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How Much Does A Painter Earn?

There’s a moment. For just the briefest instant when you think you can catch yourself. Your brain scrambles desperately for a solution. It thinks,

Sure, I might be able to save this.

It hasn’t caught up with your body which knows it is going down. And going down hard.

My brother fell off the roof. I think we’ve all fallen off the roof at one time or another. If we were 10, and he slipped and landed on the lawn then maybe there’s a lecture from Mom. Worst case often a trip to the hospital and a cast to show off at school.

My brother wasn’t ten when he fell off the roof. And he didn’t land on the lawn.

When a 220 lbs man hits cement one of those things is going to yield and it won’t be the concrete. When a business owner, and father of 2 pancakes on the driveway, you start to worry about lifetime quality of life.

Did you know that the personal assets of a business owner, or even a senior manager are typically protected from litigation? So, you can sue Joe’s Automotive for screwing up your power steering pump, but you cannot go after Joe’s personal assets. They are protected. Except in one case: payroll taxes.

See, if you as a manager fail to pay taxes for your employees, the state and the feds can come after you personally. It’s one time where the senior manager is exposed to personal risk.

While running Agile Studios as the EVP, we switched accountants. We were a small shop of about 10 people. We weren’t quite big enough to really need on-site bookkeeping, but we were too big for my boss (or worse, ME) to do it in his garage.

I found a company that would process our payroll and make sure all the taxes were out and make sure the employees were getting their checks or direct deposit or whatever. The charge for this service wasn’t huge, but as a small business you try to make every penny count. Our receptionist spoke up,

I could probably do payroll. I mean, I’ve taken some accounting classes. It’s totally something I could handle.

I talked to my brother. Him of the falling off the roof fame. He’s a CPA. And he runs a CPA firm.

Rodney, you have be really carefully. If your receptionist screws up the payroll taxes the government will come after you personally. They’ll assume you were conspiring to defraud your employees.

He recommended we go with the payroll processing company, because not screwing up payroll was one of the things they were supposedly good at. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been in business.

The lesson was the same one my dad used to in talking to my brother after the roof incident.

Why were you on the roof?

I was painting and I slipped.

How much do you think a painter makes?

I don’t know. . .$20 / hour maybe.

And in your role as owner of Bliss & Co CPA firm, how much do you make?

More than that.

See the point?

In project management we call that risk/reward tradeoffs. How much would a mistake cost me? In the case of my brother it could have cost him everything. How much do I need to spend to mitigate my risk? In his case $20 per hour.

At Agile studios the risk was personally facing financial ruin. How much did we have to pay to mitigate that risk? A modest processing fee every month.

Money well spent.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

The Stairway Crew

I used to work in a very tall building. The tallest building in Salt Lake City.

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(Photo Credit: wn.com)

It’s over 20 stories tall. A friend challenged me to “run the stairs” with him. I kept up with him although I lost count of how many stairs after about 220. However, the next day I couldn’t walk, my calfs were that cramped up.

The building I work in today is 4 stories. My desk is on the 4th floor. I don’t take the time to exercise like I should, so I decided I’d start taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

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My building has 75 stairs. In the beginning I’d have to stop between the 3rd and the 4th floor. I can now make it up three flights of stairs without stopping.

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Yes, I’m also pretty disgusted that I used to be about to over 200 and now 75 is a major accomplishment. I used to be young once too! I discovered something I never expected while taking the stairs.

I live 30 miles from my office in South Salt Lake. It takes me about 40 minutes to drive it. Utah highways are known for higher speed limits than many other parts of the country. (Several stretches of highway are 80 MPH.) We don’t let the higher speed limit keep us from speeding anyway. But, have you ever noticed that when you speed, you are the only car going that fast?

It’s a lie of course.

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When we drive, we notice the cars blowing past us, and we notice the slow pokes driving the speed limit in the left lane. But, we don’t ever notice the cars that are matching our speed. Well, if they are right next to us we do, but if they are a half mile ahead or behind? We never see them, and it’s easy to think they aren’t there.

