Web operators are brain surgeons

Our increased reliance on web-based intelligence makes speed and reliability even more important.

As humans rely on the Internet for all aspects of our lives, our ability to think increasingly depends on fast, reliable applications. The web is our collective consciousness, which means web operators become the brain surgeons of our distributed nervous system.

Velocity conference 2010Each technology we embrace makes us more and more reliant on the web. Armed with mobile phones, we forget phone numbers. Given personal email, we ditch our friends’ postal addresses. With maps on our hips, we ignore the ones in our glovebox.

For much of the Western world, technology, culture, and society are indistinguishable. We’re sneaking up on the hive mind, as the ubiquitous computing envisioned by Mark Weiser over 20 years ago becomes a reality. Today’s web tells you what’s interesting. It learns from your behavior. It shares, connects, and suggests. It’s real-time and contextual. These connected systems augment humanity, and we rely on them more and more while realizing that dependency less and less. Twitter isn’t a site; it’s a message bus for humans.

The singularity is indeed near, and its grey matter is the web.

Now think what that means for those who make the web run smoothly. Take away our peripheral brains, and we’re helpless. We’ll suddenly be unable to do things we took for granted, much as a stroke victim loses the ability to speak. Take away our web, and we’ll be unable to find our way, or translate text, or tap into the wisdom of crowds, or alert others to an emergency.

We’re not ready for this. Alvin Toffler once said, “The future always arrives too fast … and in the wrong order.” A slow-down will feel like collective Alzheimers. Web latency will make us sluggish, not only because thoughts travel more slowly, but also because delay makes us less productive. In 1981, IBM proved that as applications speed up, workers become exponentially more productive (pdf).

Web operators are responsible for keeping the grey matter running. As we become more dependent on our collective consciousness, web operators will be much more involved in end-user experience measurement, from application design to real user monitoring. They’ll need to upgrade their sniffer skills to include psychology and cognitive modeling. And they’ll track new metrics — like productivity, number of tasks completed per hour, mistakes made, and so on — along with their lower-level operational metrics.

They’ll also be specialists, brought in to diagnose and repair complex problems. They’ll have to drill down from high-level issues like poor adoption and high bounce rates into root causes: heavy page load, packet loss, BGP, big data constraints, caching, and so on. Finally, they’ll become systems thinkers, understanding how the combination of data center, cloud, network, storage, and client technologies produce a particular end-user experience.

So give your web operator some respect. Forget the central nervous system; it’s the century of the distributed nervous system, and web operators are its brain surgeons.

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