Monday 20 July 2009

Technical tinkerers are the worst

Taking calls for old jobs

Late last week, having left a project in which my contribution was critical, I got a call from the project manager about some issues that they had encountered and were having problems resolving.

I agreed to take calls from the technical people and see what I could do to help. When the call finally came through and I was told what they had encountered my intuition and experience just felt it was a non-problem that had been complicated by unnecessary tinkering on the one end and a basic inability to understand abstraction with technologies.

A template is a template is a template

The environment we built provides for the ability to document the settings on one environment using a portable format and wizard assisted method in an export process and the using the same wizard to import the settings into another environment.

This follows a basic template format which allows for common elements to be transferred but requires that some unique elements be edited to reflect the new environment. All those elements had been documented.

One of those elements deals with recording the status of the environment, but the references are not updated and hence technicians cannot check the state of the environment for operational effectiveness – the simple solution is to delete the foreign references and select the local references.

Tinkerers are the worst technical people

Now, I know technicians like to see what goes on under the bonnet; I have no problems with that. I like to know how a television works because I studied electronic engineering but I don’t at a whim go poking a screw-driver in the back of my television just because it is fun, I could be electrocuted, quite easily, even if I knew exactly what I was doing.

I sometimes give deference to the simple notice – No user serviceable parts – I wonder if that appears on modern equipment nowadays, I suppose the warning is more the risk of losing your warranty if you try to tinker with the innards of your equipment.

After the conversation ended, I just knew the smart guy had tinkered with the template directly and wrecked the environment and was now looking for assurances that if he continued that dastardly act the functionality of the environment could be guaranteed.

The absence of logic and reason

Since I was away from home, I could not simulate the conditions he was describing, in fact, I should have asked at the beginning what symptoms had been presented to them before the tinkering started.

The problem with many technicians and engineers today is that they lack analytical skills, they’ll rather tinker and test unsound assumptions with trial and error – they might eventually solve the problem but you can never get them to walk you through the problem discovery to problem resolution because the critical ingredient for analysis is logic and reasoning and that is usually missing.

I fear something in the educational system has deprived many technical personnel of the ability to just stand back, review the situation, work out scenarios, dry run possible resolutions and test assumptions against sound logic. They can see what but never seem to know how or why.

They have to be seen doing something and thinking is not part of doing something, it is scary, I can assure you it is – because what ends up happening is every single issue requires a complete rebuild once they hit a bottleneck - that is time and money.

Doing it right the first time

From my wealth of experience, I have rarely had to rebuild anything I have built myself because of the time taken to understand what I am doing in the first place. However, in many cases I have had to rebuild what others have done because it becomes evident that certain omissions in the construction process are critical to the operation or performance of that environment and that omission cannot be corrected in live systems.

I am sometimes left completely exasperated by the lack of meticulous application of technical expertise in some of these places, I take my time because my philosophy is what is worth doing at all is worth doing well - the first time.

Yes, he did

Anyway, I was called by the project manager again today to arrange another meeting with the technical people and somehow they had tried to call me a couple of times during the day, well, the reason why I had not gotten the call was because the tinkerer had transcribed my number wrongly.

So, we chatted and I had to get the first bit of information out of him, indeed, he had edited the template directly – I simply said, I cannot believe that you edited the XML file, anyone should know that an automatically generated file is not there for tinkering.

Basically, even if you can identify the elements that need changing, there is no telling what other related elements are linked by coded or encrypted values, but in true cowboy fashion, he had edited the file and corrupted the environment.

Now, there is no way how I could then engage in a conversation with this tinkerer on the level of an experienced and learned technician with the expertise to distinguish himself properly.

And indeed, the conversation did get to a point where he remonstrated that he had not just started working with these environments and I was getting irritated with what was turning out to be an abject waste of my time.

The impossible question

By the time we got to the end of the conversation, he wanted to know if he could trust the environment he had built, well, I trust the environment I built, I trust the use of templates to transfer settings and I trust my ability to leave black boxes alone if I decide to use wizards to perform otherwise time-consuming activities.

I could not vouch for his skills or expertise and in the end, he decided I was not helpful at all, I am glad it ended that way because I would be an idiot to vouch for the kind of stuff he had been doing.

I called the project manager and gave him a piece of my mind asking that next time I would rather converse with others with constrained cowboy tendencies whilst intimating him of the fact that my time had really been wasted almost unforgivably.

Some so-called administrators should never be let near critical infrastructure for the sanity of the bigger world.

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