Here’s where I see this relating to business.

In any organization there are those managers that are on the fast track. It seems they just started and they are already being promoted. They are new and they immediately get assigned the biggest, most important account. During my brief foray with the military (Business Lessons From the ROTC) we called them high speed, low drag officers.

We also notice those in an organization that are simply not pulling their weight. Typically, it’s because they are keeping us from accomplishing the things we need to. “What do you mean it takes 6 weeks to get a change ordered?”

And of course, we notice our coworkers who’s careers seem to pace ours. “You just got your PMP? I sit for mine next week.”

The ones we don’t notice are those people in the organization who are matching our speed, but are not physically close to us. These are some of the most important people in the organization and often the least understood or appreciated. Napoleon, and several dozen other military leaders noted that “an army travels on its stomach.” But, they don’t give Medals of Honor to the cook. But, you should.

I touched on this in They Switched To A Cash Prize And Totally Blew It. Make sure you recognize those who are doing their job, and doing it well. If we only reward the star achievers, we risk alienating our rank and file.

During a recent period of tight deadlines and high stress at work, I was on a conference call with our management team. I brought up the work our desktop engineer was doing.

Clark is totally swamped. . .

That doesn’t help me Rodney. I need to know what he needs. We’re all totally swamped, but unless I know what he needs help with, that does me no good.

Well, all I was going to say was that he’s putting in tons of extra hours. I think an email from one of you with some words of encouragement would go a long way.

The managers did, and it did.

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Heading into the stairwell yesterday I noticed one of my coworkers from the 4th floor coming down the stairs.

You’re a member of the stair crew too?

Yeah, I don’t walk up them as much as I should, but I try to walk down.

Like I said, you end up thinking you are the only one driving this speed.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

What Goes Where?

We’re getting there. We’ve got two more hoses to hook up, then attach the pulley, fill it with fluid and bleed the air out of the lines.

As I write this, it’s 12:15 AM. I normally write much earlier in the evening. We’re not done yet. Or, more accurately THEY’RE not done yet. My extremely helpful neighbors are replacing the power steering pump in my car. I’m not a mechanic, but thanks to a grandfather who was a junk dealer, I have a lot of tools.

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(The biggest of several tool chests.)

Starting last night about 6:00 PM, my neighbor and I started to replace a bad power steering pump. Three hours later, another neighbor stopped by to help. An hour after that my neighbor’s two sons finished work and came straight to my house to help. And they worked well into the night.

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You might wonder why. I know I do. . .regularly.

Sometimes people are just willing to help. The bigger the issue, the more they thrive on helping. And they never take a dime in payment. They are deeply religious people. They feel if they accept payment for their service, the it’s not really service to God and they have less expectation of him blessing them. In other words, they have their reward.

Right now, some of you are saying, where can I find neighbors like this? Well, there are some houses for sale in my neighborhood. But, you don’t need to move to Pleasant Grove to experience the kind press of people. The first step is to be the friend you wish you had.

I can’t say that we are as good of neighbors as our friends are, but we certainly attempt to be.

I also wanted to talk just a little about how a mechanic works. My neighbors essentially rebuilt this car. (Free Like A Puppy.) but, they had never replaced the power steering pump. So, how do you do it?

The internet.

They printed the instructions and then used what they already knew about cars to figure it out. It’s not an exact science.

So, what comes off next?

I’m not sure, but it think we need to take this piece off to find out.

Taking it apart always take much longer than putting it back together. They simply remember where stuff went and put it back after fixing it. A similar concept applies in IT.

If everything worked as designed, none of us would have jobs.

My friend David (heartmindcode.com) was annoyed at my post And Sometimes You Just Get Lucky. He pointed out that “luck” can’t be taught, can’t be practiced and it cannot be developed. Instead, what we call luck, is a lifetime of experiences that helps us to look at a network prompt and spot the number that seems out of place, or look at a power steering pump and figure out how to take it out and how to put it back.

