Who Needs That?

It has been a while since I have talked about Fred. He is my friend and colleague, and Fred is not his real name, but I keep that secret to avoid repercussions – and that’s an interesting point in itself, because why do I need to do that just because he is expressing an opinion? He works in a similar role to me in a similar large organisation (it could be anywhere in the world, so don’t try to guess!), so I find his opinion a useful way to evaluate whether my experiences and ideas have any parallels elsewhere. Note that I don’t necessarily agree with all of Fred’s opinions, although (for obvious reasons) there is some consistency between his and mine.

So after that introductory disclaimer and explanation, I will get on to the issue at hand…

Fred’s organisation has recently gone through a major reorganisation, and many people affected by that don’t think it has been particularly successful. In fact, the words such as “unmitigated disaster” often come to the fore in discussions on this subject. I suspect that is an extreme opinion, because even changes designed by the most incompetent managers generally bring some benefits, even if it is purely by accident, but the fact that people feel the need to use that phrase does show the level of frustration and disgust involved.

In fact, Fred has told me that the magnitude of dissatisfaction has got so great that even the management have realised that something is wrong. When he says this, he is not just trying to make a rhetorical point, because managers generally are blissfully unaware of the level of loathing the workers have for them, and tend to have few clues about how their decisions affect other people’s work.

For example, Fred recounted an incident where a moderately senior person in the new regime met him in the corridor and asked how much he was enjoying the new system. She was utterly astounded when he told her that he thought it was hideously inefficient, bureaucratic, and that almost no one liked it. When asked what a solution might be he said “go back to what we had before” but was told that is not an option. He thinks this is most likely because then the managers would have had to admit they were wrong, and that never happens because it might destroy their fantasy world perception of their own competence.

But it would seem that any reasonable person should have already known about these problems, but apparently the management rarely do, so it is a minor miracle when they do understand what is happening amongst the unfortunates who have been forced into trying to make their terrible systems work.

And they seem to have taken it seriously, because they have hired some expensive consultants to find out why things aren’t working as expected. Fred says that the very fact that their first reaction to a situation like this is to hire some consultants should give them all the answers they need. And the type of questions these consultants are asking makes it clear that only an answer involving deficiencies on the part of the employees will be accepted, because there isn’t a lot of opportunity to criticise the management. Obviously, a company being paid a small fortune by management is only going to give them the answer they want, or they might not be hired again.

So, according to Fred at least, the entire process, from the first fake consultation, to the last examination of what hasn’t worked as well as expected, is a farce. I’m sure the management could give an alternative explanation of what is going on, so the situation probably isn’t quite as one-sided as Fred makes out, but clearly something fundamental is wrong with the system.

I think the problem he describes is related to a phenomenon I have commented on myself on occasions. That is that ignorance and arrogance are a dangerous mix. I can understand a person or group being ignorant, because it’s impossible to know everything to a high level, making some degree of ignorance inevitable. And, while arrogance is often seen as a negative characteristic, I think it is understandable if the person involved has good reason for it. You might argue that someone at the peak of their profession has a right to be arrogant, for example.

But the danger comes when those two attributes are combined. Arrogance from ignorant people is really problematic. And research shows that ignorant people are often lulled into a false sense of their own infallibility, which could easily lead to arrogance. So anyone who is ignorant can easily overlook the facts showing their own lack of competence, leading to more arrogance, and that in turn leads to the inability to recognise the need to improve, which creates more ignorance. It’s a vicious circle of self-delusion.

The other source of many of these problems is the echo chamber effect. People at the top of most hierarchies only interact with people at similar levels to themselves. They are all part of the defective system which almost inevitably leads to an even greater level of self-delusion. These people all want to support the hierarchy as it is, because they are doing well out of it, and the occasional person a bit further down who might be involved is unlikely to be too critical because their chance to rise to a higher level depends on them saying what their “superiors” want to hear.

You might think that the victims of these systems are also in an echo chamber, but that isn’t usually the case. The people near the bottom are constantly impacted with the consequences of what those at the top are doing, so it is a one-way process.

And do you know what the saddest thing is? According to Fred, one reason those people at the top think the situation is under control is that their incompetence is being disguised by the people at the bottom working longer hours, finding clever ways to minimise the disruption from the changes forced on them, and generally getting things done despite the changes inflicted on them from the top.

So it really is a mess. How widespread this sort of problem is can be difficult to ascertain, but I do hear a lot of complaints from people in other large organisations, just one conspicuous local example being the health system in this country, which seems to suffer from similar issues to those Fred describes.

