Issues vs. Details

I have a simple guideline for real life interactions with others that carries over quite well on-line, “Deal with issues; ignore details.” 

It’s amazing how well this works in person, especially when trying to get something done. My number one question to another is probably, “Is that an issue or a detail?” We can almost always decide together which it is. Then, if it’s an issue, we deal with it, and if it’s a detail, we move on to the next issue. 

This has also saved me countless hours and aggravation on-line. If I post something and someone disagrees, I quickly decide whether or not it’s really an issue and only engage the other if it is. I realize that this is just a judgment call, but I’d estimate about 90% of on-line disagreements are just details. In these cases, I think it’s best to simply move on. 

How is an issue different from a detail?

Examples are everywhere. In fact, almost every human interaction is an example. Here are a few off the top of my head: 

Quality control rejected one program because it was indented 4 spaces instead of the standard 5, but accepted another, even though it had enough memory leaks to crash the server under certain conditions. The first was a detail; the second was an issue. It took me 2 days to get Q.C. to understand the difference. 

A friend recently arrived for a dinner party an hour late and then complained to me that another spoke with her mouth full. As far as I was concerned, the first was an issue and the second was a detail. My friend thought otherwise about both. 

Accounting recently spent 3 days implementing a new key policy for the private rest rooms (presumably to prevent theft) and then wrote off $50,000 of inventory because no one could find the proper paperwork. IMO, the former was a detail upon which much time was wasted and the latter was an issue that never actually got dealt with. 

We spent the first hour of a recent meeting trying to determine naming conventions, but ran out of time before we decided if the customer’s credit limit should be split between 2 divisions. Again, wasting time on details and not dealing with real issues. (This is a great example. One of the best ways to lose your shirt is to not deal with credit/collection/accounts receivable issues.) 

How do you put your skills to good?

Some of my days jobs have been to write software to ensure that:

- people get the right prescription medication on time 

- firetrucks and ambulances get to where they're supposed to be 

- parts that go into cars and planes are properly certified 

- prisoners are kept in jail 

- those same prisoners get proper medical care 

- electronic equipment gets assembled properly and on time 

- medical supplies get dispatched to where they're supposed to 

- insurance claims are processed properly 

- quality data is properly maintained for food items 

You don’t need to do charity work on the side in order to contribute to the greater good. 

On the other hand, if you don’t think that the work you do during the day contributes to the greater good, then maybe you should consider doing something else with your valuable time. 

Do good and get paid. You can do both at the same time. 

My Favorite Business Quotes

Attitude determines outcome. - Jim McGraw, COO of Marion Laboratories 

Be the first, be the best, or be different. - Jacyln Easton 

Chance favors the prepared mind. - Louis Pasteur 

Elegance is for tailors. Don’t always believe in the numbers. There is always room for human judgment. - Albert Einstein 

Great ideas come into the world as gently as doves. - Albert Camus 

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is, I don’t know which half. - John Wanamaker 

I do not love the money. What I love is the making of it. - Philip Armour 

I guess we can make them, although we never have. - Benjamin Franklin Goodrich 

I never gamble. - J. P. Morgan 

A man to carry on a successful business must have imagination. He must see things as in a vision, a dream of the whole thing. - Charles Schwab 

If I could get $25,000, I would spend $24,000 on advertising, the remainder in making Coca-Cola. Then we would all be rich. - John Pemberton 

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the axe. - Abraham Lincoln 

The best way to really enter minds that hate complexity and confusion is to oversimplify your message. The lesson here is not to try to tell your entire story. Just focus on one powerful differentiating idea and drive it into the mind. That sudden hunch, that creative leap of the mind that “sees” in a flash how to solve a problem in a simple way, is something quite different from general intelligence. If there’s any trick to finding that simple set of words, it’s one of being ruthless about how you edit the story you want to tell. Anything that others could claim just as well as you can, eliminate. Anything that requires a complex analysis to prove, forget. Anything that doesn’t fit with your customers’ perceptions, avoid. - Jack Trout

If you’re going to lose money, lose it. But don’t let ‘em nose you out. - Gustavus Swift 

If you love an idea, that is good. If you have ideas as to how to work it out, that is better. - Henry Ford 

It’s a barrier to entry because you’re shooting at a moving target. - Bill George, CEO, Medtronics 

Name the greatest inventors. Accident. - Mark Twain 

Nothing, not all the armies of the world, can stop an idea whose time has come. - Victor Hugo 

Perceived truth is more powerful than truth itself. - Michel Fortin 

Purchasers are made, not born. - Henry Ford

Success depends on how you react to unexpected opportunities. - Ross Perot

The ancestor to every action is a thought. - Ralph Waldo Emerson 

The march of improvement in any given field is always marked by periods of inactivity and then by sudden bursts of energy which revolutionize existing methods sometimes in a day. - George Eastman 

There was never a great character who did not sometimes smash the routine regulations and make new ones for himself. - Andrew Carnegie 

