I am not my
September 17, 2004
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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
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.