What did I do this time?

So now I’ve delivered my RavenCon After Action Report in faux-epic style (or should that be faux-epique? It’s certainly twee enough to get the Frenchification), I guess it’s back to the normal round of harassing my friends for topics, ranting about various things that have caught my attention, and generally being me.

And then… it happens. Someone wants to ask my advice (this is actually pretty common and I have no idea why). I’m not saying what they wanted to ask about, or who they are (I’ve had a few of them in the last week, all from different people). It’s just a message out of nothing asking if I can talk and the next thing I know I’m trying to tell someone that I’m really no good at (insert topic of choice because I’m not tactful, I’m not gentle, and my preferred form of office/group politicking is to cut through it all with the bald facts and the possible consequences.

Okay, it’s true I break things (including programmers’ hopes and dreams) for a living. It’s part of being a tester. Kate see software. Kate break software. Kate happy. Programmer not happy. Rinse and repeat until Kate can’t find anything to break and is driving herself up the walls wondering what the hell she’s missed.

I think I do this (the breaking software thing) well because I’m something of a puzzle nut and I have a bit of a talent for seeing the shape of the whole from only a few bits and pieces (Yes, I do jigsaw puzzles. Or I did. Kittehs what see those itty bitty funny shaped bits as awesome kitteh toys kind of limits me to online jigsaws which just don’t have the fun factor of watching 1, 2, and 3 thousand piece puzzles come together – I never did finish the 4000 piece. Nowhere large enough to lay it out that wasn’t open to the kittehs).

So when I get these out-of-nowhere requests for advice, that’s more or less what I do. I read/listen to the problem, and offer suggestions based on what I see of the whole. I don’t actually mind whether the person actually does what I suggest: I’m not in their shoes, I’m not living their lives. They have knowledge I don’t have, and if something I say makes the right associations for them to come up with an answer they can use, great.

Come to think of it, that’s also what I do when someone asks me about a plotting problem (yes, quite a few folks use me for that – hi, Sarah!). I throw suggestions at them until something clicks and they have what they need to move on.

Is it really such a rare thing for people to do? Seriously, I don’t get why I seem to attract this. It’s a bit like the folk who claim I’m scary, or the ones who think it’s utterly remarkable that I’m prepared to say yeah, I suck when it comes to talking to people and I’m much better with written/typed communication (yes, yes, I know. I had my annual performance evaluation today, okay? Too much business-ese in one day does things to me. The bit that matters, yes I got a raise, and an appraisal I’ll have to hide because the damn thing glows too much (what else am I supposed to think when my boss’s boss says “only God gets that ranking” and then turns around and gives me that ranking? Um. Yeah. I ain’t arguing, but I sure as heck don’t see that what I do is that special. It’s just something I can do easily and I like. Big deal.) The job title and responsibilities don’t change).

Do other people get these “WTF is with this? Why are they asking me these questions?” moments? Because I’d really like to know if someone stuck one of those invisible-to-the-wearer signs that says “Ask me anything!” in big neon-bright letters. It would explain so much.


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59 responses to “What did I do this time?

  1. And now you know the glory of being the teenage boy that all the girls talk to about boys. Because you’re “safe,” and easy to talk to.

  2. morrigan508

    yes I get that. A few years ago, I suddenly became the “father confessor and wise sage”, and damn if I know why. At one point I asked my wife, “when the hell did I become the “voice of reason”, if they only knew how often my recommended solution if it where legal would be “Kill that man there, and all will improve” or even “kill yourself, improve the gene pool and try again next life”… Sigh”

    • Kate Paulk

      That sounds remarkably reasonable to me. Maybe this is why there’s something wrong when I’m the voice of reason?

  3. Luke

    Because you act interested.

    At least, that’s what I tell my wife when another complete stranger has come up to her and shared their life story. It may well apply here, too.

    • Kate Paulk

      It might, yes. That or there’s that invisible sign I’ve yet to find and destroy.

  4. Nope, I don’t get the out-of-the-blue questions (much). I get the “OM[deity], OM[deity], there’s a tornado/earthquake/equipment failure/rabid dean coming! Everybody go get Alma, she’ll know what to do. She’s always calm.” I’m calm because up until that moment I have no clue what’s coming because I’ve been head down working.

