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11 May

How to survive the relentless march of entropy

When you hear the word ‘maintenance’, what comes to mind? Probably a worker with a toolkit, ready to fix something that's broken. This is the traditional perspective, albeit quite narrow in its scope and stunted in its maturity.

While it's true that a significant aspect of maintenance involves routine problem-solving, the scope of maintenance extends far beyond this simple understanding. It's also about improving things, learning, and planning ahead.

Let's break this down.

Maintenance as optimization

The first perspective on maintenance transcends the typical routine of identifying and rectifying broken elements. In this context, think of maintenance as a means of refining and streamlining operations, even when nothing seems outwardly wrong.

Take, for instance, the process of refactoring code in software engineering.

Imagine a software system running a complex e-commerce platform. The code that governs the system's operation may be working well, but as engineers delve into it during routine maintenance, they may find sections of code that are unnecessarily convoluted or inefficient. By refactoring this code — revising and restructuring it without changing its external behavior — they make the system run smoother, faster, and more efficiently.

The same principle applies when restructuring your company's Notion database. The external functionality remains unchanged, but the internal operations become more streamlined, leading to better documentation and easier access to information.

It's like organizing your messy kitchen. It still worked before, but now it's much easier to find that spatula when you need it!

Maintenance as system visibility

The second approach views maintenance as an opportunity to gain insight into the intricacies of a complex system.

Consider a network engineer responsible for a data center's upkeep. Routine maintenance, such as monitoring network traffic, verifying server health, or updating security protocols, provides them invaluable insights into the system's overall state.

It's like practicing yoga daily; it allows you to identify subtle changes in your body's flexibility, strength, and balance over time.

Similarly, weekly project status meetings or quarterly board meetings offer a regular pulse check on a company's trajectory, the team's morale, or how effective your current strategy is. By repeatedly engaging with the system on a regular basis, you develop a keen awareness of its dynamics, enabling you to anticipate potential issues and address them proactively.

This approach to maintenance goes beyond mere problem-solving; it's about understanding the system in its entirety and identifying opportunities for improvement before they become pressing issues.

Maintenance as proactive design

The third way to look at maintenance is arguably the most strategic one: designing your system in a manner that it inherently accommodates for fluctuations in operational and environmental conditions. This approach is about creating a system that is not just reactive, but also proactive.

For example, consider a software development team working on a new AI app. Rather than just rushing to finish the project, they regularly show their work-in-progress to stakeholders at regular intervals, encouraging low-stakes feedback that helps them identify potential issues or opportunities for improvement. This approach allows them to make incremental adjustments to their work, rather than waiting for a major issue to arise that would require significant rework.

Or think about a factory with machines that can predict when they might break down. Before a machine even stops working, it can send a warning so that someone can fix it. Using sensor data and machine learning algorithms, the plant's systems can detect slight changes in machine performance that might indicate an impending failure. Before the machine breaks down entirely, the system triggers an alert, allowing maintenance personnel to fix the issue and prevent a costly and disruptive breakdown.

This is maintenance by design: it's about anticipating change and dynamically responding to it, making sure everything runs smoothly and lasts longer.

Even redundancy is a key part of maintenance by design and can be an effective strategy for ensuring system reliability.

For the uninitiated, redundancy is a crucial concept in the context of systems engineering. Redundancy means having backup components or procedures that can take over if the primary ones fail.

For example, an airplane may have multiple engines, so if one fails, the others can keep the plane flying. Similarly, a data center might duplicate critical data across several servers, so if one server goes down, the data isn't lost. In more relatable terms, it's like carrying an extra phone with you on a journey, so that you aren't left out of reach in case your primary phone stops working.

The purpose of redundancy is to design the system in such a way that it can still function even when a component fails. This is proactive maintenance: you're planning for potential issues and building solutions into the system from the start.


Maintenance is more than just fixing what's broken. It's also about making things work better, learning how systems work, and planning for the future.

By understanding these different perspectives, you see that maintenance is essential not just for keeping things working, but also for helping them evolve and improve over time. It's a journey and a process, more than a routine task that aims to fix issues after they have occurred.

To maintain a complex system is no easy feat; entropy marches on relentlessly. But the price needs to paid and paid over and over again. What differentiates the professional from the amateur is the way the value they ascribe to maintenance and the intelligence they invest in it. The former treats it as a crucial function, while the latter relegates it to secondary status till things break down and expensive lessons are learned the hard way.

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