Fred often becomes quite dispirited regarding these issues, because he actually cares about the organisation he works for, unlike (he says) the management. But I advise him to protect his own mental stability and let it go. There’s not a lot he can do, and constantly fretting about these issues can lead to depression and stress. So I hope he takes that advise, or I will be listening to a lot more bitter complaints from him in the future, and who needs that?

Dunbar’s Number

Why are there so many bad systems, organisation, and processes in the modern world? Why are governments so incompetent, inefficient, and often corrupt? Why are big companies and institutions so poor at innovation, so good at creating huge bureaucracies, and so bad at balancing factors such as profit and social responsibility?

First, we must establish that my claims against these organisations are true. That is difficult, because there is no valid basis for comparison, and no good objective way to measure good and bad attributes. But I think most people know through anecdotes, or just through their own personal opinions, that what I said is true, at least in the vast majority of cases.

I work in IT, so that is the perspective I often approach these questions from. Many of the worst products and services I know of are created by big organisations. I had the misfortune to have to use an NZ government web site recently and it was a shambles. And the most buggy, confusing web service I use regularly is probably Facebook, which is run by a large company. Also, I seem to have to fix a lot of problems with software designed by big companies in my work.

In contrast, many sites I use from smaller companies work really well. And I avoid software written by big companies. For example, I have a set of Microsoft and Adobe software on my Mac, but I almost never use them, because I find software written by smaller companies is much better.

So let’s just assume that “big is bad” and think about why this might be. I think it is about two things: first, as an organisation gets bigger its most important functions tend to be handed over to professional managers, and that almost always results in incompetence and inefficiency; and second, bigger organisations have too many people involved to allow efficient communications and cooperation to occur, so large projects involving many people tend to result in poor outcomes.

In the bigger organisations you tend to see a large number of incompetent managers trying to control far too many people to work together efficiently. Why do I think the managers are incompetent? Because all managers are incompetent or corrupt – if they weren’t they would be doing something useful instead! Clearly this is a controversial view, but exceptions are rare in my experience.

But what about the size of the group working on the project? What’s the deal there? Well I think it relates back to Dunbar’s Number. This is a theoretical upper limit to the number of social relationships an individual can maintain. It was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He used the brain size of different species in relation to the number of interactions they maintained, and extrapolated that to humans. His conclusion was that humans can maintain a maximum of 150 successful relationships.

So my hypothesis is that this number also applies to the size of groups in a successful workplace. I suspect it should be a lot lower than that, because people establish relationships in places other than work which must also count towards the total. Whatever the number should be, there can be little doubt that small groups are likely to work far better than big ones.

If that is the case, smaller groups of workers, along with the lack of a professional management class, gives smaller organisations a huge advantage over bigger ones. And that might explain why huge bureaucracies, like governments, seem to always be badly run. And it might explain why small companies usually produce better products and services than big ones, and why big companies tend to gain innovative new products by acquiring them from smaller companies instead of creating them themselves.

You might ask why – assuming my theory is correct – so many large companies are so successful. I would say they are successful for the wrong reasons, and despite their incompetence. For example, when I ask why people use Microsoft products they almost never say its because they have evaluated the options and found that company’s software is best. It is almost always because that’s what they were told to use (generally by incompetent managers), or its all they have, or they were not aware of the alternatives.

People like me who do use lesser known products tend to have migrated to them as a result of frustrations with attempting to use the “default” options from the big companies. So you could say that Microsoft’s success is due to laziness and ignorance on the part of its users. Also, once a “critical mass” is reached it is difficult to escape from the trap of the dominance of big companies. Even I occasionally have to use Microsoft Word, for example, to open difficult documents, even though it is a truly hideous piece of software and I hate myself for even touching it!

It’s difficult to see how this can be fixed, because any central authority which might need to make new rules to encourage more diversity in this area is itself a victim of the results of Dunbar’s Number. But, even though there’s not a lot I can do about it, at least I have an idea of why things are so bad. That’s slightly reassuring, at least!

A Good Day

I was driving to work a while back when I decided to listen to some radio news and current affairs from New Zealand’s public radio service, RNZ. They were talking about a TV program created by our national TV channel, TVNZ, about racism in this country. A supporter of the program was speaking as if all the narratives of the program were established beyond doubt, but luckily RNZ had arranged to have another point of view and invited a second expert who contradicted this by showing how none of the premises of the show could necessarily be established with any degree of certainty.

