Just Tell Me What To Do

When I was an undergrad, there was this problem in one of the computer rooms: sometimes when I’d try to print a document, the printer settings for the computer would be all messed up. Students only had user access, so we weren’t able to fix the settings. So, I’d try the next machine, and usually the printer settings for that machine would be messed up too. And I’d have to go from machine to machine to machine trying to find one that actually worked.

Obviously, this was a hassle when it was 5 in the morning after working all night and the assignment was due at 8 and I just wanted to catch a couple of hours sleep before class.

So, I went to the department head and told him about the problem – computers kept having their printer settings changed. Now, the head of the department was no dope. This man flew on one of the Space Shuttle missions. And he looked me in the eye and said, “That’s nonsense. Students aren’t able to change printer settings.”

Imagine yourself flying on the Space Shuttle, traveling above the Earth when you notice that one of the engines looks like it’s leaking fuel. “Hey, other astronaut guy”, you say to the other astronaut guy, “it looks like one of the engines is leaking fuel.” And he turns to you and says, “That’s nonsense. Engines aren’t able to leak fuel.”

So, I said to him, “But, the printer settings are being changed. Maybe it’s not a student doing it, but the settings are being changed.”

He paused for a second and replied, “Why don’t we put up a big sign on the wall that says ‘Please DO NOT Change Printer Settings’?”

OK, image you’re back on the Space Shuttle, frantically flipping through the plastic folder containing the Space Shuttle registration, insurance information and owner’s manual. You find the entry for “Fuel Leaks, Engine” and it all it says is “In the event of a fuel leak, DO NOT change the fuel pressure!”

So, I asked the professor, “How about we allow students to change printer settings? That way, if a computer is having a printer problem, we can fix it ourselves.”

“That would never work,” he said.

Why not?

“Because then people would mess up all the machines.”

This is true story by the way, and I’ve always thought there are good lessons in here for solving a whole variety of problems.

First: Don’t deny reality. If someone tells you that it looks like engine is leaking fuel, maybe it’s leaking fuel (which would be a major problem for you). Or, maybe it’s leaking oil (which would also be a major problem for you). Or, maybe I’m just hallucinating it’s leaking fuel and you’re stuck in outer space with a psychopath who thinks he’s about to die (which, when you think about, would also be a major problem for you). The mere fact that the other person thinks there is a problem means that there is a problem. So don’t dismiss the situation offhand.

Second: Just tell me what to do. If I walk into the house carrying something messy and go to set it down on the newly washed kitchen floor, don’t say, “Don’t set that on the kitchen floor!” Instead, recognize that I’m setting the thing down because I have a problem: it’s heavy and messy and I don’t want this awful thing in my hands any more than you want it on the floor. Acknowledge the existence of my problem, not just your desire to avoid a new one for you. By helping me solve my problem, you are in fact solving your own. Instead of telling me what NOT to do, just tell me what TO DO. “Please put that on the garage floor” works better than “Don’t you dare set that on the kitchen floor.”

And, third: Give people the chance to fix their own problems. Don’t assume that the people you build machines or software for know less about their problems than you do. Your job is to help them solve their problems, not to solve their problems for them.

By the way, I can’t say there’s a happy conclusion to this story. To the best of my memory, the problem didn’t get solved and us students just muddled through to the end of the year.

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