I taught myself to program computers out of library books in my early teens, and to design websites by age twenty. Yet I decided not to pursue a computer-related career. I still wonder if that was a smart decision. But the main reason was inscrutability. The further I progressed into computer technology, the more I encountered problems I had no possible way of solving. I gradually came to the conclusion that all technology is basically broken at some level, and that technical savvy consists of elaborate workarounds, and a tolerance of shoddy design1 — whether at the user interface level or the IDE level or the memory-management level. Some people are geeks enough to accept or even enjoy working in such a field; the idealist in me at age 20 wasn’t able to stomach twenty years of having creative solutions shot down by unaccountable, unfixable, and inscrutable technical problems.

The hacker in me found this post entertaining and even easy to follow, despite the fact that I have only an intermediate understanding of the technologies involved. The compulsive chronicler in me appreciated the fact that Piotr took the time to document an obscure problem, the troubleshooting process, and the solution, and work in some people lessons while he was at it. No matter how obscure the problem is, someone else will have it again sometime; and now a trip to Google is likely to bring them to Piotr’s explanation and save them a world of trouble. It’s exactly the kind of thing for which I started my Notely blog.

The thing that caught me most however, was the customer-service dimension of the solution. For the customer, the problem must have been annoying — because of the particular performance issue, yes, but also because it seemed totally unaccountable and unsolvable. They bought a box, plugged it into their network, configured it properly, and everything ground to a halt. From their point of view, everything pointed to a defective product — yet when Piotr fixed the problem (without blaming them for their unpatched server, the real problem) they went on to buy several more products from his company. Why was this?

I can tell you for certain that when an IT worker demonstrates an ability to see into and fix random problems that pop up like this, they set themselves far apart from the pack. Most IT workers are just workaround-tolerant hacks in disguise, and this tells in their2 proposed solutions: try swapping this out, try rebooting, try installing updates. Even when these “solutions” work, they lack satisfaction because it’s obvious that no one understands the problem. There is very little to distinguish the troubleshooting from mere voodoo, and I find it regrettable that a profession which purports to deal in logic and technology should depend so much on superstition.

In short, Piotr’s post rekindles in me a hope that the “voodoo veil” in technology can be pierced after all. It somehow reminds me of how getting police diver training taught me that things are not irretrievably “lost” once they fall into a lake: you just need the equipment and the expertise to get all the way to the bottom of the problem space. Perhaps all IT lacks is effective mentoring connections between the experienced and the newcomers. But that is a whole ‘nother issue.


  1. Blame it on my Wintel-centric upbringing if you will; but I see plenty of complaints on Twitter from Apple users pointing to the same basic, “unsolvable” problems. 

  2. I speak of IT workers in the third persion, but I often end up operating in this capacity as well. 

Programming Sucks

When, I said, above, that “the idealist in me at age 20 wasn’t able to stomach twenty years of having creative solutions shot down by unaccountable, unfixable, and inscrutable technical problems,” this is exactly the kind of thing I feared:

Websites that are glorified shopping carts with maybe three dynamic pages are maintained by teams of people around the clock, because the truth is everything is breaking all the time, everywhere, for everyone. Right now someone who works for Facebook is getting tens of thousands of error messages and frantically trying to find the problem before the whole charade collapses. There’s a team at a Google office that hasn’t slept in three days. Somewhere there’s a database programmer surrounded by empty Mountain Dew bottles whose husband thinks she’s dead. And if these people stop, the world burns. Most people don’t even know what sysadmins do, but trust me, if they all took a lunch break at the same time they wouldn’t make it to the deli before you ran out of bullets protecting your canned goods from roving bands of mutants.

Joel (Author) ·