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And on the 8th Day G-d Created . . .

I bought my first personal computer in the early 1980s. I don’t really remember how much it weighed, but my memories would indicate well over 100 pounds. The crazy thing took up nearly the entire surface of my old oak desk. There was no such thing as ‘computer class’ when I went to high school, though I did take computer science in college and studied programming in Basic. I’m part of that generation that didn’t have computers . . . and then we did.

The computer was always fun for me. During a time (college) when my friends were starting to play video games (which were finally worth playing) I turned my attention to playing with the computer. There was really nothing you could do with the computer except make it do things. You couldn’t just run to any Best Buy (did they exist then?) or Target and buy an interior design software to plan your new house (my latest fun project). You could buy a basic spreadsheet program (Lotus 1-2-3), a basic word processor (WordPerfect) and a basic calendar/planner (Lotus Notes). Or, you could write your own programs.

The personal computer enabled me to work from home for three years in the mid-80s when I had my first child – something that very few people did at that time. I was so determined to have financial freedom that I investigated everything that machine could possibly do, learning a lot of programming tricks along the way. But what I really learned – what gave me a professional advantage that continues to this day – was what it takes to make a computer work. Not what it takes to run an application – our six-year-old can do that. But what it takes to make the applications themselves. I gained respect for the types of functions it was easy to make a computer do, and the types of functions that you could spin your wheels for years trying to automate but which ultimately were better done by just buckling down and knocking them out.

Over the years I have developed great respect for this wonderful invention. There is no doubt that computers have been programmed to do more flexible types of tasks than my imagination at the beginning or my skills even now would be able to conceive of. But mostly, computer improvements have been related to their ability to do things faster. And faster.

In my career I have encountered countless professionals who do not know how to make a computer do anything. They can make an application do something (with varying degrees of success), but that’s different than making a computer do something. So the computer has become a god, and not to its benefit. Think about it. We rail at G-d when things go wrong while simultaneously being in awe of G-d for all of that power we can’t understand. We expect G-d to do the impossible, to work magic, to be able to hand us solutions that we can not come up with for ourselves. Sounds like a computer, right?

I’m certainly not going to get into whether or not we have reasonable expectations of G-d – that’s a topic for a different blog. I am, however, going to point out that our expectations of computers are highly unrealistic. And unlike G-d, whose mysteries are genuinely beyond our understanding, the computer’s mysteries are not beyond our understanding. They’re not even mysteries.

I suspect that most businesspeople who do not understand computers simply do not want to understand computers. I’m not being entirely insensitive here – there are definitely some aspects of computers that are hard to wrap one’s mind around at first (and sometimes at second and third). And sometimes we have to shop around for a teacher that can lay it out for us in terms that make sense. Going from flat-file thinking to relational thinking can be a big challenge. But it is possible. It is necessary.

It has been a fairly regular experience of my professional career to encounter professionals who are terrified of the computers that run their business (or the programmers – or both), and as a result are terribly resentful of them. These are the same people who will come up with one cockamamie idea after another about what the computer should be able to do.  Ideas that are not based on logic (which is different than saying that the ideas are illogical, though this subtlety is apparently lost on a lot of folks).  Woe to the person who has to explain that what the unrealistic professaionl is demanding can’t be done, or can’t be done easily, or can’t be done economically. And the only possible route to understanding – the rational conversation that needs to take place – is impossible to have for the simple reason that the angry, thwarted professional does not understand how computers work.

This is not just a problem for the computer programmers, IT directors, and project managers of the world (though this group of professionals would certainly be happier if this problem could be solved). This is a problem for business. All business.

Imagine if the only people who could understand a financial statement were the financial people. OK, bad analogy – we have a lot of work to do there still. Um, imagine if the only people who could understand the concepts and dynamics of customer service were sales people. Imagine if customer service concepts were outside the scope of understanding of the people making the products, packing the boxes, and purchasing the inventory. Business simply could not function if the basic assumptions of customer service could not transfer across all departments, to be successfully interpreted within the scope of their particular work. Imagine if entire organizations simply turned to their sales people and said, “you’re the ones who understand the customer service magic thing – so please get this working for the rest of us so we don’t have to hate you.”

Ludicrous, right? Apparently not, because that’s what organizations have done and continue to do when it comes to effective use of computer technology.

I’m not sure what the corrective action should be (hey, this is a rant, and rants aren’t generally solution oriented). But we need to do something. As long as people don’t really understand how computers work, they will continue to underestimate the value and potential of computers while at the same time expecting things that are unrealistic. Sort of like we do with G-d? Right.

(c) 2008. Andrea M. Hill

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2 Responses to And on the 8th Day G-d Created . . .

  1. Bill says:

    “There is nothing like programming computers to clear up foggy thinking.” The above quote is from my departed brother who ran NSA for several years. I built my first computer from chips (integrated circuits) in the early ’70′s. No kit, I had to design it from scratch. Read-only-memory was made from diodes. Program and data entry were hexadecimal thumb wheels (one for the memory address and one for the data (or instruction) and a push button to put that data (or instruction) at the memory address. It took a month to understand how the computer knew the difference between a byte that was an instruction and one that was data. I turns out that the starting point (address) of a program is assumed to be an instruction, and depending on the instruction either the next byte or two are data. Anyway, I was able to get it to read a polyphonic keyboard, play the notes pressed on the keyboard, and record the notes and time in memory. Then by flipping a switch, I could play along with the music recorded. Big program – 29 bytes. Now I program in C# and get frustrated when the command I’m looking for is not in the right-click drop down list. Yes, Andrea, I agree with you and my brother – programming is a good exercise to improve logical thinking in all aspects of life and business.

  2. Deb says:

    I don’t think you’re being fair. This is like saying anyone can be a mechanical engineer. Or surgeon. Or multiple language translator. We don’t all have the same gifts. It’s not appropriate to expect we all should. Some people find computers extremely frustrating. But not because they haven’t tried.

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