What Medicine Can Teach Us about Being On-Call

Friday, 31 August, 2018 - 12:1512:40

Daniel Turner, Shopify


Being on-call is a critical and stressful part of being a SRE. While most organizations want and are willing to take steps to reduce the on-call burden, few have used quantitative research methods to try and optimize being on-call.

At the same time, being on-call is a part of most physician’s practice. This is especially true for medical residents—postgraduate doctors in training—who can be on-call as often as once every three days. The field of medicine has undertaken numerous studies and research projects to optimize the handling of on-call duties. These studies have explored work-life balance, ways to decrease the number of critical incidents (which can literally mean life or death), as well as reducing mistakes.

This talk breaks down the techniques and research that have led to practices that can be adopted for SREs. It also looks at issues that remain unsolved in both fields, like pages sent to the wrong team or those that shouldn’t have been sent at all. Finally, it concludes with words of warning that SREs are not physicians, and as with any interdisciplinary study, we must be mindful of these differences when borrowing techniques.

Daniel Turner, Shopify

Daniel Turner is a Sr. Production Engineer at Shopify. He is part of the team building a company-wide platform on top of Kubernetes as well as maintaining Shopify’s data centers. He is married to a wonderful physician who is the inspiration for this talk.

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@inproceedings {218953,
author = {Daniel Turner},
title = {What Medicine Can Teach Us about Being {On-Call}},
booktitle = {SREcon18 Europe/Middle East/Africa (SREcon18 Europe)},
year = {2018},
address = {Dusseldorf},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/node/218954},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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