Thursday, April 16, 2009

Houston, We have a problem.

Apollo 13 ranks up there as one of my favorite movies. I like it because of the team work and problem solving that are involved. It is just so amazing what people can do when they really have to do it. Often times, this movie comes to mind when I'm sitting at the round table with my co-workers and we hash out a plan of attack for a software modification or how to fight one of the fires that inevitably ignites. I imagine us throwing all the pieces we have available to us with the challenge - - "This is what they have, build an air filter."

I learned a lot of problem solving and management skills while volunteering in restoration at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. If you need someone to take a helicopter apart or unlock rusted brakes on a soviet tank - - I may have some ideas. I have learned how to improvise, like the Marines in Restoration often did because they didn't have something they needed to get the job done, but the job needed to get done never the less. I think I've been able to apply those lessons to my day job.

Throw me onto a computer system I've never used before - - I can figure it out. While I don't know how to code, I value my teammates who do and who, over the course of the past two years, somehow understand me and my input to things. So often we have had those moments of "This is what you have to work with, and this is what it needs to do, do it." Sometimes it seemed impossible. I was thinking about that this afternoon. What a privilege it has been for me to work on this system and be a part of it all. How improbable it has been for me to be here doing what I do. After all, I got Ds in my accounting and computer systems classes. I have the realization that God does show his strength and power through our weaknesses. I shouldn't be here doing what I do and be successful at it. Yet, here I am.

We survived the software modification from hell. If ever there could seem to be an evil force just wanting to prevent this thing from happening. It sure seemed like it was upon us.

Of course, as we began to run the processes in production, something blew up. There was no reason we should have gotten the error, but we were able to isolate the issue and were in business within half an hour. All of the parties to this task work in different parts of the building so we often communicate through IM. We had a group chat going (btw, I will NEVER attempt to set up a group chat ever again - -every time I do, I end up inviting everyone in the whole department, yes, hundreds of people - - material for another blog) But anyway, we figure out the problem and I go and jinx us by IMing, "This just can't be easy can it". The entire IM server crashed!

Holy dark side of the moon, Batman!

We couldn't communicate with each other. Frantically I tried to re-connect and got my tech lead who calmly replies, "ya, the server must have crashed." But within two minutes it was back up again -- like having traveled to the dark side of the moon.

After that things went smoothly and the processing results turned out as expected. I can not tell you how happy I am about this fix and that it is FINALLY done. For now.

It was a great end to a day that began with some system user sending an e-mail complaining about the "system error" that was causing him to re-do something for the third time and his superiors weren't happy and he wasn't going to take the blame for our "system error".

Man, I'll tell you. I had to get up and take a lap around the floor to cool down. I confirmed with my co-worker that the "system error" was user stupidity. And I gave her the reader's digest explanation of why he has to do the process over for the third time. Might help if he selected the correct choice from the drop down menu. He only has two options to pick from. Call me crazy but if the first option didn't work the first two times, maybe you should pick the other option the third time. But hey, you know, maybe he figured, "Third time is a charm." She was very PC in her reply and told him that if he still required a letter for his superiors, we would provide one.

We haven't heard back from him.

Then I got my favorite kind of stupid user help request. "We have an XYZ and the user manual does not tell us how to process XYZ. So we did 1, that didn't work and tried to do 2 and 3 and that didn't work either."

My reply, out loud to myself was, "Really, there were no directions in the user manual on how to process XYZ? Did you READ the user manual? Did you call the help desk for help before you did 1? When 1 didn't' work, did you call the help desk to find out what to do before attempting 2 and 3? Let me guess, NO." Unfortunately for them, I wrote the user manual. I know what is in that puppy. I responded with the three sections in the manual which are all titled "How to Process XYZ in situation X". Then I also broke the bad news to them that because they had done #1 when the manual on page 108 tells them in the first sentence of the first paragraph to NOT do #1 because right now, it messes the data up and there is nothing we can do right to fix it. Then I broke even worse news to them, that had they called us when they did #1, I would have told them to leave it as it was. But since they then did #2 followed by #3, they REALLY messed the data up and we might not be able to fix it at this point. Bottom line was, they could no longer do anything with that data and it might be months or - - never - - before it was fixed.

By the way, I think I write pretty good user's manuals. I call it blond proofing. I do the step-by-step, screen shot by screen shot, excruciating detail. If you just follow the pictures, you will do it right.

Clearly our users are blonder than I.

Oh, wait, I'm a red head now.


David said...

It best to assume users will not read the manual (since most don't) and design your user interface to be as intuitive as possible.

RangersGirl said...

We are using a COTS product. Believe me, its not intuitive in LOTS of ways and we have made our recommendations to the manufacturer. I tried to highlight all these areas in the manual and when I do my training classes because I found out - - frustraingly enough while testing - - where all the pitfalls were.

You do the best with what you've got.