Think a lot. Say little. Write nothing. - J. P. Morgan 

If first an idea is not absurd, it has no hope for survival. - Albert Einstein 

To lead people, walk behind them. - Sun Tzu 

We study the methods of improving our business as we would a science. We imitate no one. - A. Montgomery Ward 

We took what was a luxury and made it into a necessity. Our only advantage was lack of precedent. - Henry Ford 

We want character to go with our goods. And 16 ounces is a Swift pound. - Louis Swift

What others could not or would not do we would attempt, and this was a rule of business which was strictly adhered to. - Andrew Carnegie 

What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends upon what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality. - Gary Zukav 

You can’t get wet from the word “water”. - Alan Watts 

You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. - Albert Einstein


Levels of Pissedoffedness

Level 0: You don’t know that anything is wrong. You just think that’s just the way it is. 

Level 1: You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do about it, so you just go along with the program. 

Level 2: You know what to do about it, but aren’t yet able to do it. So you stick it out, learning as much as you can. 

Level 3: You know what to do about it and you are capable of doing it. Now you’re really pissed off (mainly at yourself) because you’re a fish out of water, in a place where you don’t belong. 

Level 4: You do something about it. You challenge the people at work to fix things. You start fixing them yourself. Or, best yet, you just go out and do it right on your own. Either way, sweet relief.

Get to Level 4. The days of pissedoffedness will soon seem like a distant memory.

(I have been through this cycle many times, but now I’m at Level 4 and have no intention of ever going back.) 

Do you think you have peaked?

Not even close. 

30 years of programming and my best code has always been my most recent. I just keep getting better and better with no end in sight. And I love it. As far as I’m concerned, there’s absolutely no reason to believe the hypothesis of peaking and declining. Not me, that’s for sure, and not most of the people I know in their 40’s and 50’s. 

In this way, we are “not” like athletes at all. I remember watching Michael Jordan when he played for the Wizards, riding the staionary bike to keep loose during timeouts. What a pity, I thought, to be at the top of your game, then a shadow of yourself just 5 years later.

 We programmers are not like that. Just take care of yourself and you don’t have to level off until you would have anyway. All the new technology and opportunities keep the field fresh. And the people, too. 

How do you feel about competition?

One thing bothers me about this whole WorkHard / WorkSmart / BeProductive meme: it focuses too much on “the competition”. 

I know my approach is heresy in some parts, but bear with me… 

I understand that there’s always “some” potential competition, but I choose to not pay much attention to it. The only thing I compete with is another version of myself in another universe. “What would that other Ed have done?” 

And that’s awfully hard to measure. I’ve tried all kinds of metrics to keep my projects going, but the only one I use now is how much progress I make each day on my most important task. Pretty subjective. 

I have seen tons of good software and services and have done a lot of work deploying them. What invariably happens is that there is no solution for something the consumer wants, so that’s what I write. I like to think, “If I had good competition, I would just go out and sell it for them. But since I’m writing something no one else has, I won’t worry about competing with anyone but what I would have been.” 

This may sound a little silly, but it works for me. Provide something that no one else is providing and working harder or smarter than the competition suddenly doesn’t mean so much. I just have to be a whole lot smarter and better than doing nothing at all.

How do you find inspiration?

“Tell me about how you launched a billion dollar company from your apartment with stolen office chairs and I’m there. Tell me how you really like pointers, and I sort of lose interest.” 

Thank you. I thought I was the only one. 

95% of the time I program. 5% I conduct business. 

But for learning, the ratio is reversed. Whether it’s hacker news, the articles I read on the web, or the books on my shelves, my interest is mainly in business stories, “especially” start-up success stories. 

Not really sure why. Maybe because I think I have all the technology I need. If I need more, I’ll find it and learn it. Always have, always will. It’s nice to learn a new technique here and there, especially with data base and web technology, but that’s rare. 

The business success stories, on the other hand, almost always fascinate me. I love Founders at Work and get inspiration from those who have accomplished so much. If regular people like them can do it, then so can the rest of us. 

Are programmers expensive?

“Hardware is cheap, programmers are expensive.” 

“Mediocre” programmers are expensive. 

Good programmers are the bargain of the century. 

If companies would just wise up enough to pay a good programmer 3 times as much as a mediocre programmer to do 10 times the work, do it right, and do it so that it can be maintained reasonably, any tradeoff would become moot. But companies generally don’t do this, which is probably one of the main reasons the best programmers go off and do their own. 

How far from shore are you?

I have 2 signs above my desk. 

One says, “It doesn’t matter”. This is for when I get so stressed out, I have trouble doing anything. It helps keep things in perspective. 

The other says, “Jabez Wolffe”. His guide boat forced him to abandon his swim across the English Channel because they couldn’t see through the darkness and fog, and it was too dangerous to continue. What they didn’t realize was that they were only 100 yards from shore, but they had no way of knowing. 

How far from shore are you? 

I would suggest doing whatever you can to find out before making any decision.