Format complete, now get off my lawn

I concede that there are plenty of people like this out there:

I’m constantly amazed by the fact that our older faculty/staff can clearly and easily be separated into two degrees of capability: mediocre and nonexistent.

The Mediocre folks are capable enough of doing basic word processing tasks and working with one or two specialty statistics programs they’ve been using for at least a decade. The Nonexistent folks are much worse; they routinely need help figuring out (I am not making this up) that they have accidentally pushed the Caps Lock key when typing.

As near as I can tell, the “Nonexistent”-skilled folks have one thing in common: all are over the age of 45, whether faculty or staff. Watching them attempt to work on their own, I can only conclude that for some portion of the population, the ability to form new mental models and learn new tasks (or even new ways of doing old tasks) has been lost after this age.

The real threat, in my experience, is the person with Nonexistent skills who nonetheless estimates himself to be Mediocre or better; we spend an inordinate number of hours undoing the clever little things he’s done.

I am, of course, way over the age of 45, but I’ve spent half my lifetime in the company of these daffy machines, so I have at least a vague idea of what I’m doing most of the time, and when I don’t, I’m not too proud to request assistance.


  1. Tatyana »

    27 December 2008 · 6:15 pm

    In my experience, the real threat are the Nonexistent people In Charge who despise you for your existent skills – and who criticize your work done using 2-3 programs they have no idea how to use. I had one such boss who’d interrupt my instruction of using Model vs. Paper space in CAD with “oh, just make it work. I need it yesterday!”

  2. CGHill »

    27 December 2008 · 10:37 pm

    The Peter Principle pretty much insures that we’ll never run out of such.

  3. Morgan K Freeberg »

    28 December 2008 · 8:58 am

    I can think of two occasions on which I seriously thought of getting out of software development altogether. The first time was when one of the managing partners made up his mind he was my direct supervisor (it was never clearly defined for me whether or not this was the case). He’d task me to do something that might take two to four hours. It was new, innovative stuff, having to do with adding a feature to a product that nobody had tried to add before. But he got it into his head exactly what I’d be doing fifteen minutes into it, and come charging into the lab to check up on me. In other words — success wasn’t defined as getting it done. It was defined as doing it the way he’d be doing it if he were the guy doing it.

    You have to think things through logically to get anything accomplished at all, so this was a big damper. The logical thinker can see, easily, that you can’t do new things that haven’t been done before, when your goal has been defined as doing things the way any other yokel would be doing ’em.

    The other time I was in class, back when object-oriented programming was becoming the next Big Hot Thing. The instructor put some kind of question before the class and demanded we jot down our answers and submit them. After he got them back, he announced there was one answer he got that he was going to skip over, because it was the only one like this. Again — you aren’t building anything new, and you aren’t going to build anything new, if you’re charged with the task of doing things the way everyone else is doing ’em. Technology is the opposite of convention. So anyplace success is measured through some kind of orthodoxy, the job, really, is to copy things. Whether people want to admit that or not.

    Also, non-innovative people really bristle with a special kind of resentment when they see someone else being innovative. It’s not a simple peevishness. There really is no kind of anger in the human condition quite like this. Your wife, catching you sleeping with another woman, is going to leave some bits of anger uncovered, that this kind of rage captures quite nicely.

    I should add that that second bit of demoralization really did drive me out of software development for a few years. After all, what would have been the point, suck up a few dollars an hour to copy things? Do things most similarly to the way some other guy would’ve done them? I’m not even “mediocre” at that. So I went other places, where I had the latitude to see what needed doing, figure out for myself how to get ’em done, and get ’em done.

    I don’t know how many millions of others made the same move. But I do know in the years that followed, true innovation went on an enormous downslide. We haven’t had ’em. An iPod that does what last year’s model did, but is a little smaller and faster, is helpful — but it isn’t a paradigm shift. A new Windows operating system that does what last year’s edition did, but tattles on you if you try to pirate software, has a few extra moving parts and a spiffy interface you haven’t seen before — but it isn’t a paradigm shift. The mid-eighties to early-nineties were loaded with paradigm shifts. Last real paradigm shift I saw in this business, was “Hey we’d better allocate four digits to hold the year, or else on January 1, 2000, the world might come to an end.” Since then most of it has been upkeep. And therein lies a tragedy that has affected us all, both in the things we use, and in the way we perceive and think about the world around us.

