Solutions and Street Lights

One common mistake I’ve seen several examples of recently (both in and out of the software world) is when we look for solutions to our problems not where we’re most likely to find them but instead where ever we’re most comfortable looking. A few examples:

Several years ago I was at a friend’s house trying to scan a few documents on his computer. I tried several times, but the system always told me that the scanner wasn’t connected. Well, I checked the scanner, and it was definately connected, so I started looking for some explanation of the problem, and since I’m a programmer not an EE I was doing all software stuff. I reinstalled the scanner driver, downloaded a driver update from the scanner mfgr and installed that, even reinstalled all the software that I was using to attempt to scan the images. Nothing worked. Finally, after probably an hour or more of doing this, my friend comes over and I tell him that his scanner is broken. Surprised, he reaches down and plugs the scanner power cord into the power strip, and immediately the little "new hardware" notification comes up to say that the scanner had been recognized by the operating system. The problem here wasn’t that I didn’t know enough about computers, that problem was that I knew too much, that I was so comfortable debugging software and driver problems that it never occured to me that the problem could be so simple a thing as the scanner not being plugged in.

You’d think I would have learned from the above experience, but an almost identical thing happened to me just last week at work. I was attempting to install linux on an older (previously Windows 98) computer that we found unused in the server room. I stupidly picked Debian as the distro, only half realizing that although Debian is one of the coolest linux flavors, it is also one of the most difficult to install. They do have some sort of a GUI installer, but it stops at random intervals with requests like "Enter Kernel boot parameters:" (everyone has the linux kernel boot params memorized, right?). So this installation took longer than I had thought and I wasn’t very surprised when I finally booted it up and found out that (1) there were major display problems and (2) the network wasn’t working. After a few minutes I had a least got the display problems down to a workable level, but the network problems just wouldn’t go away. I must’ve ran the network setup wizard a dozen times, but I still couldn’t get it to detect or connect to anything. Then my bos walks in and asks how it’s going, and that’s about the time that I realized that I had never plugged in the network cable. What threw my off was that I was using a KVM switch to connect a windows system and the linux system to the same input and output devices, so at the same time as I was debugging the network on the linux system I was writing emails and reading web pages on the windows system. I had therefore forgotten that while I had only one moniter, keyboard, and mouse between the two of them, I needed a different network cable for each.

Well, this sort of reminds me of the old cub scout skit where someone’s on his knees below a street light looking for a contact lens (or quarter or whatever) and people start showing up and offering to help, until someone finally asks if he can point out exactly where he was when he lost it and he says, "Well I lost it over there (at least six feet away) but I thought it would be better to look over here by the light because it’s so dark over there that I can’t see a thing."

Now, I’ve been using examples from my own life here so that no one complains that I’m insulting someone else or being negative, but it’s examples from the real world that have lately reminded me of this problem. We all have areas of interest: things, methods, or software that we’re either good at or big fans of. This is usually a good thing, but when we’re seeking solutions to our and our employer’s problems, we need to make sure we’re not, like the boy in the skit, looking for the quarter where the light is and not where it was lost. Sometimes the best solution isn’t the one that’s the most fun or even the one we’re most familiar with. We need the intelligence to recognize these situations and the courage to admit it when one comes along.

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