Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fix my car!

Late Friday afternoon stretched slowly towards the evening. The A/C inside Mike’s auto repair workshop had been fighting a losing battle with the midsummer sun all day. To anyone coming in, the noise and the bustle were disorienting, and the smell of grease, oil and exhaust fumes was nearly overpowering. To Mike himself, it sounded like a hum of a busy day and smelled like the challenge of honest work.

Elbow deep into the hood of a ‘99 Jetta, whistling absentmindedly (and off key), Mike was concentrating on a tricky bit of engine repair, when a tap on his shoulder startled him.

“Excuse me,” came a tentative, almost plaintive voice from behind.

“Be with you in a jiffy,” said Mike, as he began to extricate himself. In just a few seconds, he was free and wiping his hands and arms on a rag as he studied the neatly dressed, bespectacled young man in front of him. “Hi, I’m Mike. How can I help you?”

“Yeah, hi. My girlfriend’s car is broken and I need someone to fix it.”

“Well, then you’ve certainly come to the right place! Bring it in and let’s have a look at it.”

“Uhm, I can’t. It’s not here. It’s parked in my driveway.”

“Ohh-kay.” It took Mike all the self-control he learned in more than a decade of running his shop to keep his face politely impassive. ”What make and model is it?”

“It’s... um, I’m not sure. It’s green.”

“Green. Right.” Silently counting to ten in the back of his mind, Mike tried a different tack. “Right. And what’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know,” the young man in front of him huffed exasperatedly, “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“What I’m asking,” said Mike, surprised to find he’s not gritting his teeth, “is why you say the car is broken? What happened?”

“Oh. That. Sorry. It doesn’t move.”

“Uh huh... Anything, um, more specific?”

“Nope. Don’t know the details.”

“Well then,” shrugged Mike apologetically. “I’m afraid there’s not much I can do to help.”

“Okay, fine. Hang on a second.” With that, the young man whipped out a cell phone and punched a number into it. “Hi, honey. Yeah, I’m at the auto repair shop. Look, I need to know what’s wrong with the car... Yeah, I know, that’s what I said too, but they need more details to do their job... I know, right? … Uh huh. Uh huh... Okay, great. Love you. Buh-bye!”

“Right, so, the problem is that it doesn’t move when she puts it in the gear. She steps on the pedal and the car just sits there and roars. The wheels won’t move.”

“Okay,” said Mike, “now we’re getting somewhere. It sounds like a transmission problem.”

“Transmission? What do you mean? What’s it transmitting and to whom?”

“No, no, it’s the mechanism in your car that allows the wheels to move when you put it into gear. That mechanism seems to be the problem.”

“Right, that’s what I just told you. Now, when will you fix it and how much will it cost?”

“Well, when you bring it in, I can look into it and diagnose the exact problem.”

“Didn’t you just say that this transmission thingamajig is the problem?”

“Yes, but the transmission mechanism is a complex system with lots of components. I need to look at it to find out exactly what is broken and how to fix it.”

A suspicious look settled on the young man’s face. “I don’t know,” he said, arms crossed, “It seems to me like you should be able to tell me how to replace this transmission system.”

Mike tried to find something to reply to that and failed. He opened his mouth a few times, but before he could come up with a way to deal with this Kafkaesque situation, the young man threw his hands up in the air and said, “Fine! Alright. I’ll bring it in tomorrow. Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of,” said Mike cautiously.

“Good. See you tomorrow, then.”

“Unless I’m having a nightmare,” murmured Mike into his beard, as he watched the young man walk out in a huff. Slowly shaking his head, not sure whether what just happened had been real, Mike turned back to the Jetta. “Thank heavens my customers usually aren’t like that...”

So what do you think of Mike’s story? Did it sound absurd, almost surreal? Granted, there are all kinds of people out there, so it’s not impossible to stumble into someone like Mike’s strange client, but it sure is uncommon.

What if I told you the young man in the story worked in a car factory? Wouldn’t that make the story outlandish?

And yet that’s precisely what happens quite often in software development. Many smart people have already spent lots and lots of words on how to report bugs, how to ask for help, how to follow up and how to ask questions in general. I don’t have much to add to all that, but the next time you complain that some piece of software isn’t working without giving any relevant details, remember this story. Doubly so if you actually work in something related to software development.

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