Earlier today I had some email exchanges with an employee at
one of my clients who wanted some file made available to managers
at the company. Normally I would have expected that she would
either put the file out on a shared drive or just email it to
the people who need to see it, so I was a little careful of how I
answered, and asked a basic question: "What is the file and
where is it now?"
The answer I got was a bit odd: "It's in 192.168.2.12/COMP, but
we can't access that."
That left me shaking my head a little. If you can't access it,
how would you know it's there? And if I assume that /COMP
is a directory, what's the actual file that is needed? I decided
it was time to involve her boss, so I sent off an email to
him asking him to intercede, figure out what she really wanted,
and let me know if I needed to do anything more.
He called soon after and explained what was really going on.
Apparently the file (actually, files) is a transaction log
generated by their accounting application. It ends up in
/COMP under the app's main directory, and true enough, nobody
has access to that directory and nobody SHOULD have access to it.
If these particular files are to be made available in a share, they need
to be moved somewhere else.
"But", he went on, "we don't even know if we want this data: we've
never seen one yet, so we don't know if it has what we want or is in
a format we can use. Can you print one for me?"
Well, of course. I picked out a reasonably sized example and
sent it to a printer near his desk. He looked it over for a few
minutes and seemed unsure of whether or not this really was useful.
He then asked "Could this get put into a spreadsheet?"
Well, gosh, of course it can. But instead of just saying that,
what I actually said went something like this:
"Yes, I can put that in a spreadsheet and put it in a share
that is accessible by managers only. But really that's not what you
should be asking me. What you really should be doing is stating your
ideal scenario and then let me tell you how close I can come to meeting
"For example, let's say you wanted that log printed out on the laser
printer, stuffed in an 8.5 x 11 envelope, and put on a boat to Australia.
I can't help you with much beyond the automatic printing, but my
point is that usually you don't know WHAT I can actually do for
you, so you should ask for what you need rather than assuming
a solution based on what you know about available technology. To
be more realistic, it might be better to merge these files and
collapse detail. It might be better to have them out in
a web folder where you could drill down to detail. It might be
best to send e-mail alerts when we see certain things in the logs..
only you know what your ideal handling would be. You need to
tell me what you want."
"It might help to imagine that you have the ideal assistant
who will watch these files as they are produced and then, following
your instructions, do whatever you need done. That's really how you
should think when it comes to computers: not 'Can it put it in
a spreadsheet' (something that should almost always be easily done)
but rather 'This is what I'd ideally like to see happen' ".
What I'm driving at is assuming the solution rather than stating
the goal. "Can you take me on your bicycle to Boston?" is a far more
limiting question than "Can you get me to Boston?". The first
limits me in two ways: one, I need to be directly involved ("can
you take me") and secondly I need to specifically use a bicycle.
The second question leaves me free to provide other possible ways
to get you to where you want to be.
This may seem like a small distinction, but it really isn't. If
you just ask me to convert a file to a spreadsheet and publish it to
a share, I may reasonably assume that you know what you want. If
I know nothing about the file or what you are going to use it for,
I'm certainly in no position to suggest that it might be useful
to pre-process the data or put it in a database instead.. I'll
probably just do what you asked and not question it at all. But
if you tell me your ultimate goal ("Managers need to know if
certain items are being ordered and .."), I might be able to
give you something far more useful, and the difference might be
something like riding to Boston on the fender of a bike versus
traveling in a stretch limo.. it's worth phrasing your
inquiry carefully, isn't it?
See Getting The Right Project Requirements also..
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© 2012-08-04 Anthony Lawrence