They’ve now finished. They packed up their tools and headed back across the street. Tomorrow, they’ll be back asking me how the power steering is doing and is there anything else that needs to be fixed on the car.

Thanks to each of them for a well trained puppy.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT across the street from the greatest neighbors in the world, with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Making A One In A Million Shot

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Great shot kid, that was one in a million.

It’s one of the most famous lines from one of the most famous movies of all time. But, do things like that happen in real life? (Well, not flying an X-Wing fighter against a Death Star, I’m pretty sure we aren’t to that stage of real life.) But, the idea of making that one in a million shot?

There have been plenty of last second game winning shots. Even shots against incredible odds.

But, what about you. Have you ever made a one in a million shot?

I did once. And not only did I make it, my friend Dean made the same shot at the same time. To this day, I still cannot believe we made it.

Many offices I’ve worked in reward bad behavior. I’ve known people who intentionally created a crisis so that they could be the hero and fix it. (How To Screw Up. . .Badly) In the software business the worst example of this hero concept is the programmer who holds back his most critical code. Then, at the 11th hour, he miraculously creates a solution that saves the day.

The problem in this case is that it was his job all along. He was supposed to be good at his job. That’s presumably why he got hired. I tend to heap as much praise on my team as I can reasonably get away with. (Tell Them It’s All About You, Make It All About Them.) But, I try not to reward people for doing their job poorly and then “fixing” it.

I’m suspicious when people work late. Once or twice to meet a deadline? Sure. Everyone does that. But, week after week? Deadline after deadline? I think “Either you’re sandbagging, or you’re just pretty terrible at forecasting how long something will take you to complete.

I hold myself to this same standard. If I can’t get my work done in a normal week (i.e. 50 hour per week, let’s be honest here), I start to look at my job and my skills. One of them doesn’t match the other. And it’s MY job to let my management know.

Still, if you attempt to do your job well, there are occasions where you end up being the hero. Where you make that one in a million shot that wins the contract, or saves the account, or solves a technical issue that no one except you could have solved. (And Sometimes You Just Get Lucky.)

My friend Dean and I had spent the day being observers for a yacht race. The captains had to steer a particular course through Puget Sound and hit each maker at an exact time. Dean and I were there as a group of observers to make sure no one on the boat consulted a watch or a clock. How a couple of high school kids got picked for this duty is still a mystery to me.

After we were done, we called our friend Danny to come and pick us up at the dock in Olympia, WA and give us a ride home. Danny drove a 1965 Ford Mustang.

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(Not Danny’s actual car. Photo Credit: Paintref.com)

While we were waiting, We headed to the grocery store next door for something to eat. Have you ever tried raw sugar cane? Neither had we.

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(Photo Credit: thescienceofacne.com)

We each bought a six inch stalk. I’m not sure what we expected, but it was pretty much like chewing on a piece of NorthWest timber. We couldn’t get any taste at all from it. We were still working on it when Danny showed up. Dean got into the passenger seat and I took the seat directly behind him.

Getting anything, Dean?

Nah, you?

Splinters. Hey, Danny drive past a garbage can so we an throw these away.

We were driving through downtown Olympia on a typical busy Saturday. Up ahead on the right we spotted a city garbage can on the corner.

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(Photo Credit: Future Kits)

It had openings on all sides. But they weren’t very big openings. Danny made a right turn and Dean and I let fly from 20 feet away at this garbage can. We assumed that even if we missed the can, the chances of us hitting any of the pedestrians waiting for the light to change was minimal.

Both shots flew true to form. We each neatly targeted the roughly 8″ opening. Two direct hits that landed with a loud CHUNK inside the plastic can. The woman standing next to the can nearly jumped out of her skin.

I don’t know if any of us had the presence of mind to quote Han Solo. The movie had come out a couple years earlier. But, we knew that we had hit a one in a million shot, and then we went home.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Anatomy Of A Technical Error

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3:30 AM – Jamie, how does our file look this morning?