For example, he pointed out that a person of Pacific descent being ignored for a certain time in a restaurant should not be automatically construed as racism since some restaurants just have poor service and that was just as good an explanation for the lack of attention as racism would be.

This was a refreshing change from the usual one-sided material I hear on RNZ, because while it has a fair standard of fact checking and credibility, that tends to occur in one direction only: towards what I would uncharitably describe as extreme political correctness.

Unfortunately, because I was concentrating on the program so much I failed to notice a traffic cop parked on the street ahead of me, and he was a quite cunning example of his kind because he didn’t use his radar until I was quite close, and I wasn’t saved by my radar detector.

I pulled up and greeted him in a friendly manner. Of course, I knew I was speeding because I always speed, so I was prepared to accept his admonitions, and a fine, and move on. But, as a last resort I decided to chat with him briefly about my alleged offences. He showed me my speed on his radar unit (I was surprised that it was that low) and asked if I had any good excuses. Needless to say, I did, so I pointed out that the street was very quiet and there were few other cars and no pedestrians in view, and that going slightly faster than the speed limit was not massively unsafe in those circumstances.

I was surprised when he agreed and allowed me to continue with just a warning. He said that it was unlikely that I would be excused again so to “take it easy”. That seemed like good advice, so I thanked him and continued my journey to work.

I arrived at work without any further drama and started updating a web-based database system I had created a few years back. My original job title was “analyst/programmer” and I was hired to convert a lot of older programs from one machine architecture to another, and after that I created custom applications mostly for the Mac, then I moved on to web-based applications and databases. But when the structure of the organisation changed a specialised application team was created and it was deemed that I should do general Mac support work instead.

But discussing this with a manager, it was agreed that it made sense if I continued to use my well-established skills and experience to do development work even when it contradicted the structure we currently operated under. This was really just a common-sense approach which was to everyone’s benefit, but it was refreshing to see that attitude existed.

During my lunch break I decided to get involved with a bit of social media controversy. Anyone following this blog will know that I am currently concentrating on anti-political correctness and pro-free speech issues, so that’s what I commented on. In fact, I made a fairly moderate comment which rationally criticised some unsubstantiated statements made by another social media user who denied (or at least downplayed) the role of Islam in international terrorism.

In this case, I would normally expect reactions varying from righteous indignation to unbridled abuse, but I was surprised on this occasion to receive some feedback agreeing with my points, which were well backed up with actual statistics, and moderating the original comments after seeing that they were “probably a bit over-simplistic and one-sided”.

After lunch I received a call from my friend and colleague requesting a meeting to discuss the IT requirements of his department. I’m sure my readers will be aware of my attitude to meetings: that is that they are an unnecessary waste of time. But the good news this time was that the meeting would be at the end of the day and at a local bar which is well known for having a good variety of craft beers.

So I texted my wife saying I would be a bit late and not to be surprised if “find my friends” showed me at the pub! I don’t go to pubs much so she was OK with that and said she would make dinner tonight – something I usually do. So that was all good and a few good beers finished off a great day.

At this point I have to ask: how many people are suspicious of my story? I mean, does anyone’s life really run as smoothly and fairly as that? No, of course it doesn’t, and the whole story is complete fiction! All of the events happened at one time or another (not all in one day) but the outcomes were the complete opposite of what I said here.

So what was my point? Well, I think it is fairly obvious. My point is that many people are unreasonable and inflexible, and that extends to almost everyone today. People are too attached to their own agendas, to rules and regulations, and to cultural narratives which they rarely question.

Think about how much better the world would be if things really did work the way I described them here.

I’m not saying that we should ignore racism, but we need to define exactly what it is, and we should be really sure it is real rather than just a convenient way to pursue a political agenda. And not every interview on the radio needs to have representatives from every side of a debate, but it would be helpful if there was a bit more of it.

And speeding, and other minor violations of the law, shouldn’t be always excused, but an unthinking enforcement of the letter of the law rather than its actual intent is often not helpful in the long term. If I get fined for going slightly too fast when it is not truly unsafe, then I lose respect for a law which might have otherwise discouraged me from going too fast in situations where there actually is a significantly increased chance of an accident.

And managers and other bureaucrats shouldn’t take their rules and policies so seriously either. Presumably those rules were created for a purpose, so it would make more sense to follow those underlying principles more than the exact wording of a particular phrase from an obscure rule recorded somewhere.

