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The history of the SNAFU and SNAFUcatchers
Snafu Snatchers

U.S. forces advanced in stages across the vast Pacific from 1943 until 1945, moving along the island chains of the south Pacific. Many aircraft and ships were lost, some during engagements but others from mechanical failure or weather. The Army organized rescue groups to retrieve surviving crews. Using long-range floatation aircraft, most notably the Catalina "flying boat", these groups were often able to find and rescue downed fliers and seamen, often at great risk to themselves. The rescue services were often located on small tropical islands and moved their bases frequently to keep up with the advancing forces.

The Catalina aircraft was originally designed for long range surveillance and bombing but it's range and ability to carry a large crew and, especially, its ability to land on and take off from water, made it ideal for the air-sea rescue work.

PBY-5 Catalina taking off in 1943

Harnessing the capabilities of this aircraft required inventing an entirely new way of operating, involving communications, basing of the aircraft and crews, providing supplies to these remote locations, and developing a variety of new skills and expertise, planning and improvisation. The resulting system was a unique combination of technology, different types of human expertise, and organizational structure that demonstrated adaptability and grit and saved the lives of many downed airmen and sailors.

The 2nd Emergency Rescue squadron was nicknamed "Snafu Snatchers" and "Snafu" was used as radio slang for an aircrew downed and now in the water. [An account by one pilot is available here in pbyrescue.com]

Aircraft crews often named their planes and decorated them with a painted logo, sometimes referring home or some aspect of their war experience. One of the aircraft in the Snafu Snatchers squadron had a logo showing a downed airman -- apparently comfortably asleep -- in a life raft, awaiting rescue. The logo playfully suggested that Pvt. Snafu had simply lost his aircraft and was now loafing in the ocean without a care in the world. 

Displaying such an image on the side of the rescue aircraft was deliberately off-hand and dismissive, suggesting that the entire affair was trivial and unimportant. This manner is common in military settings where danger, exhaustion, fear, and heroism are constant companions and master of them is demonstrated by presenting them as simply ordinary work. 

Situation Normal: All F#$@ed Up

SNAFU is an acronym for "Situation Normal: All Fouled Up". The word 'fouled' is  often replaced with an alternative.

The term implies that the world is normally broken, that conditions are ordinarily chaotic, disordered, and dysfunctional. Use of the term generally indicates the speaker is worldly wise or even jaded enough that this state is not surprising.

 

The origins of SNAFU are unclear  but it  was in common use in the United States Army by 1942. The term was widely used during World War II, so much so that U.S. Army training films featured "Private SNAFU" from 1943 on.   

Opening card of the US army WWII short animated films "Private Snafu"
From Snafu Snatchers to SNAFUcatchers

Looking closely at workers in internet-facing business and especially at those charged with making the information technology that faces the internet reveals a tumultuous environment where people scramble to keep the IT running. 

Rather than being a smooth, automatic process, internet-facing business IT seems to always be on the verge of catastrophic failure. Problems crop up, things don't work the way they should, new behaviors appear, and stuff breaks down. At the same time, new opportunities appear, new technologies open up territories for exploration and exploitation. All this is happening a breakneck speed and the changes just keep on coming. 

  • Knight Capital, August 2012

  • AWS, October 2012

  • Medstar, April 2015

  • NYSE, July 2015

  • UAL, July 2015

  • Facebook, September 2015

  • GitHub, January 2016

  • Southwest Airlines, July 2016

  • Delta, August 2016

  • SSP Pure broking, August 2016

  • AWS, Feb 28, 2017

  • British Airways, May 2017

  • Hawaii Missile alert, Jan 2018

These are just a handful of the breakdowns from the last few years that have been celebrated in the news. But for every one of these there have been hundreds or thousands of smaller, uncelebrated events distributed across public and private IT. For every painful public failure there are thousands of "near miss" / "incident" / "anomaly" events in internet-facing business IT.  

In the midst of all this are individuals, teams, groups, and whole enterprises struggling to keep "the trains running", often with limited access to the underlying technology, production pressure, and quite large risks. The are busy trying to anticipate how their own IT may fail. They track thousands of indicators, look at logs, discuss performance, respond to alerts, devise defenses, search for more reliable methods, review failures. These activities are, for them, ordinary work. When IT stops working, they fix it and restart it and restore the losses. Sometimes this occurs in the public eye (now, often with a corresponding twitter commentary) but mostly it happens out of sight. Like many other human endeavors, when things work well no one notices and these people are so adept at monitoring, anticipating, reacting, and learning about internet-facing business IT that their work largely disappears from our view.

We see these people as snafu-catchers. They work in a broken, badly behaved world that is ripe with surprise -- and they do this mostly with insouciance and even humor that resonates strongly with the logo on the side of the Catalina. The name SNAFUcatchers is a deliberate attempt to draw attention the nature of this work. For both the Army Air Force and the internet-facing business workers the main substance of their work is to find ways to cope with the ordinarily fouled up nature of the world.

There are other parallels:

The community of practice that builds and sustains internet-facing business IT is like other professional groups in that its members remain focused on the machinery of their work and take the expertise, coordination, and problems solving it entails pretty much as given. 

 

Even today much more attention is given to the Catalina PBY than to the elaborate, complicated system that was needed to make use of its unique capabilities. The success of the Snafu Snatchers was the not the result of technology or of individuals or groups. Instead this success came from the purposeful tailoring of these elements in combination that produced and sustained a particular capability. Long afterwards the participants -- air crew & ground crew -- remained fascinated by the PBY while we are fascinated by the audacity, the expertise, and the grit of those people who made this work look easy to the point that they would joke about by painting such a logo on their aircraft. 

Although outsiders might consider this bravado, the practitioners themselves are critical of that behavior. They are not unaware of the risks and demands of the work but, because these are indelible, refuse to be cowed by them. We find the same attitudes in surgeons, nurses, air traffic controllers, power plant operators and other practitioner communities. They are serious but not solemn.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the high stakes of managing internet-facing business IT, these people are also quite young. But the same was true for the Snafu Snatchers and for the armed forces in general. The average age of an aircrew member during WWII cannot have been much mover 20 years old. Many of them were ill-prepared for their work, partly because the demand for them was so great but perhaps also because training poorly simulated the real world. The enormous attrition rate also kept the average age low. Learning while doing was the norm. In spite of -- or possibly because of -- their age they performed well and demonstrated both judgment and skill.

Also similar is the relative anonymity of the workers and their work. Air rescue squadron aircraft flew low and slow and had minimal armament. There was little glamor in the work. It was mostly long hours of staring into the open ocean looking for a tiny bit of yellow raft punctuated with occasional hair raising landings in rough weather or under enemy fire to recover one or two people. Over time the fighter and bomber aircrews grew to appreciate the value of the rescue crews and planes but for the most part they and their work were unheralded.

We name our effort to examine, describe, and enhance the work of internet-facing business IT practitioners SNAFUcatchers because of these and other parallels. There is some irony in comparing the work of wartime air-sea rescue work to internet-facing business IT work. The one is clearly heroic and praiseworthy while the other some would say is mundane and ordinary. Our intention is not to claim equivalence but to use an analogy to draw attention to an important aspect of an area of work. 

You can visit the aircraft shown above at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. The museum is open to the public and entry is free. For opening times and location, see the museum website.