Within the last year, I’ve found a new passion, direction and metaphor.

I call it tech safety (#techsafety on Twitter).

Tech safety leads us to reduce or remove injuries in our high-tech lives.

Such injuries aren’t cuts, burns or fatalities.

High-tech injuries are cognitive, emotional, financial, and secondarily physical.

Whether you make, use or consume high-tech products and services, tech safety improves your life by discovering hazards and removing or reducing your injuries.


Injuries impede our ability to excel.

Consider these all-too-common injuries to software users:

  • Bug Bruise: pain caused by the impact of a software defect
  • Data Debacle Distress: despair or disgust from lost, corrupt or stolen data
  • Error Embarrassment: self-consciousness or shame caused by making an error
  • Functionality Frustration: dissatisfaction with awkward or nonsensical functionality
  • Interface Irritation: anger or impatience caused by a bad user interface
  • Manual Work Misery: loathing arising from manual, repetitive labor
  • Setup Suffering: the pain of an unpleasant product setup experience
  • Upgrade Unhappiness: frustration and difficulties caused by an upgrade
  • Waiting Woes: grief from waiting

Now consider these common injuries to software makers:

  • Alteration Anxiety: apprehensive uneasiness associated with making changes
  • Antique Agony: mental anguish from working with old technology
  • Brain Hernia: straining your brain to understand code with high conceptual weight
  • Browser Bruise: pain caused by the blow of a browser bug
  • Bug Burn: feeling burned by a defect, particularly one that injured users
  • Fractured Flow: feeling interrupted causing an inability to focus
  • Fragility Frustration: dissatisfaction with that which is easily and perpetually broken
  • Merge Misery: suffering caused by difficult merges of code
  • Outage Ordeal: severe stress caused by a major failure or interruption
  • Release Rage: exhausting, manual release to production that robs one of family time, sleep, joy
  • Schedule Stress: tension associated with a deadline

Of course, there are also actual physical injuries, like carpal tunnel, lower back pain and eye strain associated with our high-tech profession.

Hazards and injuries exist throughout our high-tech ecosystem, yet our industry barely pays attention to them.

Tech safety is here to change that.

It was inspired by the awesome transformation of Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America.

In 1987, Alcoa was a 100-year-old, 60,000-person aluminum manufacturing giant, struggling
with competition, quality problems, union troubles and change resistance.

Over the ensuing years, it would become a safe, efficient, innovative
and highly profitable industry leader, loved by its employees, contractors and customers.

How did Alcoa so successfully improve over decades on such a massive scale and what could that teach us in the tech world?

Safety at Alcoa

Alcoa invented the aluminium smelting process in 1886.

Their products are used in aircraft, automobiles, buildings, cans, construction and industrial applications.

By the mid-1980s, Alcoa was struggling in the industry it had invented.

In 1987, the board elected the first Alcoa outsider to the position of CEO: a man named Paul O’Neill.

Paul had an education in economics, a background in engineering and operations research,
experience in building software for the Veteran’s Administration and no expertise in aluminum manufacturing.

While most new CEOs proclaim that they will increase profits, reduce costs and improve quality, Paul did something entirely different: he
stated that worker safety was his number one objective.


This unusual objective panicked some Wall Street analysts, who promptly suggested selling Alcoa stock.

That would turn out to be a big mistake.

Alcoa Revenue

Alcoa’s stock soared (despite recessions, shown in blue bands above), while injury rates and the number of lost work days (due to injury) steadily declined.

When Paul left Alcoa in 2000, safety continued to be valued, profits continued to climb and injury rates and lost work days continued to decline.


Paul O’Neill on Worker Safety

Paul knew that every day, Alcoans around the globe worked in sprawling plants, around 2,000-degree molten metals, using machines that could easily injure or even kill them.

So he made safety the driving value within Alcoa.

When he came to Alcoa, Paul said:

  • “I want to go for zero injuries.”
  • “Accidents and injuries are not the natural price to pay for meeting goals.”
  • “Productivity does not necessitate danger.”
  • “From this day forward, we will not budget things that need to be done to improve safety conditions. If you have identified something that needs to be done, you should go and do it – not put it into next year’s budget and in the meantime hope that no one gets hurt.”

Paul visited every plant within Alcoa and told workers that if a manager didn’t act on their safety concerns or suggestions, they could call him at home.

One evening, he received a phone call at 11pm. A worker was concerned about carrying heavy loads on his back, since a conveyor belt had broken. Paul called the
plant manager and asked that he stop having workers carry heavy loads and get the conveyor belt repaired. At 3am, he got a call that the conveyor belt was repaired.