This is a message I’ve sent off every morning for the past week. And yes, I actually get up at 3:30 AM to send it. Bleary-eyed I stared at my monitor and considered how I managed my project so poorly that I’m stuck getting up in the middle of the night to babysit a file upload process. The life of a Project Manager is just full of excitement.

Last week, I talked about the challenges we had getting a file uploaded to our customer’s FTP site. (Not My First Rodeo.) I thought I’d walk you through how that process came about. Sometimes the simplest things turn out to be the hardest.

I’ve known for several weeks that one of my deliverables (yes, that is actually a term we use in Project Management) was to send my client a list of licensed agents every day. This wasn’t a noteworthy task. In fact it was one of about two dozen that I had to complete to be able to successfully launch our new site on July 15th. Getting an automated process set up to send this type of file isn’t hard. The client sent us the information about what the file was supposed to look like, the format. I passed that on to our database team and didn’t think about it too much.

Around July 1st, we started looking at testing our file. This is where the first red flag showed up. I didn’t realize it was a red flag at the time. In fact, it sort of looked like a pale yellow flag.

Rodney, we didn’t get an actual schema file from the client.

Okay. . .

That means I don’t know exactly how they want the file to look. I’m just going to make my best guess.

That’s fine, we’ll figure it out during testing.

I didn’t realize what a mess I had just walked into. Not only walked into it, but I brought my database team along with me. We started our testing and the first step was to upload our test file to our clients FTP site. FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. It’s a special web site that acts like a file folder. We had to put our files onto the client FTP site. We immediately ran into issues. Just like you have multiple folders on your hard drive, or in your email, an FTP site can have multiple locations. And you don’t want to store a document in your My Music folder. We worked through which folder to store our file in. It was a process that took several days before we got it right.

Rodney, it looks like we have successful received your file.

So, is there anything else we need to do?

Nope. You are golden.

Falser words were never spoken, but none of us realized it at the time. After the testing, we had to start sending real data, the actual names of our agents, three days before we went live. So, we needed to start sending real data to the client no later than the 10th. Oh, and these files had to arrive by 5:00 AM Central Time. The day before our deadline we uploaded the file at 4:30 AM just like we had done during our testing, except this time it had real customer data. I wasn’t awake for it. I hadn’t yet started my babysitting duties.

Rodney, your file failed.

What was wrong with it?

It’s all about spelling. . .check your spelling.

Huh?

That was the actual feedback I got. We were about to miss a key milestone date. Project Managers absolutely HATE missing dates. We’ll do almost anything to avoid being late. I huddled with my team early Wednesday morning. We looked at our test files that had blessed as “golden.” We compared them to our production files. They appeared exactly the same. Here’s a hint, although we didn’t know it at the time. One of our files was named:

Daily_Licence_File_.xml

You might think that file has a misspelling. Well, if you live in the US you might think that. Readers in the UK, or India (where the developers who created the file worked) know that there are actually two spellings of what we in America refer to as license.

License – A verb meaning to grant someone a certification allowing them to do something
Licence – A noun. The actual certification that the person received

Because we failed Wednesday morning, I was out of time. My next file upload was Thursday and that one had to be right. What does “had to” mean? If I missed that date, then we couldn’t launch our site. Meaning that everyone involved in the months long project would look at me and ask why I screwed up. More importantly there was a $50,000 per day fine for everyday that we were late launching our new site. I HAD to make the Thursday file work.

Yeah, Jamie since we failed this morning, I’d like to schedule some time with your tech teams today. I want to upload a copy of our file every two hours. You tell us if we’ve fixed all the problems.

I’m sorry Rodney, we really don’t have that kind of time during work hours to devote to this.

Okay, how about a meeting this evening around 8:00 PM?

No, we’ll be in our maintenance tasks by then. Just fix the issues and upload the file tomorrow like normal.

Right.

