Any Wino Theory: Half of all technical problems can be resolved by patiently explaining it to any wino.
AWT, as we’ll call it, is very much a product of a certain period of my career, but has proved of enduring usefulness. Here the back story:
I was working in Berkeley, California, and living in San Francisco, two cities that had -- and have still -- an enduring affection for the homeless. Both cities developed a fascination with street culture in the 60’s, where the homeless were there by choice, mostly middle-class kids performing embarrassing acts of self discovery, and many of whom moved on to have excellent careers in technology. By the time we reach the Reagan era 80’s, though, most homeless are drunks & drug-addicts, the mentally ill, misfits and street criminals. However, there are always just enough victims of bad luck and economics among the homeless to justify advocacy implying their failings are purely due to evil landlords and Republican ideology.
It’s one of the oddities of the Left Coast that we combine the highest intellectual pursuits and wealth-producing business endeavors with policies that allow these people to live with no dignity whatsoever. Buddhist-like, we are happy to meet the homeless poor, because they present an opportunity to offer alms, thereby earning merit for our next reincarnation, which allows some of us to bear the stench of excrement with equanimity. Unfortunately, not much has changed in this regard over the last three decades.
Also during the 80’s, tech development practices and management techniques were still immature, to say the least (whether we’ve improved at all by now is a topic for another post). There was just so much damned money flowing to anyone who could credibly code, cable or calculate required amps; labor economics were really on the side of the Workers. All our work was time and materials contracts, too, so you were well-paid for fixing all your bugs & mistakes. Liberal arts degrees, or none at all, were as common as engineering degrees. “Process” was a dirty word that implied the squashing of creativity and higher thought. “Code reviews” smacked of Big Brother. “Change Control” was the stuff of Fascism. “Testing” was only performed by ungrateful customers. “Management” was a suit or skirt who talked only to non-technical customers.
This left me, as a development lead, with a couple dozen direct employees happily cranking out code by the kilo-line, oft times fueled by lines of cocaine, well-paid, but wrapped in black-leathered Berkeley attitude, and working whenever the spirit moved them over a twenty-four hour day. I felt, at times, like I was the only thread keeping the possibility of a useful software product alive, and the work hours devoured me.
Now, I enjoy managing people and being a good listener, but I badly needed a triage technique if I was going to survive & succeed while still having a life of my own. So AWT was born of necessity. When the queue outside my door started to snake, and someone asked for guidance that required more time or mental capacity than I possessed at that moment, I’d instruct them to go ask some random other person for help, whether I thought said person could be helpful or not. In short, I blew them off.
Not being a believer in content-free management techniques, I of course afterwards felt guilty. But when I circled back around later to provide the help I didn’t have time to give, I discovered that many of their problems were now solved. But not usually via anyone’s actual help.
It seems that forcing a clear problem statement can induce the seeker to recognize a solution, and it doesn’t really matter who the interlocutor is. I was simply suggesting psychotherapy’s “talking cure” to my coders, but by discarding the therapist, I was saving much time and money. Ever since, my directive has been “go ask any wino”. There are still plenty of winos around, and they’re just as good as any engineer, especially when the real problem is: You haven’t stated the problem clearly to yourself.
In closing, let me note that if I applied AWT to this blog, I am the troubled seeker looking for advice. Which makes you, my reader, the Wino.
(Intelligent comments entitle you to a bottle of Thunderbird, my treat.)