It's a smart lesson

Few stories in GCN over the last year have produced as
much reaction as our coverage of the Smart Ship USS Yorktown. Back in July, GCN reporter
Gregory Slabodkin uncovered the fact that on at least one occasion, the systems aboard the
Navy’s model fly-by-wire ship had crashed, leaving the vessel partially disabled. It
took two hours for the crew to reboot.

When our story broke, it quickly rocketed around the Internet, taking on a life of its
own. It was picked up by scores of news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal
and The New York Times. You should have seen my e-mail.

It also caused a flurry of activity in the Navy, culminating in an investigation of the
incident by the service’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Early speculation was that the problem lay in the Navy’s use of Microsoft Windows
NT 4.0, an operating system increasingly popular in the government but not without its
problems, as the string of service packs emanating from Microsoft attest. But it turns out
the problem was bad software design that led a petty officer to crash a database by
entering a zero into a field. He was attempting to calibrate a valve [GCN, November 9, Page 6].

Yorktown’s skipper, Cmdr. Eric Sweigard, said his sailors are now trained to deal
with zeros in database fields and that the crew is better at bringing the system back up

There are several lessons to be learned from Yorktown.

First, reducing head count and making up the difference with information
technology—as the Smart Ship program explicitly aims to do—requires trained
people. This seems obvious, but training too often gets more lip service than time and

Second, if you want to deploy commercial products, you better design the systems
carefully to protect users from themselves. The green-screen applications of yesteryear
were bulletproof compared to those run on PCs. Nowadays, a carelessly designed e-mail
system makes it possible for almost anyone to crash a network with a broadcast message.

Third, the inevitable stumbles and crashes in major systems developments are less
important than how you deal with them.

No doubt the Smart Ship technology the service deploys to additional ships will be
thoroughly debugged thanks to that vexing zero incident.

Thomas R. Temin

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