The team scrutinized the file. We read through all the documentation we’d received. We looked at the sample file formats the client had sent us. And I set my alarm for 3:30 AM Mountain Time. (Actually, I didn’t set my alarm. From the time I was a kid I’ve been able to wake up at a specific time. So, I set mental alarm clock to 3:30.)

Whoever came up with the phrase “bright and early”? Not someone who had to get up at 3:30 AM and try to find their way around their house in the dark so as not to wake up my family. I finally got to my office, closed the door, turned on the light. Turned OFF the light. Ow, that light was bright.

How’s our file look this morning?

It failed again. Rally your team. We are now in crisis mode.

I started waking people up. Fortunately half the team is in India where it was 3:00 pm in the afternoon, but the Utah team was asleep.

We spent the rest of the day on it. And then the next day. And then a good portion of the weekend. The problems we eventually discovered:

- The file had the wrong name. We wanted the American spelling, not the British
– The file was encoded wrong. We were using Unicode(16bit) and they wanted UTF-8. (This means that we were sending an extra space character after each of our characters
– We had the file capitalization wrong because our client was using Unix. On Windows, you can name a file using any combination of uPpEr or LoWeR case, and the receiving system just figures it out. On a Unix system, you must match the filename exactly, including capitalization. It’s like your password in that sense.

So, what about all that testing we had done early on? The “golden” test? Turns out we were only testing the ability to upload a file, not the filename or any of the content. If you’ve read this far, and if you’ve paid attention, you have to be wondering about that $50K/day fine. Was Rodney going to get socked with that?

The client decided that they really, really wanted us to open our new site on time. We sent them the names that we weren’t able to upload in the file and they entered them manually. Finally, Tuesday morning, July 15th we successfully uploaded a file. The team was hugely relieved. It shouldn’t have been this tough.

Turns out we lowered our guard too soon.

I was on site at our new location (As I described in When Cops Interrupt Your Conference Call.) The client came in Wednesday morning. And she didn’t look happy.

What’s wrong?

Can you guys really not upload a file successfully two days in a row?

You’re kidding.

Nope. You’re trying my patience here Rodney. This shouldn’t be that hard.

Okay, I guarantee the file will be there tomorrow and it will be correct. I’ll see to it personally. If it’s not there you can yell at me.

Oh, I’m going to yell!

She was smiling when she said it, but she was also serious. So, for the past week, I’ve gotten up every morning and checked in with the India team.

Did the file upload successfully?

Yep. Looks good.

I’ll let you know if the client has any issues with it.

Today marks a full week of uploading our file. And tomorrow I’m going to sleep in. . .until at least 7:00am!

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Gee, I Wish I Could Do That

Thanks for calling WordPerfect Support. My name’s Brian. How can I help you?

Brian wasn’t your typical support operator. In fact, Brian wasn’t a support operator at all. Brian was the lead developer for WordPerfect’s email program. We had just shipped version 3.0 and Brian came down from the mountain to spend a couple of hours hearing how people were using the product. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a mountain, but the programmer’s building was literally up the hill from the support buildings. A large canal separated “them” and “us.” Most of us had never even met one of the programmers.

Brian’s response to customer issues was also not your typical response. I won’t say that we learned by his example, at least we didn’t learn support techniques.

The famous French queen Marie Antoinette was informed that her subjects had no bread. Her response reportedly was,

Then let them eat cake.

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And thus a revolution was born.

With software, if you want to know how a program is supposed to work, ask the developer. If you want to know how it actually works, ask a tester. If you want to know how people are using it, ask a support operators.

I once approached a programmer in the WordPerfect cafeteria.

Paul, I had a call today from someone getting the error, “Header File Full.” Any idea what might be causing that?

Wow. We never expected anyone to ever even see that error message.

Such was the life of a WP support operator. We almost never got to see or talk to the programmers. And now, here was Brian sitting in our midst taking calls from customers.

I think I understand your issue Mr. Smith. And we’ll be changing that in the first service pack.