    All convention, no invention. Yeah, I blame your “Nonexistent folks in charge of the show” theory. They end up running things because they’re good at copying, and that’s what we want. A new tool isn’t going to get you excited if you can’t form a vision of the work it can do, and you can’t form a vision of the work it can do, if you aren’t somewhat disciplined yourself in understanding how things work. Consumers now don’t understand how things work, so they’re obsessed with pretty things that look like other pretty things.

  4. House of Eratosthenes »

    28 December 2008 · 9:17 am

    […] is criticizing the folks who are my age, plus just a handful of years. Since this is a valid point and it’s […]

  5. McGehee »

    28 December 2008 · 9:28 am

    Morgan’s estimation of the current state of technological innovation is, I think, an apt picture of pretty much our whole society these days.

  6. Lynne »

    28 December 2008 · 12:23 pm

    I work with so many of the clueless and I have the task of teaching them how to make a post on the school website (which is a wordpress installation). After the ‘upgade’ from hell, not one of them could figure out how to create a post the big “NEW POST” tab at the top of the page was invisible to them.

    And yes, I’ve had a few teachers running to me asking why the computer is typing in all CAPS!

  7. Jeff Brokaw »

    29 December 2008 · 7:51 am

    A fascinating topic. I suppose age has something to do with this, but I’ve been in software for … 25 years now … and am now on the wrong side of 45, and my take is that some people like to learn new things, and some don’t. I’m not sure that changes much over time, at least for me. But I’ve worked in what sounds like more technical jobs than we’ve been discussing here, about 7 years as an IBM mainframe systems programmer, and about 18 years in the software field.

    I have to admit, though, a certain degree of impatience lately with writing code, running builds, everything involved with building software products. Just for, ohhhh, the last 10 years or so. :-) Maybe it’s just me, or maybe this is just another way of saying what Morgan was saying, but it amounts to constantly communicating with machines on their terms, and spending great portions of our limited time in this world on that endeavor seems so … devoid of meaning. I used to gain a great sense of accomplishment from such things, and still do but to a lesser degree, but the overall feeling now is more like “congratulations, big deal, you got a stupid machine to do some specific thing based on very specific instructions. Tomorrow, do it again. Next year, next decade, keep on doing this. What’s the matter, it’s not enticing any more?!”

    More and more I require meaning from the things I do with my time. Probably a consequence of getting older, and maybe wiser. In fact, I’ve made specific attempts over the last few years to move into more people-centered branches of the biz, vs. machine-centered. Aging is a factor, but for me, it’s more about matching personality to job skills than about aging.

    My $.02 anyway.

  8. Ron »

    29 December 2008 · 8:37 am

    Tatyana and Freeburg hit it on the head. Here in the military we’ve basically eased out the management dinosaurs by attrition and retirement. Unfortunately the “one portal for all mentality” pervades military thinking and the center that “controls” it all (we call it the NOSC) is well stocked with the “copiers” and the “nonexistents” who can turn a valuable time saving asset into a sludgy, unresponsive and time consuming administrative oversight tool rather than an innovative field level tool that allows information to get where it needs to be to simply get things done. Its akin to the Romans watching the barbarians dismantle the aquaducts to make fences or something.

  9. Old Grouch »

    29 December 2008 · 9:05 am

    Too old for this sh*t …

    Will Truman (via C.G. Hill): Working at Southern Tech, I’m constantly amazed by the fact that our older faculty/staff can clearly and easily be separated into two degrees of capability: mediocre and nonexistent….

  10. Charles Pergiel »

    4 January 2009 · 12:37 am

    I think we may be victims of our own success. We made computers and wrote programs that made business so efficient that nobody actually needs to do any real work. We just sell stuff to each other. There are still a few people doing innovative stuff, but it’s like one in a million. Maybe the recent financial catastrophe will shake things up a bit.

  11. CGHill »

    4 January 2009 · 10:21 am

    I’ll be more inclined to argue that point after this upcoming 50-something-hour week.

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