And it really doesn’t do anyone any harm to admit that they might have over-reacted to a contentious subject on social media, or even got it completely wrong. Anyone who still believes exactly the same things now as they did in the past is not showing any signs of growth, and in many ways changing your mind is not a sign of weakness at all, it is a sign of strength.

Finally, going to the pub with friends instead of going home to your family is completely unacceptable, so any negative feelings from a partner regarding that behaviour are totally justified!

Use Your Mac Better

I’m an IT support person and part-time programmer, hardware installer, and server manager. So I see a wide range of issues that users have to contend with, and I see a lot of people who really aren’t using their computers (or phones or tablets) very efficiently. And that is unfortunate, because I primarily support Apple products, and Apple do put more emphasis than most on usability.

Sometimes I am working on a user’s computer and they just seem to be completely amazed at how quickly and easily I can get things done. It’s almost as if the computer has read my mind and just done what I wanted through some sort of subliminal connection. I don’t want to come across as being too self-congratulatory here, because I should fully expect that I will be good at using computers since I spend so much of my time in front of one, and I aren’t as good as other people in other areas, but there is no doubt that I am pretty freakin’ amazing using a Mac!

So I wouldn’t expect a person who has other factors in their lives which are more important than computers to achieve the same competence as a person who uses one “all the time”, but I can offer a few tips on how to get better and to at least get a bit closer to the skill level of an expert. And it’s not actually that hard. There are just a few basic tips that could make people much better, and they only have to start using them one at a time so that they become automatic fairly quickly.

So, without further preamble, here is my list…

First, you should stop using the mouse when you are doing word processing (or text editing, or working with spreadsheets, or most other tasks primarily involving text and numbers). You should use the keyboard instead, because when typing, constantly switching from the keyboard to the mouse is both time consuming, and interrupts the basic modality of the interaction with the computer.

So if I am typing a sentence, like this one, and accidentally type a word incorrectly (my spelling is good, but my typing isn’t so great when I try to type quickly) I don’t use the mouse to go back and correct it. In fact, I typed the word “isn’t” above with a semicolon instead of a quote (or apostrophe) so I needed to go back and correct it. But I only noticed the error when I got tot he word “great”.

So here’s how I fixed that: I pressed option back-arrow three times (held down the option key and pressed back-arrow 3 times, then released the option key), pressed delete, typed the quote, and pressed option forward-arrow three times, and continued typing. That sounds complicated, but try it, and after a bit of practice it is super fast and super easy. The option back-arrow is a common Mac shortcut to go back one word (the back-arrow key by itself goes back one character, of course, but that is too slow).

After practicing this for a while the correction can be made so quickly that to many people it looks like the change has happened without any interaction by the user at all!

The option modifier works with the up and down arrow keys too, where it moves the cursor up and down by one paragraph at a time. So that’s a quick way to get up and down the page without having to use the mouse. And most people can see quickly how many paragraphs to move without even thinking, so when you know you need to move (say) 3 paragraphs up just press option up-arrow 3 times quickly and the cursor will “magically” appear in the right place!

The command modifier is also useful for this sort of navigation. Press command left-arrow to move to the left margin, and command right-arrow to move to the right margin. Or use command up-arrow to move to the top of the document. Note that Microsoft Word gets this wrong and moves to the next paragraph instead, but you can use command function left-arrow instead (why, Microsoft?).

Unfortunately, non standard programs do make these tips slightly less useful, but if you are forced to use Microsoft products (I don’t) you can still adapt fairly easily.

Finally, in the modifier plus arrow-key series there is the shift key. This modifies what you are doing by highlighting what you are moving over. Hold down shift and press back-arrow and you highlight the last character typed. Hold down shift and option, and press back-arrow and you highlight the last word typed. So if I typed a few words and wanted to change them I can really easily. For example, in that sentence I originally typed “some characters” instead of “a few words” so I pressed option shift back-arrow twice and just typed “a few words” instead. After using the arrow key combinations the words I wanted to delete were highlighted and just typing then replaced them.

This is also useful to style text after typing it. For example, if I wanted to type a sentence like “I can bold words” and have the word “bold” in bold I would do this: type “I can bold ” (note the space after the word), press option back-arrow, press shift option forward-arrow, press command-B, press forward-arrow, continue typing. Again, it sounds hard but is automatic after a while, I sometimes don’t even look at the screen because I just know it will work.

Here’s why it works: option back-arrow goes back to the beginning of the previous word (“bold”), shift option forward-arrow highlights the word, command-B bold it, and forward-arrow unhighlights the word skips over so I can continue typing. And remember that space? That was a sort of “barrier” to stop the bold “leaking” into the next word. Try it without the space and see what happens.

