Like astronauts, IT leaders work in complex environments that require quick thinking and technical know-how. Which means they have more to learn from astronauts than they might think.
As an IT leader, you probably don’t spend time performing space walks or adapting to zero-gravity environments. But you likely do know a thing or two about adapting to unexpected circumstances, solving complex challenges and navigating through various clouds. Which is to say you might have more in common with astronauts than you think.
Astronauts, like IT leaders, work in fast-paced and high-stakes environments. Both require a high degree of technical expertise to operate complex systems and both must improvise and solve problems in real-time as unexpected situations arise. Also, both require strong leadership and communication skills—whether it’s working with teams, business units, stakeholders or even mission control.
As such, you might learn a thing or two from astronauts and the missions they undertake. Here are three lessons IT leaders can apply to their own digital transformation initiatives—and hopefully go from space walk to cake walk.
1. Know when to defy gravity—whether it’s in space or in IT
Both IT leaders and astronauts contend with gravity—albeit of two distinct natures. Space research and exploration is simply not possible without breaking free of gravity’s pull. This is increasingly true for IT as well.
In IT, data gravity refers to a phenomenon in which the more data applications generate, the more they attract other data and applications, which makes them more challenging to manage, maintain and move. Over time, this can reduce an organization’s range of options and ultimately stifle innovation.
Astronauts understand the value of defying gravity—it’s literally in their job description. So do astrophysics research organizations that rely on those astronauts to transport, maintain and repair equipment used for their work. Some types of research—for example, particle detection enabled by the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)—can only be done outside the earth’s gravity. One of the many reasons the AMS was ultimately installed on the International Space Station (ISS) was accessibility to astronaut crews that could regularly access and maintain it.
IT leaders can apply similar lessons in terms of ensuring resources are deployed in the right locations enabling the right work—avoiding the limitations of gravity when necessary. For example, as an IT leader, do you have an API-driven architecture that makes your data sharable and accessible across applications and systems? Should you consider moving your data processing closer to edge devices to increase performance or reduce latency? Are you engineering for maximum portability so you can move workloads between on premises and cloud environments and avoid vendor lock-in? Some or all of these decisions might be worth considering—no spacesuits required.
2. Agility is key—whether you’re in orbit, in the clouds or on the ground
It turns out problem-solving in space is not all that different than it is for IT leaders operating on the ground. Like their earth-bound counterparts, astronauts make fast decisions to adapt to evolving needs and requirements such as unexpected weather conditions or equipment challenges. In such cases, the agility to move solutions to the place where it makes the most sense makes all the difference.
For example, unexpected equipment issues on the International Space Station (ISS) required solutions by teams situated both on the ground and onboard the station. In 2013, when the pump module on one of the space station’s two external cooling loops automatically shut down, flight control teams on the ground initially worked to get it up and running again without impacting the station crew. Ultimately, NASA managers determined replacing the pump module was necessary, which is why astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Michael Hopkins executed a series of spacewalks to complete the work. The ability to mobilize both on the ground and close to the point of failure made it possible to find a solution without jeopardizing the mission.
Similarly, as an IT leader, you likely face unexpected challenges with technology, user requirements or other external factors. Having the right solutions in place allows you to adjust quickly to the unexpected. For example, perhaps your new app becomes wildly popular and you need to scale rapidly, which means quickly moving resources to the public cloud. Or you need to leverage a public cloud as a development and test environment but want to move production workloads on premises to a dedicated IT environment for security, performance or cost reasons. The agility to move work to the environment where it makes the most sense gives you the greatest advantage.
3. Always look for ways to reduce risk
Safety in space exploration and IT management have more in common than you might think. Astronauts rely on redundant systems to ensure their safety and security. For example, that pump malfunction on the ISS? Backup systems maintained life support while the crew executed its spacewalks to fix the problem. Similarly, IT professionals must always think about avoiding single points of failure that can risk everything from losing essential data to taking business-critical applications offline. In IT, redundancy can be seen everywhere from multiple backups and locations in disaster recovery to multiple network connections that ensure access to critical systems and data even if one connection fails.
Reducing risk also requires ensuring teams have the skills they need and the right tools for the job. For example, U.S. astronauts cross-train on the variety of tasks aboard the ISS, including life support systems, orbital mechanics and payload deployment, and even learn Russian to better communicate with counterparts. IT professionals meanwhile benefit from consistent tools that are well understood across an entire team to increase efficiency and collaboration. When everyone is using the same tools and processes, it’s easier to reduce errors and spot issues before they become major problems. Consistent tools also help speed up training and onboarding. Team members can learn from one another and grow institutional knowledge more readily. (Foreign language skills don’t hurt either.)
Whether it’s space exploration or digital transformation, aim high
Although astronauts operate miles from earth, what they face on the job isn’t that far removed from what IT professionals face on the ground. Both astronauts and IT leaders have jobs that require them to use technology to push the limits of what’s possible, master new environments with courage and flexibility, work collaboratively and be adaptable and resilient in the face of challenges. For IT leaders, this can mean finding solutions that allow for a high degree of portability between cloud environments, applying automation broadly and standardizing on a consistent toolset that leverages existing skill sets. (It’s one of the reasons we created our Dell APEX portfolio of as-a-Service solutions.)
But no matter whether your future is in the clouds or coming soon to a colocation facility near you, there’s always something we can learn from those willing to push the limits of what’s possible. Buckle up.