    OK, my fondness for running disaster and “what if” scenarios in my head during work breaks might have something to do with why I’m one of the last to wig out, but still, people really shouldn’t trust me. Especially the people on my “first to be sacrificed to god of volcano/tornado/earthquake/plague of administrators.” {Speaking of which, does anyone else think “San Andreas” looks like an absolutely magnificent, popcorn and MST3K-worthy disaster flick?}

    • Timid1

      We actually got one of those late one night at work. Tornado sighted heading toward such-and-such location, and we get a “Whatdowedo? Whatdowedo?” call, and we’re thinking “Why did you call us?”

      It was the same night, IIRC, where a visitor doing a crossword asked, while we’re busy with our own emergencies, “What do you call a group of whales?” My wife, also a visitor, said I had a real funny “What?” look before answering “Pod.”

      • Kate Paulk

        The truly weird thing is my first though was “Gee, you’ve got an answer to both questions there.”

    • Reziac

      I think “The Manhattan Fault Line” would be a lot more visually dramatic. Kinda like dominoes, only taller. 😉

      • Kate Paulk

        With lots more smashy fally down bits, too.

        • emily61

          Also buildings in Manhattan aren’t built to survive an earthquake so lots more building fail. Fewer earthquakes so when come will be stronger. Manhattan is an island so if bridges collapse will have more trapped panicking people.

    • I made the mistake of doing some research on earth quakes about 10 years ago. I don’t know a lot, just enough to be annoyed when the movies make the kind of mistakes that a few seconds of research would prevent – – like showing the SA fault as a dip/slip or a thrust fault instead of a slip/strike fault.

      • Kate Paulk

        Heh. My geology degree has a similar effect. “No, it’s not likely to go up and down. It’s more likely to do a sharp horizontal thwap and the road that was straight thirty seconds ago is now offset be several yards.”

    • Kate Paulk

      Now that’s actually kind of cool, you being the person who keeps their head in the middle of chaos because you were too busy to notice said chaos in the first place.

      • Apparently my claim to fame at Flat State was/is taking over the tornado evacuation of the main library late one night. Security had to do a floor-by-floor sweep to chase everyone to the basement, and so I kinda shrugged, chivvied the kids into the basement, got them sorted out, told people where the bathrooms were, had a spare flashlight, and acted more irritated at the interruption than upset. (I was also thinking about how to get out if we took a hit that blocked the main doors, but you don’t mention that kind of thing). I learned later that it kept the kids calm and prevented or derailed at least two bouts of hysteria. *shrug*

  5. Not sure it is the same thing, but I trained the top manager in the new India office when we opened it years ago (as a lowly associate), and suddenly that made me the guru for everyone from there to come to. I still seem to be a nexus about a lot of things a lot of times. I’ve learned part of it is being confident about talking and thinking through something while at the same time admitting you don’t know the whole answer, or maybe any of it, but are still confident to ry and figure it out.

    • Timid1

      One of the funnest things about being the office guru is that you can stand there doing nothing while they figure it out for themselves, then they thank you. My kids are now subject to this at school. We call it hand-holding.

      • Kate Paulk

        Oh, yeah… As soon as you get a reputation for knowing something you will never *ever* be rid of being the “guru” for it.

        • emily61

          Hubby has been the office Cassandra. He tells them and tells them to do something a particular way, and what awful, awful things will happen if they do anything else. But they don’t listen! And they’re surprised when the bad things he warned of, actually happen.

      • I try to be the guru that tells them to trust themselves, and question me. But you are right about being thanked for their figuring something out themselves. I think at least some of them realize it is themselves.

  6. When I worked (retired now), all the new ids on the block would come and ask me to explain stuff. They knew I wouldn’t quote law and regs to them, but would explain in layman’s terms WTF was going on. So when they became no longer new, they told the new newbies to come to me. It was a vicious cycle, which I stopped by retiring. Now the people who I hang with all treat me like the Jeopardy machine. I’m supposed to have all the answers. My mind is so full of partial knowledge and trivia that I can make a pretty good stab at what they’re asking. It’s annoying to them and to me.