Of course, in this example, if I had remembered to bold the word as I was typing it I would have just typed “I can ” command-B “bold” command-B ” words”. The first command-B turns on bolding and the second turns it off again.

The awesome thing is that the arrow key modifier combinations are easy when you think of them the right way. The option modifier moves by a unit (word or paragraph) instead of a single character. The command modifier moves a bigger unit (paragraph, page, or whole document depending on the app) The shift modifier just highlights instead of simply moving. That’s all you need to know, because the rest is just using combinations of these. Of course, I hope you already know a few basic keyboard shortcuts like command-B for commands like bolding!

So enough about text editing, how about some ideas for managing working in different apps more efficiently? Well, the one simple thing which surprisingly few people use, is command-tab. If you hold down the command key (just keep it down for this whole explanation), then press tab, you will see a list of icons for apps appear on the screen (the “app switcher”) with the next one highlighted. Continue to hold down the command key and each time you press tab the next icon will be highlighted. If you go too far you can keep pressing tab until the selected icon loops around to the start again, or press back-tick (`) instead of tab to go back one. Release command to bring the selected app to the front.

You can also quit and hide apps this way. When you reach an app (while still holding down command), press H to hide it or Q to quit it. To quit the next three apps, hold down command, press tab Q Q Q `, then release command. Note the final back-tick which brings you back to the app you started with. Also note that you must be already running 4 apps for this to work, and that one app (the Finder) cannot be quit!

There is one clever design feature of this system which you can use too. That is that as you use apps they get moved to the left of the app icon list. So you always know that the app you are currently using will be on the left, and the app you used just before that is next to it. So to switch to the app you just used before moving to the current one, just press command-tab (hold down command, press tab, release command immediately). The next app will come to the front without you even seeing the app switcher icons.

Finally, here’s a hint for keeping your screen decluttered while working with many apps. Sometimes you might like to only have the windows for the current app you are working in shown. For example, if you are word processing you might not want to have any distractions from a browser window showing an animated ad or something similar. Other times you might have finished using an app for a while and want to have its windows hidden while you work somewhere else. For example, you might have finished with a game for a while and want to do some work!

One way to solve this is to work in full screen mode, but that is often not helpful when you do want more than one app visible. So I suggest learning a couple of keyboard shortcuts instead. First, use command-H to hide the window or windows belonging to the current program. So if you are finished with that game, but might want to continue later, just press command-H. That will hide the app without saving, deleting, or closing any windows. Second use command-option-H to hide all the windows *except* the current one. So if you are in a word processor and want all other distractions hidden, press command-option-H to hide every other app.

You can re-display any hidden app by just clicking on its icon in the dock, but you will use the command-tab trick I talked about above instead, of course!

Now, let’s put it all together. Imagine you have found a useful page in Safari (or other web browser) and want to insert that link at the bottom of a word processing document, and you are have just switched back from Safari and are currently editing the word processor document. Try this: command-tab command-L command-C command-H command-down-arrow command-V. I’ll leave it as a project for you to figure out why that worked – or didn’t if you got any of the steps a bit wrong!

So there are a few basic tricks for using your Mac more efficiently. Just try one at a time, and when that one becomes second nature, move into the next one. Soon you’ll be just as good as me. Well, maybe not that good!

Self-Management

According to research, one of the greatest sources of stress and unhappiness in the workplace is workers’ feeling of lack of control. They feel as if their working lives are directed by others, and that they cannot work to their full potential or fully enjoy their work as a result.

Is this important? Well, yes, I think it clearly is, for two main reasons: first, people spend a large proportion of their lives at work so the experience should be as pleasant as possible; and second, if we want companies and other organisations to work efficiently why not try to encourage people to want to be there, and then perform at their best as a result.

So the next question is what is the cause of this lack of control? Well, it will be no surprise to anyone that I blame it squarely on modern management. I have made no secret of my total contempt for the so-called profession of management, and I often believe we would be a lot better off without them. But sometimes I have a more moderate view and think there might be some need for them, but that the role should be a lot different than the way it is generally seen today.

So instead of simply saying we should get rid of the lot of them, I will try to present a more nuanced, and maybe realistic reimagining of what a manager’s role should really be, and how they should fit into a properly functional work environment.

First, we need to get away from the idea that a manager is a higher role than others. To do this, most of their authority needs to be stripped away, and their rate of pay should be no higher than similar professional positions in other areas.

