On tape, kids, and clients
First, a parent hack. Got kids? You should be reading Parent Hacks. Not got kids? Read on anyway, I relate the whole thing to user requirements at the end.
The hack: As soon as your kid is old enough not to eat it, buy a multipack of store-brand magic tape. Provide your child with the tape, scissors, the contents of your recycle bin (purged of dangerous items), and a box of broken toys and other small household items. Now leave your kid alone with the stuff.
The most important part of the hack: do not ration the tape.
Ari loves tape. We used to ration it. We value conservation, and using up gobs and gobs of tape seemed useless, expensive, and just plain wasteful. We didn’t understand the things he did with it. They were incomprehensible and often ugly. He used too much of it. It all seemed pointless. Three things made us change our minds:
First, we realized that tape is so cheap it’s essentially free, even when used in quantity like Ari uses it. Ari can easily spend an hour on a taping project, without needing, wanting, or even acknowledging parental attention. A babysitter costs us at least $12/hour. So not rationing tape actually saves us money.
Second, we realized that the tape served the goal of conservation by enabling the transformation of, basically, garbage, into toys and games and arts and crafts. Yes, eventually the stuff did end up on the curb anyway, but it enjoyed a (sometimes very long) second life as a more-or-less elaborate Ari contraption.
Third, we realized that tape is a non-toxic, easy to clean up, and remarkably versatile project supply that allows both two- and three-dimensional constructions. Glue is also versatile, but much, much messier.
Finally, we realized that while the things Ari made with the tape seemed senseless to us, they were valuable, important, and even beautiful to him. This is often the case with our childrens’ projects. We’ve come to realize how often we say no to kids, just reflexively, for no other reason than that what they want doesn’t make any sense to us, the grownups. (“No, don’t use up all that tape. What do you need all that tape for? Why do you have to tape the giraffe to a stick and hang rubber bands off him? What’s so important about putting those toy people in a cardboard-reinforced tape shell and carrying them around in an old purse? What the hell for???”)
When we find ourselves saying no, we stop and ask if there’s really a good reason for the ‘no’. We try to say yes, when we can. And so, we say yes to as much tape as he wants, whenever he wants.
What this has to do with clients:
Clients, like kids, often want, do, and care about things we don’t understand. It’s our job to try to understand them, and it’s difficult, exhausting work. It’s much, much easier to dismiss them. “No, what do you want to be able to download spreadsheets for? Who cares about what color that dumb little button is? That’s a ridiculous process anyway, why should I make the software conform to it?”
We want to build software that we care about, and that we understand. But that’s not our job. Our job is to help our clients do what is important for them.
“How can you compare clients to kids?” you may ask. “What kind of whupped parent are you that you treat your kids like they’re your clients?” or conversely “Isn’t it a little insulting to treat your clients like they’re children?” I’m not arguing for not setting limits for your children. I’m arguing for respecting them as people whose values we do not always understand, just as we respect our clients as people whose values we do not always understand. (Software development is just like anthropology, only better paid, I’ve always said.) We have broad and deep expertise in many areas that our kids don’t, and in order to help them do what is important for them, we’ll have to draw on that. But the same goes for clients. We don’t let our kids go without brushing their teeth, even though it’s not important to them, because we understand that toothbrushing is part of the infrastructure of living. We don’t let our clients’ projects go without version control, even though they don’t care about version control, because version control is part of the infrastructure of software development. We should not be slavishly trying to meet our clients’ every needs any more than we should do that with our kids, and even when our kids are at their most infuriating and most incomprehensible, we should remember that to them, the things they care about are every bit as important as the things we care about are to us.
We’re not the boss of our kids, and we’re not the slaves of our clients. We’re just the consultants.
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