THAT was his answer to some of our most challenging issues? “I’m the programmer, so I’m going to fix it.” It wasn’t even a great answer for the customers. The next service pack might be months away, and in the mean time they have a program that doesn’t work the way they need it to.

As support operators we were constantly looking for ways of configuring the current product, given it’s limitations to solve customers current problems.

The lead programmer on the other hand, had the option of baking the breadless customers a cake.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

I Should Have Made That Look Harder

Rodney, before you go, do you have a wrench that will fit down my garbage disposal?

Maybe. . .Let me see it. Why do you want a wrench to fit down your garbage disposal?

There’s a screw that’s loose and I think it needs to be tightened.

Well, there are supposed to be moving parts.

Yeah, well it’s making a weird noi. . .

Fixed it.

. . .

I maybe should have made that look a little harder, huh?

I’ve spent 25 years in the software and IT business. My first program was recorded on cassette tape. And yet, given the choice, I would much prefer to get my hands dirty building or fixing something. I’ve been helping a friend remodel a house in Provo for the past several months. I stripped a basement room to bare walls and complete rebuilt it.

In the story above I was helping another friend. He’d called the “In an emergency, when you call today, we come today” guys and it was an emergency and they didn’t come. He needed a new toilet installed. I’ve replaced quite a few.

The worst part about changing out a toilet is what’s called the wax ring. It connects the toilet to the drain. I’ll spare you the pictures. It’s no fun to replace. But, if you’ve never done it, you have no idea where to even start.

I was just putting the finishing caulk around the base of the new toilet when my friend asked me about his garbage disposal. He explained it had been making a rattle noise for weeks. In his limited experience the solution was a “loose bolt.” That wasn’t the problem. In fact, I’ve never heard of a bolt inside the disposal becoming loose.

I literally fixed the problem in 5 seconds. We laughed about it, but it reminded me that sometimes it’s important to make something look harder than it is. And not for the reason you think.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant physicist who helped build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the Second World War. He was also an amateur safe cracker. He made a game out of cracking the combination locks on the scientists’ filing cabinets. He had a strict rule whenever he was asked to break into a colleague’s filing cabinet. He always worked alone. The only tool he required was a screw driver that he always had to retrieve from his office. The same office where he had been storing a list of every combination lock he had previously deciphered on the base.

Once in the office, Feynman would quickly open the filing cabinet and then sit for 20 minutes reading a magazine. He realized that the longer it took him to open the cabinet the more impressive it looked to his coworkers.

WordPerfect (Back To Where It All Began) was one of the first programs to experiment with locking files. Their document password algorithm wasn’t particularly sophisticated. (Kind of like their email password (Forget You Ever Knew How To Do That.)) Whenever you have a program that will set a password, you will have people who forget that password. WordPerfect would allow people to send in their files and WP would unlock them for them. In the days before the internet this was a process that might take weeks.

And wherever there is a potential business opportunity there will be a company to step in and fill the need. A couple former WordPerfect employees wrote a simple little app to unlock WordPerfect password protected documents. For fifty bucks, they’d send you the program on a floppy disk. I don’t know the algorithm, but I know it was very simple and very fast. In the days of slow computers, the password breaker program could unlock a password in less than 3 seconds.

The programmers added in a delay of about 30 seconds. Thirty seconds is a long time when you are waiting. The program would show a spinning disk and say something like “Processing – Please Wait.” Why the delay if the program already broke the password in the first three seconds?

Perception.

For fifty bucks you want a program that is going to do something hard. If the results popped back right away, people would feel like they overpaid. It’s strange when you think about it. We don’t pay for results, we pay for the experience. The password guys made good money for a long time.

As for my garbage disposal friend, this was his problem.

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A tiny rock had found its way into his disposal. I assumed this was the problem based on his description of the problem. While he was still explaining his loose bolt theory I simply reached into the disposal and fished around with my fingertips until I found the rock I’d assumed was there. If I was charging him for the repair I probably should have made it look a little harder.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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