Who Pray Tell is Jack Oprah: Missing pieces are easier to contend with than wrong ones.

As I peruse the articles I wrote over the past ten years, I am amazed in some cases how much I have changed.  This article, which amused me at the time, highlights the evolution in my career from putting out fires to serious consulting. -M

<October, 2006>I was in my favourite cafe this evening and noticed the barista had got up from the crossword puzzle over which she had been agonizing.  I walked over for a glance, and noticed immediately that it was replete with errors.

5 Across: Fat-Free Jack. Her answer: OPRAH.

I was amused because the middle three letters were obviously right, but instead of seeing if she could get more clues to help her, she just took any name that would fit, regardless of the consequences.

In IT we do this quite frequently.  We have a client whose systems just stopped working, and we will grab any solution that fixes our immediate problem, often to the detriment of the total final solution.  In some cases this is what the client wants – an immediate fix to the immediate problem.  The problem is that some of those filler solutions can cause greater problems later on, and if we do not take note of what we did we may find ourselves hunting for another quick fix to an immediate problem caused by these filler solutions.

I am as guilty as most, though when I get the system working I generally take the time to figure out what went wrong, and work towards a permanent (and best-practices) solution.  I admit to being quite successful with this approach… most of the time.

A colleague of mine refuses to work that way.  To him he would rather the client be down for 15-30 minutes longer, but when he is back up he can be sure that the problem is well and truly solved.  He and I have had a number of discussions on this, and it shows two different ways of looking at things: I will extend myself out on a limb, and he likes the CYA approach.  I am not saying one is more right than the other, I am only saying that different professionals can have fundamental differences in approaches and viewpoints, and respect each other without agreeing.

I suppose in a true emergency my experience has always been ‘now means now.’  It comes from my background, and it is very difficult for me to escape.  Internet is down?  Get it up.  Period.  Shortest distance is right, and smooth it out later.  I have a hard time telling clients ‘I could get to the bottom of the problem and you may be down for another 30 minutes’ when I can say ‘I’ll have you up as soon as I flick this switch, and when everyone goes home I will get to the bottom of the original problem so that it doesn’t happen again.’  Depending on the client I am sure I have gained or lost points for this approach.

The problem in IT is that when you just patch in a quick fix the real solution gets harder to see.  When I look at a crossword puzzle I look at the blank spaces and like most of us my eyes assume that the letters filled in are right.  Those wrong letters are not just missing pieces; they are bread crumbs leading down the wrong path in the forest.  We see them there, and if they are there then there’s a reason.  Unfortunately they are like a magician’s misdirection, designed to draw your eyes from the real issue at hand.

My advice to aspiring crossword puzzle solvers?  Use a fine pencil with a good eraser.  If you aspire to solving network connectivity issues, I suggest practice, training, and before you can take leaps to fill in the blanks, make sure you have the experience you need to un-leap yourself… a neat trick indeed until the client and his fifty employees who are all off-line and lurking over your shoulder learn to be patient with IT problems that they will probably never understand.

I am sure that someone out there knows someone whose name really is Jack Oprah, and I apologize to you.  For Jack Sprat, you will have to chase down my barista, and forgive her youth and inexperience.  I did when my cappuccino came with cinnamon instead of chocolate!


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