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Every Job Is Harder Than It Looks

October 29, 2013

Did you write all the green lines?

I wrote all the lines. . .the black ones were tougher.

We were at RESMARK offices in Orem. Brock, and Brad, the investors had decided that as a way of jumpstarting our product, we would buy a rival reservation system. This was small one written by one guy in California. We were in the process of vetting his code. He was in Utah showing us how his product worked. In addition to a traditional demo where he installed his application, he was also going into the code to show our programmers how he had built various pieces of the application.

Brad’s wife, as a shareholder for our sponsoring company was also at the briefing. At one point she interrupted the programmer with the question above. None of us would have thought to ask this question. The reason is that the green lines were comments. The black lines were the actual code that had to be written and tested. The green lines could include anything. I’ve used the comment lines, at times to add notes to myself explaining why I did something.

This episode has stuck with me for two reasons. First is the programmer’s response was delivered with a completely straight face. The rest of the programmers in the room were dying, trying to not laugh out loud. But, our guest didn’t even crack a smile.

But, the second and more important lesson was that to those unfamiliar with an area, it looks simple. The hard parts look as simple or as complex as the truly hard parts.

I attended a workshop a couple weeks ago with a world famous author who talked about writers who decide to switch genres because they think “writing trashy romance novels will be easy.” Or, dashing off a Young Adult novell should be simple. They invariably fail.

I’ve always tried to acknowledge the areas that I don’t understand and accept the fact that they could be really really difficult. I’ll typically tell my teams that

Everything I know about management, I learned from Dilbert’s Pointed-Haired Boss. So, anything I don’t understand must be simple!

They laugh and know that I get the fact that what they are doing is hard, and it’s probably harder to explain it to me than it would for them to do what they need to, and for me to trust them.

The ability to recognize how difficult all jobs are is especially important when you are dealing with other teams. Like the PHB, we tend to think that the other team’s job must be easier. And if they don’t give us what we want, it can’t be for a technical reason. It must be because they don’t want to help us.

That’s a dangerous idea. Better is to acknowledge that even though you don’t know why they didn’t give you an 8 GB mailbox even though you think they could, trust them on it. Remember that when you are looking at someone else’s code, it’s hard to tell the black lines from the green ones.

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

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