Southwest Crash: What Has Been Happening to Search for Years Revealed

January 2, 2023

What’s the connection between the failure of Southwest Airlines’ technology infrastructure and search? Most people, including assorted content processing experts, would answer the question this way:

None. Finding information and making reservations are totally unrelated.

Fair enough.

The Shameful Open Secret Behind Southwest’s Failure” does not reference finding information as the issue. We learn:

This problem — relying on older or deficient software that needs updating — is known as incurring “technical debt,” meaning there is a gap between what the software needs to be and what it is. While aging code is a common cause of technical debt in older companies — such as with airlines which started automating early — it can also be found in newer systems, because software can be written in a rapid and shoddy way, rather than in a more resilient manner that makes it more dependable and easier to fix or expand.

I think this is a reasonable statement. I suppose a reader with my interest in search and retrieval can interpret the comments as applicable to looking up who owns some of the domains hosted on or some similar service provider. With a little thought, the comment can be stretched to cover the failure some organizations have experienced when trying to index content within their organizations so that employees can find a PowerPoint used by a young sales professional at a presentation at a trade show several weeks in the past.

My view point is that the Southwest failure provides a number of useful insights into the fragility of the software which operates out of sight and out of mind until that software fails.

Here’s my list of observations:

  1. Failure is often a real life version of the adage “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. The idea is that good enough software chugs along until it simply does not work.
  2. Modern software cannot be quickly, easily, or economically fixed. Many senior managers believe that software wrappers and patches can get the camel back up and working.
  3. Patched systems may have hidden, technical or procedural issues. A system may be returned but it may harbor hidden gotchas; for example, the sales professionals PowerPoint. The software may not be in the “system” and, therefore, cannot be found. No problem until a lawyer comes knocking about a disconnect between an installed system and what the sales professional asserted. Findability is broken by procedures, lack of comprehensive data collection, or an error importing a file. Sharing blame is not popular in some circles.

What’s this mean?

My view is that many systems and software work as intended; that is, well enough. No user is aware of certain flaws or errors, particularly when these are shared. Everyone lives with the error, assuming the mistake is the way something is. In search, if one looks for data about and the data are not available, it is easy to say, “Nothing to learn. Move on.” A rounding error in Excel. Move on. An enterprise search system which cannot locate a document? Just move on or call the author and ask for a copy.

The Southwest meltdown is important. The failure of the system makes clear the state of mission critical software. The problem exists in other systems as well, including, tax systems, command and control systems, health care systems, and word processors which cannot reliably number items in a list, among others.

An interesting and exciting 2023 may reveal other Southwest case examples.

Stephen E Arnold, January 2, 2023


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