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I am NOT a fricken magician.

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Being technically inclined is a bloody curse. Sure, there's the usual nightmare of relatives asking us to discard our holidays to "fix my slow computer" and such inanity. But that's tolerable, for the most part. Usually it's either so simple that you can earn a few extra brownie points and only miss 10 minutes of not-working, or complicated enough that you can gasp, stare at it wide-eyed, and proclaim with absolute certainty that you have no idea where to even begin.

The real killer comes after you've done something impressive in front of someone non-technical. Usually, this involves little trivial leaps of deductive reasoning that make utter sense to anyone technically inclined. We can see that it was a pretty simple conclusion, and that the result was borne out of a solid understanding of the systems involved. In most cases, it's so simple that we totally take it for granted.

But the evil truth is that the non-technical audience does not share our understanding of how simple it really was. All they see is that we have apparently done magic, and we made it look easy. They don't have the first clue what we're doing, so to them, what we've done is utterly inscrutable voodoo. We must have some kind of glorious mystical powers.

That's really not so bad, in itself - and in some cases it can be a nice booster for the ego. The problem is that it creates a false conception in the minds of the non-technical. They assume that because we have once done something which (to them) was utter magic, that any time there is some technical situation they don't understand, we can solve that, too.

Suppose a humble businessman (perhaps the proprietor of a pie shop) finds himself trapped in a subspace vortex, or some such pseudoscientific rubbish, and is teleported in his car back to the stone age. He finds himself surrounded by hungry cavemen who are eager to devour this new stranger. So he turns the keys, starts his car, and drives away from the lunatics, and reaches safety.

See, to modern people, that's pretty obvious - guy just drove his car. Big fricken deal. But to the cavemen, there has just been a whole lot of magic going on. So they hunt down the guy and make him a god - that's the good news. The bad news is, a pack of sabre-toothed tigers is about to eat everyone in the village. Counting eagerly on their newfound god for salvation, the cavemen thrust the pie-dude forward to greet the carnivores.

That's what happens when technical people work among non-technical people. I don't meant to insult or offend anyone by comparing them to cavemen, but that's really how drastic the separation is.

Suppose a programmer (let's call him Joe) gets handed some task with a set of crazy, disparate, and vague requirements. He quickly spots a common thread based on his understanding of the problem domain, finds a more generalized and elegant solution that the one requested, and manages to impress everyone; his version does precisely what is needed, and more, in less time than expected. It's a great solution. For a few weeks, he's the new god of the tribe.

Fast forward to the tiger attack, a.k.a. the next project. Someone comes up with this really big, scary thing that needs to get done. Remembering the last incident, they find Joe Programmer, and throw the project in his lap.

To the non-technical, it makes sense. Last time, they had a big scary problem that nobody understood, and Joe solved it. This problem is big, it's scary, and nobody understands it... that's right up Joe's alley!

The problem is, Joe doesn't understand it, either. The fact that he understood the first one so well was just random luck. Desperately, Joe tries to find clarity - better specifications, user stories, use cases, anything and everything he can get ahold of to help understand what it is he's supposed to be doing.

The pie-salesman stands before the crowd of cavemen, trying frantically to make them understand English, so he can ask them what the hell he's supposed to do about all the ravenous tigers coming his way. The cavemen hear pie-man's frantic yells, and interpret them as magical incantations. They watch him dance about in panic, and for all they know, he's doing a rain dance. When he runs to them, pleading for his life, they smile and shove him back towards the tigers, confident that he will save them all with his god powers.

Joe never does get his specifications. The users insist that he just "go do what we need" and never do provide any information. Frantic, Joe tries to study up on the problem domain on the Internet and his local dead-tree library; he barely scrapes together a half-functioning prototype, but the users give him odd looks and ask why he's wasting time instead of finishing what they wanted to see.

The deadline comes and goes, and Joe fails to deliver. The entire product is now at risk. A few weeks later, still with no sign of the magic deliverance they expect, the users become disgusted and leave. As clients abandon the product in droves, the department comes under intense scrutiny from upper management. Following a dismal quarter of record losses, the brass decides it's time to cut the fat, and dozens are laid off, including Joe's manager. Joe himself is spared, since people vaguely remember him as being some kind of hero; there is some controversy, since it seems pretty well agreed that he's responsible for all this mess (after all, it was his slippage that started it all), but he has enough supporters to survive.

Upon receiving the memo, Joe's manager despairs. He is found later that day in his office, having shot himself in the head. Two other employees of the department leap off the roof of the headquarters building later that week; one is paralyzed from the waist down, and the other dies before arriving at the hospital. In the ensuing investigations, dark secrets about various highly-placed members of the company come to light, and a series of scandals tears apart the upper echelon.

Eventually, the company files for bankruptcy protection, and lays off all but a few "mission critical" employees. Joe is among them, having since redeemed himself on a few projects when it really counted.

The company is finally close to posting its first profitable quarter in almost three years. They are hailed as the potential comeback story of the decade in such prestigious publications as Fortune and Forbes. To pull it off, they need only to deliver one final product to a particularly sticky client.

Joe is summoned for his magical programming wizard-abilities. After a four hour meeting with the client, he has no idea what he is supposed to be working on, how to accomplish it, or even what the client thinks the product is for.

On his way home, Joe is deeply depressed. Memories of his past experiences haunt him and torment him. Finally, unable to cope with the pressure, he leaps off the subway platform and is killed instantly by an arriving train.

In the aftermath of Joe's loss, the tigers surge forward into the throng of cavemen, who gathered to watch Joe deliver them from their doom. Shocked and confused, the crowd is rooted to the spot - not a single person runs. A few still smile as the tigers topple them to the ground; they still believe that the pie-man's death is just a ruse, a diversion. Their newfound god will rescue them all.

In a few short minutes, it is over. The CEO writes a hot check to try and buy airfare out of the country, but is arrested for fraud before he can board the plane. Within a week, the doors of the once-great software giant have permanently closed.

The heaping mound of slaughtered corpses rots slowly in the sun; and none live to tell the tale of what befell them.
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And, really, all Joe had to do was have a better manager to go to bat for him.

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Ugh... this entry somewhat reminds me of an old job. Someone couldn't get their email from the server because outlook was barfing on a message that had a few megs of pictures attached (this was awhile ago). So I googled for the appropriate RFC, connected to the POP3 server via telnet, and manually deleted the message - problem solved.

After that my productivity seriously dropped off... every time there was a problem computer related (no matter how minor) I got dragged off whatever I was working on and asked to fix it - even though I usually didn't have a clue as to how to fix.

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