paltry total of 81 yards, 8 fewer than their opponent, nearly half as much as their average, and not nearly enough considering the Chief’s were one of the NFL’s worst at defending against a team architected to run the ball.

So, how did a team that was architected to thrive with a balanced attack based on running the ball, falter? In his article, Jones outlines that while the Chiefs were a good team, the crux of the matter comes down to a loss of identity during pressure by the Ravens. And while you may not be a Ravens fan or a Chiefs fan, there is an important lesson for HA experts, “Don’t lose your identity when the pressure rises.”

Five keys to protecting your team and your HA architecture identity when the pressure mounts

1. Build a strong architecture

The Ravens had a well defined architecture. This architecture, according to many including Jones, is what put them in position to be successful. The first key to thriving when the pressure mounts is making sure your IT team has a well defined HA architecture. If the architecture is incomplete or unsound, the pressure will topple even the best team.

Be sure that your architecture covers the basics for the storage, network, nodes, applications, databases and availability software. Include in your plans how things operate under normal conditions and how they should operate when a failure or disaster occurs.

2. Review the architecture

After the game, interviewed coaches and players lamented losing sight of their game plan and identity. What would have happened if the Ravens’ players and coaches not only constructed the architecture, but reviewed it during halftime?

Having an architecture, including system configuration, runbooks and procedures is a great start. However, these must also be reviewed and assessed on a regular basis. Be sure that the teams involved in managing the critical databases, applications and infrastructure components not only “know of” the architecture, but review it frequently.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice the disaster scenarios on a regular basis and make updates to the architecture and supporting processes as needed. Include scenarios that your team has experienced in the past, as well as new types of failure injections. Consider how your team will respond to the event, including how to coordinate with internal teams, when to raise tickets with 3rd party vendors and escalate for additional help, and how to convene a call. If your vendor offers a service for these dry-runs, be sure to engage with them in advance so that your team can gain valuable experience working with multiple vendors, multiple internal teams, and different contract SLAs. Here are some key things to work on during the practice exercises:

  • Understanding dependencies
  • Locating and updating contract support contacts
  • Understanding case management
  • Assigning actions and deliverables
  • Troubleshooting and reviewing logs
  • Eliminating silly mistakes
  • Practicing the habit of sticking to the game plan
  • Focusing on maintaining composure
  • Communicating with stakeholders
  • Taking timeout to assess reality and regroup

4. Play to your strengths

Every team, including the Ravens have a series of strengths and weaknesses. Be sure that your team plays to its strengths when managing, maintaining, and dealing with issues. Playing to your strengths might include leveraging HA vendors in advance to approve runbooks, review activities lists, or assist with the cluster activities. It may also look like using Linux Admins on Linux clusters and Windows Admins on Windows clusters, or pairing them together for cross training.

5. Communicate

During the game, Mike Jones notes that the Ravens actually abandoned their identity long before the game was in peril. In his review, Jones notes that the Ravens, while only trailing by one touchdown in the 2nd quarter, had already begun to show signs of panic. The defensive and offensive players needed to communicate better with one another on the field, as well as the coaches and staff off the field. When the pressure rises, in the NFL and in critical enterprise HA environments it can be easy to lose your identity and composure, commit costly errors and mistakes, and cost yourself a chance at greater success. Great communication will help prevent this from happening. Be sure to communicate well with stakeholders, different IT team members, as well as with team members across other functional areas. As VP of Customer Experience our team was taking part in an exercise with a customer and experienced firsthand how lack of communication can lead to a costly loss of composure and availability. In our incident, a rushed and panicked storage Admin suddenly removed the wrong device from the cluster triggering a cascade of failures.

Focusing on a strong HA architecture, a solid review and test cycle, the wisdom to play to your team and vendor’s strengths, and the habit of great communication are essential elements in not losing your HA identity, remaining calm and refusing to succumb to pressures. But, if your team should lose their identity, like the Ravens, be sure to learn from it and seek to be better prepared next time.

Cassius Rhue
Cassius Rhue leads the Customer Experience team at SIOS Technology responsible for customer success spanning pre-sales, post-sales and professional services engagements. With over 19 years of experience at SIOS and a focus on the customer, his significant skills and deep knowledge in software engineering, development, design and deployment specifically in HA/DR are instrumental in addressing customer issues and driving success.

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