    • Kate Paulk

      Yah… I describe my mind as a stainless steel lint trap. I remember the weirdest things… which comes in handy when something happens and I have a vague memory about the something having happened some time before in relation to some bug or other.

      Then it’s a dive through the… um… 5? 6? different bug tracking setups the place has used over the years to find *which* one it was.

      • emily61

        What do you do when they don’t believe in plans, documentation or testing?

      • Holly

        That’s why I get asked stuff. “Holly, do you know anything about . . . ?”
        It’s because I’ll read anything (almost) and retain something. Referencing what I’ve got in my head, now that’s a problem. In another life, reference librarian would’ve been a great job, but Mommy’s almost the same and the perks are better even if the pay isn’t.
        And that’s probably why you get asked, too. They’ve got a better chance of getting some information from you than anyone else they know, even if it’s just something they can use to eliminate google results.

  7. sabrinachase

    I also have the invisible “tell me your life story and secrets” tattoo on my forehead. It is one reason, in addition to being an introvert, that I tend to hide behind the potted palm in social situations. No, I *don’t* want to hear about your one-night-stand, stranger (really happened) or your very, very ill-advised affair, professional acquaintance (really happened) or about the great success of your anger management therapy, person-on-bus (really happened). I should snarl more.

    If you ever figure out how to turn off the personal confessional signal, Kate, I will give you All The Chocolate.

    • Timid1

      If you ever figure out how to turn off the personal confessional signal, Kate, I will give you All The Chocolate.

      Smart aleck comments bordering on mean worked for me. Somewhat.

      • Kate Paulk

        Alas, my sense of humor flies right over people’s heads and keeps going until it hits me in the back of the head some time later.

    • Kate Paulk

      I will *take* All The Chocolate if I ever figure out how to turn the signal off.

    • emily61

      I want to apologize for all the strangers who TMI’ed you. I’ve been known to do that. For decades. I’m sorry. Mea maxima culpa.

      • I think I’ve only once made someone really uncomfortable by asking for advice, and that was a girl I knew who was a friend of a friend, when I asked her for advice on what to get my then-girlfriend (later wife). From her reaction, either she really didn’t like my girlfriend, or else she was interested in ME, and was pissed that she was being asked to help with a gift for the rival. I never asked which it was, but maybe I should have.

    • McChuck

      Or you could go into law enforcement or intelligence and put your superpower to good use.

  8. In my experience, it’s only the real heavy hitter types that ever bother to ask my opinion on stuff. They know I’m into something and plugging away at it. They already know me. And they know they’ll get some kind of answer that might contrast their gut feeling even if I’m not exactly on point. They don’t necessarily need “Einstein” to kick something around anyway.

    The light weights don’t even know what it is that they don’t know, so those type of people just don’t tend to ask a lot of questions.

    • Kate Paulk

      For some reason that reminds me of Ogden Nash:
      How happy is the moron
      He doesn’t give a damn
      I wish I were a moron…
      My God! Perhaps I am.

  9. Isn’t everyone like that?

    And congrats on the rating and raise. I hope they at least gave you a copy of the glowing letter to keep.

  10. Reality Observer

    FWIW, what I call a real programmer would love working with you. (I’d drive you right up the wall the first day, though).

    On the main topic – I think it’s just some basic in the human psyche that assumes hyper-competence in one thing automatically means hyper-competence in others. (And it only gets worse when, say, you are competent in more than one thing, even if they are still a tiny, unmeasurable fraction of all the “things” in the Multiverse.)

    I’ve taken to having standard answers for some things. Like when I’m asked about how to solve “global warming,” I snap right back “Nuke China NOW!” One more that will never ask me again…

    • Indeed, I always felt if the user could do something stupid, the programmer was at fault. Not idiot proof 1)that is impossible and 2)only idiots will have the patience to use such a program. In later years I became the go-to man as the user/programmer interface. One example was a periodic maintenance form. The techs would pull up the old form and make updates, as it was less typing. They saw the program as acway to generate the form. Imagine what it was doing to the database by overwriting old maintenance with new. The programmers were absolutely clueless… ‘Why would anyone do that?’ What is the goal? Print form. What is the easiest way to do it? Overwrite old form.
      As to why you for advice? I suspect you are non-judgemental in how they got into their crisis. Interacting with you they don’t feel like you are going to demean or gossip, and finally, you probably give good advice, even if they use only part of it. Likewise, often in explaining to a sympathetic and attentive person the act of explaining allows them to see the problem in a new light or see the interrelationships that need fixing.

