Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

I am not my tools

September 17, 2004

** Listen to this column on your computer, iPod or other audio player **

Listen | Listen (Backup)

Work in a high-tech career long enough and you will find yourself telling clients that something “cannot (easily) be done.” Each and every piece of software and hardware that you touch will have one quirk, fault, or missing feature that will make your life…interesting. Over the years, this can lead to some deeply probing questions about your own skills and abilities. Let me be the first to say that you are not your tools and their failures are not yours. Their failures can reflect on you, though, so it is important to manage them, and your client’s expectations carefully.

Rock and a hard place

I started thinking about this issue when I was wrestling with Microsoft Outlook for a client this week. We were trying to customize Outlook to produce a collection of printed calendars that closely matched an example from a friend of the client. As we worked, we also realized that fundamental differences between the needs of these people dictated some fundamental changes. It was then I began to realize the limitations of the tool we were using. We could think of changes to make that were difficult, if not impossible, to make in the program. Certain features were just not there. My frustration began to grow, as did my clients.
Eventually, I was able to prove to myself, and the client, that the problems were with the program. We came to the conclusion, together, that we weren’t flawed in our own thinking and, thankfully, the client saw that it wasn’t a case of poor skills on my part. Still, while this situation is working out, flawed software and hardware can sometimes trap you between a rock and a hard place.

Explain, don’t blame

When you start running up against problems like this, your first inclination might be to vocally, and colorfully, blame the software, the programmer or the CEO of the company. Don’t do it. Instead, direct your attention at researching the program as deeply as possible and then explaining to the client what is standing in the way. Explain exactly what you are trying to do or what feature/setting seems to be missing.

Sometimes, after a little digging, you will find a way to address the issue. At others, you may find yourself at a dead end. It happens. While you can promise the client that you will keep looking for a solution, you should make it clear that the problem resides in the product and, despite your best efforts, it cannot currently be solved. You can then start looking for some form of “work-around” to get close to the client’s needs.

Believe in yourself

The most important thought to keep in your head during this process is , “I am doing the best work possible.” I know that I often internalize the failings of the software or the computer as an indictment of my own poor skills. I can even hear that voice inside my head saying, “You should be able to solve this. What kind of computer consultant are you?” If you find yourself in a similar situation, you need to step away from the problem and re-adjust your thinking. There is, at least, a 50-50 chance that there is a flaw in the product. You shouldn’t start belittling yourself – or inviting your client to do so -- until you have attempted some research on the problem. Just because your tools may be flawed, doesn’t mean that you are.

A quick search of the Internet, or the manufacturer’s web site should turn up some information. Even the lack of information on your problem can be useful. It gives you a feeling of how esoteric the problem might be. It either means the problem is very rare, or the solution is so obvious that there is no need to post anything on the Internet about it. You job is to try and discover which one it is.

Don’t take the flaws of computer tools personally. Every program is flawed in some way, and sometimes this can impact your work. Don’t take these flaws as an indication that your skills are somehow lacking. Take them as an obstacle that you must go over, around or through. Your self-respect and self-image as a high-tech worker should not be tied up with the flawed tools we all use. Let the flaws belong to themselves. As long as you are doing the best work you are capable of doing, no one can fault you, your skills or your abilities. Not even you.

Podcast Feed

Subscribe with iTunes!