Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Is It Really That Rare?

Take a minute to understand this flowchart:

This is a concise problem-solving methodology for the "How Do I?" type question you run into when using a computer. E.g. How do I print an envelope from Microsoft Word?

There are many people that self-identify as computer illiterate, and can't conceptualize how to use a computer. They want their tasks written down in step-by-step form so that they don't have to think. They just do. Many of these people can be quite brilliant in other areas of life, but when it comes to computer their brains just shutdown. I don't understand the phenomenon, but I've just to come to accept it.

But there's one class of people where this kind of behavior should not be acceptable. Anyone that is a "computer person". Tech support, sys admins, developers, consultants, technical writers, etc. etc. To be a computer person, you have to have a certain competence at problem solving. Otherwise you are nearly useless. The rapid pace of technological advancement will eventually make you completely useless.

When I was hiring, the part of the interview/test that had the most relevance was the problem solving test. You could have zero experience with computers, but if I gave you 5 word problems of the "if X is approaching y at z km/hour and they meet in 1 hour, how fast is y moving?" variety and you answered all 5, I'd hire you over the Comp/Sci University degree individual with technical certifications out the ying-yang that got 0 out of 5 correct. (Trust me, that happens a lot!)

I know that I have a good set of problem-solving skills, honed over the years I've been in this business. I have also met and maintained relationships with several others that have the same set of skills. When we get together, we often bitch about the seemingly endless masses of idiots that are supposed to be IT experts, but in reality are just talk and no skill. The issues that stymie us the most are when an option to perform a function is right on the main screen. Click that and read what it tells you. Step one in the flowchart above.

But no, these "experts" can't even do that. They have to call one of us. Even if we've never used the application before, oftentimes we can puzzle out what it is they want even though it is our first time seeing the application.

Just trying shit and working what happens and why is apparently a rare skill. That's all it is, it is not mystical or wonderful. You just have to solve for x in a 1 + X = 2 type equation. I didn't think I was that special, yes I am good at it, but anyone after 5 years of IT experience should be as well.

Well it appears a majority of so-called IT experts are not, and that scares the crap out of me when you consider what their responsibilities are. Maybe you should be too, because it is this lack of competence that is leaving many critical systems vulnerable.


M@ said...

When I've talked to other people or students who want to become tech writers, the first piece of advice I have for them is "you have to be fearless". That's exactly what that flowchart shows. Click around. Mess with stuff. Figure it out.

It's unbelievable when tech writers want to be told what something in the software does. I don't want to be told -- I can't describe it as effectively if I'm learning it second hand. You can show me what to do but goddammit, I'm holding the mouse.

I worked for one software company where one of the tech support guys would constantly ask the developers for help without googling the error message the client was seeing. It drove them nuts, to the point where they would just ask him whether he'd already googled the error when he walked towards their desks. (This was before was invented of course.)

Anyhow, I totally agree with you -- this isn't just a useful approach to computers, it's an essential skill that all technical people (and most non-technical people who depend on computers -- that is, almost everyone) must have or learn. There's just no way around it.

Catelli said...

Thanks for the affirmation. I was afraid I was coming across as a pompous all-knowing jerk.

But yeah, I have one of those call-before-google support people too.

I've sent him screen shots showing that the first result in google is the correct answer, and he still hasn't figured it out.

And thanks for I've never seen that before, that's awesome. I'll use that next time instead of a screen capture.

M@ said...

No, not at all. I'm glad to have introduced you to lmgtfy -- the alternative, "Did you ask Doctor Google yet?", is a lot more snarky and not as effective. Good luck retraining your guy...

Catelli said...

If it doesn't work, at least I'll have fun.

And for anyone that hasn't tried it yet, here's lmgtfy in action.

PeterC said...

It isn't limited to computers. Two examples from my life, electronics (RF for example)and horses...

Anything where there is a black box and you ain't going to understand every detail of that "black box" without extensive study of that particular black box.

You have a set of general rules for safety, then give it a go....

Catelli said...

True 'nuff. But you would hope someone familiar with a black box wouldn't be confused by a gray one.

That's what's making me scratch my head.