Word of that story spread and folks knew that Paul O’Neill was serious about worker safety.

Everything changed.

A worker who had to climb up a tall structure and position himself in an awkward and dangerous place in order to read a meter switched
to reading the meter from the ground using high-powered binoculars.

The unions, so long a pain in the side of Alcoa, agreed to a 7-year-deal, unheard of before the focus on worker safety.

William O’Rourke on Safety

“I was responsible for safety (and health & the environment) three different times at Alcoa under three different CEOs.

When I went to run Alcoa-Russia, I led with safety.

The two 50-year-old Russian facilities we acquired had averaged 5 deaths per year for 50 years.

The first full calendar year that Alcoa owned them (2006) there were no fatalities.


Today these two big Russian facilities have LWD (Lost Work Day) and TRR (Total Recordable Rates) below the Alcoa average and have gone over 5 years without a fatality.”

A Keystone Habit

In his excellent book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explained how Alcoa
transformed by means of a keystone habit:

“O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in re-making businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

Safety is a keystone habit.

As it took hold within Alcoa, product quality improved, innovation flourished and profits soared.

Valuing safety helped Alcoa grow a global culture of excellence that thoroughly secured their future.

Charles Duhigg said “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they
start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

What Is Tech Safety?

Tech safety is a driving value, ever-present, like breathing.

It is not a process or technique and it is not a priority, since it isn’t something that can be displaced by other priorities.

Valuing tech safety means continuously improving the safety of processes, codebases, workplaces, relationships, products and services.

It is a pathway to excellence, not an end unto itself.

It influences what we notice, what we work on and how our organization runs.

Tim Ottinger, a veteran coach at Industrial Logic, said, “It’s in the constant, daily decisions that tech safety has meaning. We don’t settle for learning to cope with failures, flaws, injuries, irritants, etc. Instead of accepting a poor work system and an unsafe environment, we transform our environment in ways large and small to make it less prone to failures and injuries.”

Tech safety leads us to

  • learn how things actually work
  • discover safer ways to work
  • reduce or remove complexity
  • visualize and remove hazards
  • establish standards
  • experiment and innovate

Without tech safety, we cannot reach our potential, as Abraham Maslow described in his famous Hierarchy of Needs.

Misconceptions about Tech Safety

In order to know what something is, it helps to also know what it is not.

Tech safety is not:

  • risk averse: In fact, it can be unsafe to not take risks.
  • solely about developers: It’s safety for users, consumers and makers of high-tech products and services.
  • solely inward facing: Tech safety makes products and services safer for users and consumers.
  • equivalent to agile/lean: Safety is a common denominator in agile/lean practices. Tech safety is a value, implemented in diverse ways.
  • safety critical software: It is about safety in high-tech products and services.
  • secure sofware: Tech safety includes making high-tech products secure but is not limited to that.
  • proprietary: Tech safety is for our industry. We hope others contribute to it.

Tech Safety at Industrial Logic

I informally made tech safety Industrial Logic’s single, driving value in 2012.

Employees were empowered to make our infrastructure, administration, website, products and services inherently safer.

We made a policy that employees won’t visit Beijing during winter, since the air pollution is particularly unsafe at that time of year.

We migrated to a website tool with a sandbox to let us safely experiment with plugins and not bring down our entire website.

We started using a secure password program to safely store and manage our passwords for all corporate accounts.

We produced an injury reporting system using off-the-shelf parts and asked everyone to contribute to it when they were injured.

We created a diagram of our product infrastructure after an unusual and uncharacteristic outage, so that newer folks could better understand the moving parts in production and help evolve a safer infrastructure.

We fixed SEVERE exceptions that were appearing several times a week in our production logs (though many of them were not affecting users).

We explored a few concurrency defects in our eLearning product, and learned that most of our “SEVERE” exceptions were being caused by those concurrency issues.

We arrived at a simpler design that would remove all concurrency defects and significantly reduce moving parts in production.

We evolved towards that new design, one small piece at a time, by safely and continuously shipping changes to production via our continuous deployment system.

We re-organized our company to have directors of client, product and financial safety.

And we have far more tech safety work ahead of us.

Much of what we've done would not have made it into our plans had we not made tech safety our single, driving value.

Employees and clients know that we take their safety seriously and that is improving our business.

Tech safety is helping us practice “Respect for People,” a pillar of the Toyota Way.

In future posts, my colleagues and I will

  • elaborate on how the lack of tech safety in our industry is hurting us
  • describe specific tech safety changes we’ve been making
  • share our experiences and challenges in valuing and implementing tech safety
  • describe how tech safety fits with lean and agile processes
  • explain how tech safety is helping our customers improve