I often see really competent people take “promotions” into management simply to get extra pay (and also most likely get a lot more perks and do a lot less work). Why should they need to do this? If someone is really good at a non-management role they should get paid as much as, or maybe more than, someone in management. Management shouldn’t be a higher status position, it should be just a different one.

And often a person who does get a “promotion” into management is terrible at it (let’s ignore the fact that I believe there are almost no actual good ones), as well as their skills in their previous job being lost.

So in my ideal work environment the actual core workers would have a high level of control over how they work, and the managers would simply be there to ensure that the tedious administration tasks needed to support them are carried out.

There are two obvious weaknesses in my system of course. The first is that workers who aren’t motivated to work might use the extra control they have to avoid doing anything useful, or they might be so incompetent at organising their time that they are horribly inefficient. And the second is that in a large work environment, where people need to work together, creating a coordinated team might be difficult without top-down control.

I fully understand these problems are real, but I think the benefits of my suggested system would outweigh the problems, because the workers in my scheme would feel they have control and would both be happier and generally more productive as a result.

Even if productivity was lower after implementing my scheme (and note that I don’t believe it would be) there would still be benefits in happier workers, with less stress, and less mental health issues, so society as a whole would be better. Unpleasant work conditions, especially in regards to lack of control as a result of overbearing (and mostly incompetent) management, is a leading cause of high suicide rates in many western countries today.

And I think I do have some ways to minimise the disadvantages I mentioned above.

I’m fairly sure that in most workplaces people know very well which of their colleagues get a lot done and which don’t. So I think peer pressure might be enough to overcome a lot of the poor performance issues I listed above. I think many people would respond more to their colleagues comments regarding their work than comments from a manager who the worker might see as being out of touch.

Some form of performance pay might also be useful. I have spoken against this idea in the past, but that was because performance is often based on bureaucratic and ultimately counterproductive measures invented by managers. If the workers themselves could agree on more meaningful measures then this idea might have more merit.

If the number of managers was decreased it might also be possible to redirect their pay to the people who actually do the work. When people are paid more, especially in relation to people in other workplaces who are not enjoying the benefits of my new system, they might feel motivated to work more effectively.

Finally, it might be possible for the workers to nominate one person amongst them to have a controlling role when their is no obvious consensus amongst them. It might seem that this is just replacing one manager with another, but this person would still be a worker but with extra authority for a small number of situations, plus this person would still be in touch with what the workplace really needs.

Superficially it seems like a really good system, and you might wonder why it isn’t being used everywhere. Well it’s possible that I am truly delusional and it could never work. It’s also possible that he people in charge have too much to lose by implementing it. It’s the managers who are currently in charge who would be negatively affected yet they are the people who need to initiate the change. That’s not very likely to happen, is it?

But for numerous reasons, current work practices do need to change, and I would like to see something along the lines of what I have discussed here implemented. Will it ever happen? Who knows, but I’m just not expecting it any day soon!

The Secrets to My Success

I am often told that I am the greatest IT support person ever. Of course, I don’t really believe that is literally true, because I’m sure other people are told the same thing, and there are no doubt times when I “stuff up” and people think I am the worst IT geek ever!

But those points aside, I think that, after many years, I generally do a pretty good job in my main work sectors: setup and troubleshooting of Mac computers and other Apple devices; design and implementation of small web sites, web databases, and small programs; basic networking, and hardware installation and repairs; and just about anything else, because I try to be a generalist rather than a specialist.

So now I must reveal the secrets to my success! (by the way, I don’t take that claim too seriously, because how successful I am is debatable depending on how you evaluate success). But what are my philosophies and coping mechanisms which I find help to get successful outcomes? In other words: what advice would I give to other IT support geeks?

How about this: I understand the computer and the person. My clients like me because I try to make things easier for them. I don’t tell them anything like “this is the way the computer works and this is what you must do”. I say “OK, you want to work that way, so let’s see if we can configure the computer to work as closely to that way as we can”.

To do that I need to understand what the person is trying to do and why, and I need to know how to change the way the computer works as well. So it is necessary to be able to talk to the client and to “talk” to the computer.

And on the subject of communications, it is important to talk to the user in a reasonable way. Recently I had someone who told me that I had literally solved their problem in less time than the previous IT consultant had spent explaining to them why the problem couldn’t be solved. And they couldn’t remember anything about what he had said, so clearly the explanation had been pointless.