      • Kate Paulk

        Ooh, yes. I’ve HAD that argument more times than I can count. The number of applications that not only allow the user to shoot themselves in the foot, but supply the user with the weapon and the ammunition and even help them to fire the weapon… How hard is it to write the damn thing so it doesn’t let people do what they shouldn’t be doing in the first place?

        (And how much harder is it to figure out WHY they want to do that thing and give them something that lets them do it without breaking other things?)

    • Laura M

      I’m stealing that.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oooh, a *good* programmer. I love working with those guys, the ones where the only problems I find are the weird-ass edge and corner cases.

      Today’s bit of work-related fun: I’m testing the first part of a new reporting module, and I notice that the way its handling selection criteria doesn’t include any kind of handling for multiple users – on a website. I ask the lead dev for the project. Lead dev looks at database structure. Looks at code. Calls the dev who did the work over. I repeat the question. Dev looks at me. Gives sheepish grin. “I’ll fix it”.

      Apparently I’m better at figuring where problems are in code than the devs are. That’s scary. I”m not a coder.

      • emily61

        You’re a tester. You’re supposed to see the bugs and knot holes. Just be glad they listen to you. Hubby does testing too. You could (if you wanted to) talk shop about testing. He started as a programmer and fell into testing.

      • Reality Observer

        Whee! Dev is going to be there a *long* time. (So will you – except in a *very* few development environments, making a single-user into a multi-user is all the way back to the design board. More bugs a’ comin.)

        I have to admit though, that I used to be a “just get it out the door, fix the bugs when it comes back” kind myself. Until I took a long hard look at myself and the “professionals” around me after being called in at 3 AM to fix a fatal-type bug in one of the primary time-critical systems. One of my colleagues had put a “fix” into production – while he was in Australia – WITHOUT EVEN COMPILING THE CODE FIRST! I was never that kind of idiot, but I found a lot of other ways I was.

  11. Working as a counselor to adolescents, I sometimes observed that the kid’s primary problem was that their grandparents failed to use birth control.

  12. Reziac

    Who are all you people, and how did you escape from my head?? Cuz I’m pretty sure you’re all me. 😀

  13. Uncle Lar

    I get that a lot.
    To this day my ex wife will call me up and say, “I’m thinking of taking this action. Tell me all the things that could go wrong.” What can I say, she knows me.
    I spent a quarter century in science payload operations. I can state with a fair amount of certainty that any competent engineer can idiot proof a piece of equipment. But God Himself could not astronaut proof that same equipment. Still, we always tried, wrote detailed step by step procedures that didn’t get followed, figured out means to recover from on-board disasters caused by skipping those same procedural steps. I helped scientists design hardware for Spacelab missions, ISS, and both launch vehicles for the Constellation program. These days I help my grand kids with their homework. That and take those late night calls from the ex.
    What you have Kate is an air of competence. It comes from being very good at what you do. It’s only truly applicable to your specific area of expertise, but to a certain extent will spill over to more general subjects. Perceptive people will quickly pick up on the vibe that you are a competent person. What you have to keep in mind is that only a very few who ask really want advice. Most are either looking for validation of choices they’ve already made, or want someone they can blame when their situation self destructs. You of course are free to do as you will, but keep in mind that if people get what they want from you, whatever than may be, they nearly always will be back for more.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh dear. Having acquired an air of competence, how in the heck does one take it OFF?

      • Draven


      • Uncle Lar

        By doing things badly, which I am morally certain is something you cannot bring yourself to do.
        The saddest thing during that quarter century at NASA was how often people were embarrassingly grateful for my simply doing what I’d promised. Would have been much easier as well as a common occurrence apparently to simply blow people off, fail to deliver on time or as promised, but somehow I was never very good at that.
        And as we all know so well, the constant reward for doing good work is more work.

    • Reality Observer

      There is always the right thing for someone to do. Then there are all the wrong things that you can possibly conceive of for someone to do.

      Then there is what they actually manage to do – and it can give you a belief in malevolent supernatural beings…