game of nines

I worked in telecom for 17 years. By far most of my career. In telecom there is an oft repeated phase:

The five nines

99.999% of the time, telecom has to work. Telephones have to work. We rely on them. This kind of reliability is possible, and we strive to achieve it.

The sorts of processes and procedures and best practices and maintenance that are required to achieve (or get really close to achieving) the 5 nines are second nature to me.

Back things up. Double check. Have a backup plan. Test and verify.

We need to have consistent, reliable results. We need to know what we are doing before we start, and we need to know what went wrong and why precisely.

That sort of precision works in the work of telecom, because the systems are designed to exact specifications. Every small part is known and measured.

That sort of precision is beautiful. And I love it.

It’s a game with a big set of rules and a lot of players. The global tribe of network technicians all play this game and we know when they lose.

They lose—WE lose—when we lose a 9.

99.999% it has to work. 99.99% is not enough.

A lot of people worked to make this game. Thank you, Thomas Edison. Thank you, Bell Labs. We are all playing the beautiful precise game that you made for us.

You know what isn’t that precise?


People are never 99.999% anything.

And right now, I am finally admitting to myself that I’m not in Kansas anymore. I mean, I’m not in telecom anymore.

I have to step on my questions. I want to ask for more information. I want to know PRECISELY what we are doing.

But I’m not in that game anymore. This is a sloppy game of “good enough” and “something like that.”

I am sitting on my tongue to see what happens when things are not to my standards. Crossing my legs as I sit back on my tongue and be quiet.

Two things occur to me:


I see why people are annoyed by IT engineers. We are too pushy and want more than is possible most of the time.


It’s possible when we are playing inside our game. And it’s frustrating to us when these noobs don’t cooperate and cost us a high score.


I see how most of life is quite different. Almost everything. It turns out that this precision is not required. Some fewer number of nines…maybe no nines at all…is what makes the world go round.

  I wonder if it’s possible to lose myself fully in this world of inconsistencies. I loved the security of my game, and how very clear the rules are. I loved going deep into it. These softer edges seem dangerous. Maybe I will need more time to practice navigating.

 It’s a bigger world. I do like exploring.