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Does the Stupid Thing Work?

In the beginning there was humor

We have all seen them, all remember them - the IT office funnies. There was the Story of Creation as told to URK - a lovely reenactment of Genesis put together by hard-core mainframers. There was a document (prepared by individuals working in the defense industry) that had a hilarious list of acronyms, mostly defining the many ways that the worker bee was dumped upon. It was before Dilbert, before the blond jokes, even before we could IM each other with the latest classic comedy. It was simplicity itself.

The "Does The Stupid Thing Work" flowchart (see Figure 1) showed you in no uncertain terms how to cover your backside in case you were actually doing some work, showing some initiative, or attempting to be helpful. It was hysterical; I never worked in an office where someone did not either have it pinned to their cube, tucked into a file of humor, or passed around en masse. The problem is that over time it seems that we have adopted some of the ideals in this flowchart into real life.

A Title Is Worth a Thousand Pictures
At the top of the flowchart is the beginning question, the start symbol - with a neat and orderly A and B option flowing down from that initial query. Right off the bat, the attitude is that whatever it is your users have asked you to maintain, develop, or deploy is stupid. This is inherently true because the users who have paid you handsomely for your labor are themselves idiots. This is the first stumbling block to our success and longevity as IT professionals. They are not all stupid, and most of their ideas aren't. We tend to lean on our intelligence as logical programmers and analysts, and forget that without their business knowledge, we would simply be writing our opening PowerBuilder program that when clicked upon says "hello".

We have to remember to embrace our business team. They are the ones coming up with the projects that are keeping us in beans and rice, and they don't appreciate condescension. The starting point for this particular flowchart always seemed offensive in my view.

Yes It Does, or No It Doesn't
The branches before you now present the first challenge. If you follow the yes branch and it does work, then you are led to a process box that says "Don't Mess With It." This is certainly the safe play, and from a support standpoint (oddly enough) it could be the right one, if the application is perfect. Has the application been optimized for speed? Does it meet every single user requirement exactly as they want? Is every screen quick, effective, and aesthetically pleasing? I'm guessing not. It is possible, but I have seldom encountered the perfect app. Yes, I am showing my perfectionist programmer side, but there are always things to check. If nothing else, your version of PowerBuilder will become nonsupported in a few years, if it hasn't already. The safe play is to just keep supporting your users, but the wise play is to look for ways to make it better. If you don't mess with it, you are sent to the end statement, which is "No Problem!!!!" This may or may not be true.

Did You Mess With It?
If it doesn't work, the next question (truly the key to the whole ugly flowchart) is "Did You Mess With It?" Of course, the crux of the word mess is that you yourself may be incompetent and have done some damage. Guess what, gang, it happens. One of the many things we analysts do for a living is fix broken things. To fix that which is broken, sometimes we have to tear down the flow, break the system into its various parts, and find out what is wrong. You must mess with it, if it is broken. If you answer Yes to the Mess With It question, you're sent to another process box that says, "You Stupid Idiot!" Not only are you not a stupid idiot, you are truly doing what you are getting paid for.

The next question in the Yes branch is "Does Anyone Know?" If you follow the No branch, it leads you to the "Hide It!" process. Hiding our work is one of the truly dangerous moves that you can make. Don't do it; stand up and give a shout. Make yourself proactive and find help, find a way to bring your troubles into the team and make it better. Hiding it is one of the quickest ways onto the street. Of course, in the world of our horrendous chart, if you Hide It you go to the end and have, "No Problems!!!!" Nothing could be further from the truth.

If someone does know, and you follow the Yes box from the Decision tree, you are led to the "You Poor Fool!" process. While you may feel like a poor fool for a day or two, bringing broken things into the light of reality and the glare of the workbench is essential. You aren't going to hurt yourself with honesty.

The Blame Game
The next decision box after Poor Fool is a question, "Can You Blame Someone Else?" Here we have yet another macabre trap. If you are unable to blame someone else, you go into an endless loop in this flowchart, heading back up to the Poor Fool process, which again sends you trying to blame someone else. There is a certain prescient logic about making this an endless loop. We have all worked with blame dumpers - sadly they will always be with us and they do loop around endlessly. In our broken world, finding someone to blame leads you to the Nirvana of "No Problem!!!" and you again end sadly. Standing up for our mistakes takes courage, it takes resolve, and it always makes your path easier. The Japanese have a saying, "Fix the problem, not the blame." Too often we do neither.

What If You Didn't Mess with the Broken Item?
If you didn't Mess With It, then you are sent to one of the final decision boxes, which asks "Will You Get in Trouble?" This is yet another crux of the CYA thinking. If you will get in trouble, you are sent directly to the Poor Fool box so you can start looking for someone to blame. Inevitably, this is a course too often taken. If you won't get in trouble, the flowchart again prompts a cover up with the process "File-13 It." If you do toss it out, broken and blameless, you will be doing yourself and your customer a disservice. Certainly the cover up can lead to the glorious No Problem box in the end, and, of course, that is where the flowchart ends. But it isn't reality.

And In The End
The Shangri-La of every level of our witless flow is "No Problem" - and every means of getting there seems fraught with peril. Certainly the easy ways of doing nothing, blaming others, covering up problems, or discarding them completely seem to make sense at times. Most of us learned not to do these things as children, some of us later in life. The mentality that this flow chart exploits is one of weakened character. Don't let yourself get caught in it. We have come a long way since the '80s; hopefully we have learned to take responsibility for every line of code that we create, fix, or Mess With.

More Stories By Mike Deasy

Michael Deasy is an application specialist with the State of Washington. He has been working with PowerBuilder since version 3. Mike holds an MBA from Southern a senior systems analyst for the Williams from Southern Nazarene University.

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