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How It Is

“Oh yeah. That’s a bug.”

When developers sound dismissive, don’t despair! It’s not disdain, but development.

“You’ve been saying you’re working on it for two years! How hard could it be?”

The post made my blood pressure rise a little. I was uncharitable, in my own mind, thinking Well if you know how to do it, why don’t you get off your whingy ass and do it? I was snippy, I was snide, I was … let’s face it, I was mean.

But I didn’t say it out loud. I stood up from the laptop and played a round of ping pong with a coworker who is a bazillion times my better (seriously, he’s great) and tried to learn to return spin-serves. I still can’t, but I understand them now. Then, refreshed, I went back and replied.

“I know it sounds really dismissive, but there are more things at play then just slapping a new coat of paint on the system. We have to take into account the following things [list]. On top of that, we have to do it all in a way that won’t crash the system and that’s backwards compatible!”

I looked at that for a moment and I sighed. No matter how I explained it, no matter which language I used to demonstrate the complications, the reply was still going to be ‘Don’t make an excuse, just fix it.’

Complex art

There’s a weird truth about software and development that is the people writing or fixing the code generally don’t get fired up about it in a reactionary way. That’s not to say they’re not passionate, or that I never see them angry or excited, but that they’re sort of a Cool Hand Luke about a lot of things, including their job.

From 1997 to 2012, I worked at a bank. I tapped out just shy of 15 years, and through that time I went from desktop applications to operating systems to server based desktop applications (remote apps) to server deployment. I did a lot. I worked on everything, but I was never what you’d call ‘tech support.’ I did support for developers for about 5 years. At one point, when I was working on the OS side of things, my manager asked if I could help one of the senior VPs with an email issue. I agreed, went to his computer, looked at it, calmly minimized the app, fixed the resolution (yes), and was about to go when they screamed.

“You closed my email!”

I blinked a few times, clicked on maximize, and pointed out I had only minimized it.

My manager apologized for over-reacting, but suggested next time I maximize before I leave the desk. I did not point out that what I was doing was not in my job description at all, but I did agree he had a point and said that I would be sure to leave the PC the way I found it, except fixed. This lesson stayed with me. When I fix your site, I try to leave it the way YOU wanted it.

The next day I had a complaint land in my lap, from the Sr.VP, that I didn’t take the issue serious enough. This was tacked on to the heels of another incident that, at the time, I’d forgotten about, where a server went down, people flipped out and called me, and I said “Uh huh, I see what’s wrong. *type* There we go. All better, I’ll fill in the ticket. Sorry about that.”

What was this complaint? I was too cavalier.

I did argue that complaint, and ‘won’ as much as anyone can, because I noted you don’t want the panicking person to run around and scream when they fix your broken stuff, you want them to be calm and collected. At the same time, I did learn something important, and that is people need to feel that you do empathize with them and feel their pain. I’m much better at that now than I was in 2001, but in the last thirteen years, I’ve blown my site up enough to know that level of terror in a visceral way.

But for the person who is having the horrible, no good, very bad, day, there’s a lesson for you too! Sometimes when someone says “Yes, we know.” or “Yes, we’re fixing that.” they can sound far more calm and casual than you are, to the point where they seem dismissive, not because they are dismissive, but because of their experiences. It’s the same logic behind anyone who handles high-stress situations regularly: we get used to it, and we have managed to overcome our panic.

What does all this have to do with the time you asked for a change and we said “We’re working on it?” We’re calm because we are working on it. We sound dismissive because we’ve said many times we’re working on it. We know we don’t have an answer and how much that sucks, but we know (and you know in your heart) that yelling at people to fix it now has never, in the history of ever, actually made someone come to that genius moment faster. Even critical bugs, like Heartbleed, are things everyone tries to fix as soon as possible, but not in a rush or a panic. And if they’re not critical, then we’re generally not going to rush and fix it unless we’re certain we can do it in a way that is safe for everyone, sustainable, and we agree with it.

That sounds like a lot, and it also sounds like an excuse. It’s not. If someone replies “Yes, we’re working on it.” it’s okay for you to ask “Is there anything I can do to help?” It also means you may have to accept that some annoyances are going to stick around for a long time, because they’re complicated, or maybe they require a total rewrite. But as long as they’re communicating with you, they’re not ignore you.

3 replies on ““Oh yeah. That’s a bug.””

Great post Mika, thank you for sharing. I’ve been in support since we had to teach someone how to get to their C:\ prompt so I hear you! It’s good to remember to sound sincere and real in my support responses. Obviously the users issue was enough that they elected to submit a ticket or email so that is the least I can do.

When asked the timeframe for pretty much anything, I drew from the teachings of Star Trek’s Scotty and padded the ETD; people thought I was a genius (fooled ’em).

James T. Kirk: How much refit time before we can take her out again?
Montgomery Scott: Eight weeks, sir — [Kirk opens his mouth] — but ye don’t have eight weeks, so I’ll do it for ye in two.
James T. Kirk: Mr. Scott. Have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four?
Montgomery Scott: Certainly, sir. How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?
James T. Kirk: [over the intercom] Your reputation is secure, Scotty.

@Leslie: I have a love-hate relationship with Scotty Math. I hate padding my estimates, but at the same time, being asked how long it will take to envision, imagine, conceive, develop, test and deploy something I’ve never done before is a pretty weird question.

“How long does it take to write a song?”

I don’t know!

It’s not that I think deadlines should be arbitrary, it’s that I think we should remember what we’re asking. It’s not like “How long will it take to hammer in a nail?” but “How long will it take to find the right nail in this box of nails and screws and make sure that the nail doesn’t cause my swing to fall down while the kids are on it?”

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