I do think there is value in telling the person a little bit about what you are doing, but you must monitor their level of interest and comprehension carefully. There’s nothing worse than someone who spends a long time explaining in excruciating detail what they are doing when you’re really not interested, or who uses so much jargon that you lose track of the story half way.

And that brings me to the subject of vocabulary. I often hear that anyone who truly understands their area of expertise should be able to explain it to a non-specialist using common language. For example, explaining why the person should replace their hard disk with a solid state drive might involve a bit of explanation, but there’s no need to quote latency, seek times, and other technical details. It is sufficient to say that one involves a little spinning disk with several moving parts, and the other has a solid chunk of “electronics” (you don’t have to be completely technically correct) which is almost always faster, more reliable, and uses less power.

But I’m not totally against using some jargon. I often intersperse my explanations with comments like “we call that a kernel panic because the kernel, which is the inner-most part of the system, gets into a situation where it doesn’t know how to recover and panics!” Again, note that this is not necessarily 100% true, and we get almost no panics on Macs now so it is rarely necessary!

So those are some fairly serious points, but now I need to list a few more facetious ones, even though they all have a significant element of truth.

If I ever have to do something which is very simplistic and might make it look like I am just guessing, I have a good explanation ready. The most common example of this, of course, is the reboot. So if I need to reboot I say something like “There must be a memory leak in a program you are using. I could spend half an hour tracking it down and recovering it, but its easier just to reboot so that the lost memory will be recovered.” I try to use an explanation with an element of truth behind it, more for my own peace of mind that the client’s benefit!

If there’s something I cannot do due to office politics, policies, or other forms of bureaucracy, I say so, but I try to avoid using that as an excuse for everything. So I will quite often “minimise the effects of rules” but there are times when there is no way to avoid them, such as network ports being blocked. So I would say in that case what the rule is causing the problem but I would explain why the rule exists in such a way that makes it seem like I think it is unnecessary.

Obviously this is a difficult balance to get just right. There have been occasions where I have encountered problems with the bureaucracy for making fairly innocuous comments. But there have been other times when I have definitely gone over the line of reasonable criticism but got away with it!

So I remember that ranting about the inadequacies of management is OK, but I keep it under control. There’s usually some small element of sense in what bureaucrats do, so I usually just leave it with a comment like “this is the rule, which I personally think is unnecessary” or something similar.

And that, in turn, leads on to the concept of certainty. It’s important to sound confident when dealing with difficult situations, so I might say “sure, we will get this fixed some way”, but leave room for humility. For example, when discovering a possible cause of a problem, I might say “I think this might fix it” instead Of “God I’m brilliant! This will fix it for sure.”

So then, not only do I avoid the difficult situation of a brilliant solution failing, but I also find a certain amount of self-deprecation is usually appreciated. In fact, I think just quietly solving a problem and playing down any possible brilliant insight involved has more impact than making a lot of self-aggrandising comments ever could.

Here’s a simple one which increases my credibility with clients and other tech support people too: I learned the (military style) mnemonic alphabet! If I need to give someone a serial number, MAC address, or other complex sequence of characters over the phone something like Mike Bravo Whisky Niner Hotel is cooler than MBW9H and more likely to be received correctly.

This is my favourite (or maybe my second favourite, see later). I always give out random hints! It’s quite painful watching some people use their computer, so I like to throw out hints on ways to make them more efficient. On the Mac I have 2 in particular which most people don’t use and might find really valuable. The first is to use command-tab to switch between programs and command-` to switch between windows open in a program. The second is to look at the mouse pointer when dragging files. If there is a “+” on the pointer you are copying. If not, you are moving. To change from move to copy hold down option. To change from copy to move, hold down command.

Finally, the most important thing of all is this: make people do backups! If I see someone with no backup I usually tell them tragic stories of people about to finish a PhD thesis who suddenly lose the lot and have no backup. Or the person who stored the book they are writing on a flash drive that failed. Or the person who has had their computer stolen with all their exam revision notes on it.

So I say, keep backups, people. An external hard disk is just $100. I keep 3 backups, using two different backup strategies (cloning and traditional backup) and keep them in 3 different places. The disks are all encrypted to avoid information being leaked.

So that’s it, apart from one other all-encompassing philosophy. That is this: care. I actually care about making my clients interactions with computers as good as possible. I get a lot of satisfaction from coming up with a great solution to a problem. I like it when people appreciate my work. Note that I don’t care what the bureaucrats think – it is entirely the people I actually work with who matter to me.

