Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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1198 words

The worst part is that if anyone succeeds at putting together a usable desktop for Linux, these anti-usability Linux advocates will piss all over it,

writes John Gruber among other things about usability. Let me take this slightly out of context as I think the statement has a wider scope than just the Linux world.

Let me throw in a bit of personal history first for context: My first computer was an Atari ST, and later I got a Mac. On the Atari I started using TeX and continued to do so until today. I always thought of the computer as a hobby and – voluntarily or not – learned some things about how it works in order to get the most of it. The most amazing thing was that it let me do things I couldn't do otherwise – most notably manipulate graphics and text so they look nice. I like doing that and it got me hooked.

While seeing to power of the machine, I have always had the feeling that most of the things I can do on the computer are rather trivial. Invoke a few commands here and there. Enter some numbers and letters over there. And do a lot of pushing that mouse around in between. Not exactly rocket science. Even if things turned out to be hard, strenuous or even impossible, this was mostly due to contraints in the interface I was granted to the machines's power rather than the challenge of the problem itself.

Thus I started investigating different methods of achieving the things existing software wouldn't let me. Trying out the original Mac toolbox in Pascal and C and being fairly annoyed. Trying AppleScript wherever possible, some RealBasic at the end of the millennium and finally discovering Cocoa. While some of these techniques may be quite neat and I may have over-indulged in that neatness, I didn't do this for the programming. I am not a programmer, I just wanted to be able to do things that I couldn't do otherwise – and play a little.

Elsewhere in the computer world I did have the opportunity to learn and use most major DTP applications during little jobs and my civil service. I also used that experience to pass those skills on and even make some money on the way. The most fun project I ever did was designing a brochure for a shipping company. The most financially rewarding thing I did, however, was completely orthogonal to that. I am a Mac person and I like high-quality graphics. Yet, that job completely centred around MS Office (plus Datev, a really bad monopolist German tax consultant software) – on Windows.

Now, I don't know anything about those three things. But as anyone with a bit of general computer experience will know – it doesn't matter. Again, this isn't rocket science and with a bit of looking around you'll be able to achieve this well beyond the imagination of 'newbie' users. Even worse: you'll be able to do more than the average 'computer support' person.

I said that this was the most 'financially rewarding' job I did. It wasn't the most fun one at times as it involved using crappy software. Still, it may have been the most overall rewarding one because I could see how me enduring the pain of that tax software and MS Office for a day and generating the correct setups, templates and scripts would spare the people using them a lot of agony for the years to come. I like to think that I made their work both more efficient and less painful. In particular as I could talk to all of them and have them tell me what their standard tasks are and what is hard about them.

So if this was a financially and maybe even overall rewarding experience, why didn't I go forth and become a 'professional' in that area? Back then, it was even the right time to do so.

One answer to that might be that I saw so-called 'professionals' in that area work. And, frankly, I though they were mostly stupid morons – in most cases overweight stupid morons even –, who greatly overcharged their customers for cluelessly clicking a few buttons in Windows. Perhaps they were MCSEs but they didn't know shit, they broke things even more than I did and they didn't treat their customers well.

But that dislike of course isn't a good reason. My reason was that I didn't find the work particularly challenging. Sure – there were challenges on the way. But those challenges mainly consisted in working around bugs or figuring out gaps in the documentation of the buggy software other people made. Hardly an interesting challenge, I thing, and for sure one that made me sit around and curse those people. A way to summarise that job might be work around the stupidity / lazyness / business priorities of other people – and do so well enough to put yourself out of work. Hardly a promising perspective. A distinct smell of treadmill there.

Even worse, I came to the conclusion that most [*] tasks concerning computers are nothing but trivial. Anyone could handle them. The only difference between someone setting things up and using them is that the person setting things up can remember more of them at the same time. You can teach most of those skills to a mindless drone or ape and render yourself superfluous. Anybody could do those tasks – it's just that they have better things to do.

In addition to that, any 'superior' knowledge you have deteriorates quickly and is non-exclusive. You base your job on there being new problems to be worked around in the future. – While I'd be the last one to suggest that problems with computers will just go away, I think that basing your job on things remaining bad is a bid dismal.

In addition, I suspect that many people working in the area of maintaining computers know about the fact that they could make themselves redundant by being too helpful – which might explain the lack of helpfulness I often find in those people.

Just compare this to people who have learned 'proper' jobs – well they do in Germany, things seem to be a bit more, um, 'deregulated'/worse in English-speaking countries – like carpenter or cook. They spend a lot of time to acquire both theoretical and practical skills. And they can demonstrate those skills to you – but you won't be able to ape them without putting in a similar amount of practice.

In Germany, hairdressers have come up with the strange slogan Was Friseure können, können nur FriseureOnly hairdressers can do what hairdressers can do. Perhaps it makes more sense than I thought at first.

[*] Saying 'most' here means that I want to exclude certain kinds of administrators. The 'old-style' type of administrator who knows everything about his system and can justify everything it does. I have seen such people work and have a lot of respect for what they do. In their case the fact that their systems work doesn't seem to be a lucky coincidence...

April 18, 2004, 1:57


Comment by Nicholas Riley: User icon

That puts a lot of my work recently in perspective, thanks.

Luckily I have research, too, which is anything but trivial. :)

April 18, 2004, 8:51

Comment by n0x: User icon

hey can any one tell how to write a reg file which will automatically spread through the network and run itsef?…


June 11, 2005, 21:10

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