Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Wisdom of Harry

My boss and colleague, Harry, is the best boss I've ever had. One of the reasons is that, in addition to all the skill and knowledge he has about software consulting, he has a certain wisdom as well. Here are some of his best aphorisms:

1) "If what you're doing seems really hard, you're probably not doing it the right way."

Sometimes we find ourselves slogging through the implementation of solution, and it's taking a long time and has lots of catches and exceptions and problems . . . Harry has taught me, in the spirit of productive laziness, to recognize that not all problems need to be solved, and that perhaps we're not taking the right approach.

2) "There is always a reason."

Strange things happen in software, and a lot of times technical support people will brush off particular events as general "bugginess" without ever hunting down the true cause. Harry actively discourages this sort of mentality, because it tends to produce superstitious behavior in the users and a general anxiety about their computers. It's reassuring to people when you can tell them: "This problem is not the result of random coincidences in the universe. It has a specific cause, and we can probably find it, and make it go away."

3) "People don't fill out forms for fun."

In sales and suport automation, there is a tendency for managers to go overboard in the amount of data they want to collect . . . or more accurately, the amount of data they want other people to collect for them. It helps for those managers to understand that most people will only do those things that they find genuinely helpful in getting their jobs done . . . and asking them to do something that does not directly contribute to getting their job done is close to impossible. You might have five different fields you want someone to fill in for every appointment . . . but just because you put them on the form doesn't mean they will get filled in. The corallary, then: "Make sure the things you ask people to record will be genuinely useful information -- for them as well as management."

4) "Skip to the end."

Sometimes when we get bogged down in a technical solution, Harry will prompt us to think of the most drastically simple, straightforward, blunt-edged approach to solving a problem as quickly as possible. This is an absolutely essential skill for a consultant working under a limited budget. You will rarely have enough budget to solve every problem the best possible way. So, sometimes you have to "skip to the end"; solve the problem quickly if not gracefully. Sometimes the best way to make a problem go away is to just take it off the table; "Gee, Mr. Customer, this one is kinda hard . . . do we really need to solve it? No? Ok then."


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