Some of those ideas might be useful, and some more philosophical, or maybe just a bit of fun, but they are definitely the secrets to my success!

The End of an Error

About 4 years ago my wife decided she would leave teaching (mainly because the school she taught at was managed by a bunch of incompetents, and the roll had reduced so much that some of the teachers were made redundant) and open a business of her own, in this case a cafe. Now, anyone who has been involved in owning or managing a cafe at this point is probably already thinking “bad idea”, and in many ways they would be right.

Why? Because it seems to be almost impossible to make any money from that kind of business, plus for the privilege of making little, if any money, the owner/manager has to work 12 hours a day – starting at 5 in the morning – 6 days a week.

But that’s not the worst of it either, because maybe an even more overwhelmingly soul-sapping aspect of owning a small business is the excess of mindless bureaucracy involved which results in very little of any value.

Of course, Inland Revenue is probably the worst offender, closely followed by other organisations like the local City Council. Then there are a collection of lesser parasites like insurance agents, body corporates, various health and safety organisations, lawyers, business experts, and advertisers.

I have a “real” job but also helped with running the cafe, especially with administration and accounting. Yes, you read that right: I helped with the tasks I most despise. While I felt as if most of them were a waste of time, at least I did gain a few skills in that area – but skills I hope I never have to use again!

On the other hand I did learn some more interesting stuff too. For example, at one point I was doing some baking and managed to make some pretty decent batches of scones and muffins. I never quite perfected making consistently good coffee though – that is a lot harder than you might think!

But getting back to the admin tasks. I had some major issues with those, so let me list a few of them here.

First, tax. Now I know that the two most onerous tax activities – GST and PAYE – are not actually costing me anything because I am just collecting tax for the government by adding an extra amount to prices and wages, but I do object to the amount of effort involved in doing that work. If the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) want to collect tax on sales of goods and services and on wages why don’t they do the work and collect the money themselves?

If I took the amount of time people spend on tax gathering activities (on behalf of the IRD) and multiplied by the number of businesses in New Zealand, it must come to a truly horrendous amount of time. How does IRD get away with this travesty of bureaucratic time wasting? Because they can. They can make whatever rules they like – whether they are fair or not – and impose them on whoever they want.

Note that I am not against tax, in fact far from it. It’s not paying the tax that worries me, it is the amount of time a person like myself, who is talented in many areas, wastes on doing IRD’s work for them.

And other government agencies are maybe even worse. We had to collect a payment from one employee, who had been incorrectly paid a benefit, and process the payment for the department involved. If we didn’t do this – even though it was nothing to do with us and had happened before we even employed the person – we would be fined. Again, this is an arbitrary and unfair law which was created simply because it could be.

Then there are the other forms of bureaucracy. The local council’s hygiene regulations are particularly silly. My wife took that very seriously and she maintained high standards, but I know that the inspection is more to do with paperwork being filled in correctly rather than any real measures designed to optimise food safety. I know other cafe owners who had terrible standards but kept the paper work up to date and achieved the top rating as a result.

My advice is to ignore the hygiene rating you see displayed at food premises, because that is just a measure of how well the person does documentation. Instead, have a look around any place you visit and search for signs of neglect.

It might seem to many people that running a small business is a truly worthwhile undertaking. Small businesses employee a lot of people and contribute significantly to the economy. And the government spends a lot of time talking about how important small businesses are, and how they want to encourage people to start one.

But they sure have a strange way of showing their enthusiasm. If they really wanted people to start a small business, why can’t the government and other authorities make the whole process a lot easier?

I’m sure that people running a cafe would rather make use of their talents in areas like baking, cooking, and hospitality instead of wasting hours every week on meaningless paper work. And I’m sure a struggling business where the owner is effectively making less than the minimum wage while working 70 hours a week would appreciate not having to pay provisional taxes on money which hasn’t even been earned yet.

I am contemplating becoming self-employed myself in the near future, but the advantages of being free of the stupidity of ignorant and dogmatic management decisions are at least partly negated by the dread I have of processing GST and other time-wasting accounting.

People might say that spending that time on tax calculations is just part of their “civic duty” as a citizen, but is it really? Would it not be better for the country if people spent their time doing what they’re good at? Why is accounting considered something everyone has to do, or pay an exorbitant fee to some accountant to do for them.

So yes, the end of our cafe means the end of processing payrolls, GST returns, tax payments, employer returns, hygiene certificates, building safety checks, and various other nonsense I can’t even bear to contemplate right now. It’s like the end of an era… or should that be end of an error?