I attended a focus group last night as a participant and was greeted by an epiphany that I keep having over and over: there is a shockingly untapped market out there for folks who can take the intimidation out of computers.
I’ve been doing the computer thing since I was 10, so I’ve developed an inherent ability to quickly understand and assimilate new computer-related technologies. As a result, it really seems very simple to me, but a large part of that is a lack of intimidation on my part. Because I so clearly understand most of the underlying principles of most computer hardware and software, there’s very little mystery left. But for a surprisingly large part of the populace, computers are still voodoo. Were our society a bit more superstitious, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find small altars erected around most home machines complete with offerings intended to please the god Runtime Error.
A lot of the voodoo is really the fault of myself and folks in my industry. IT folks are not that much different from the Masons when you get right down to it. Freemasons were originally a guild of – you guessed it – stone masons that really had nothing to do with old guys in fezzes riding around in go-karts. They formed together to share ideas and secrets of an art that, at the time, was not at all accessible to the general public. Chief amongst these secrets was that of the arches so prevalent in cathedrals built during the time. Masons developed their own signs, symbols and languages to securely pass along their secrets to the worthy. After many years and generations, the result is a secretive, mythologized society that bears little resemblance to the original.
IT workers like to talk in acronyms and technical jargon. Sit four people at a table – two techies and their non-techie spouses, which seems to be a common enough situation – and the language of the techies will bear little resemblance to that of the non-techies. I find that, when two techies meet for the first time, they spend at least five minutes subtly quizzing one another to size each other up. It often starts rather innocently: “Oh, you’re a sysadmin? What are you guys running on?” The way that question is answered can be more informative than the answer itself. For instance, if the answer focuses on the big iron (“We have a few racks of Sun blades with a fiber backend.”) you’re dealing with a hardware geek. If it focuses on the operating system (“We’re a strictly Debian shop, though we’re still on the 2.4.2 kernel.”) then you have yourself a software geek who may not get the big iron questions. Of course, if the answer is “Windows” any IT geek with more than an ounce of elitism will end the conversation there, unless the response came in the form of an apology.
And it goes on from there. They’ll start getting into the specifics (which model, version, kernel, etc.) and push until either one of them reaches the “I don’t know stage” or they come to some mutual geek respect. More often than not, though, it’s a display not unlike the dominance rituals of mountain gorillas. More often than not one of them will fight until they are declared the silverback alpha, even if it’s simply the backing down of their opponent. Both Diane Fossey AND Jane Goodall would have a field day observing the rituals of a group of tech geeks.
The point I’m making (and I do have one) is that the technical elitism so inherent in our culture completely alienates average folks, potentially discouraging someone with a genuine interest in technology from ever taking that first step into the chasm. And just think how total non-techies must feel! Voodoo indeed.
For some, this is OK. I used to feel this way too. I’ve read various entries in the blogosphere that have called for licensing of Internet users to weed out the dumb ones and, theoretically, prevent the constant spread of malware, adware, worms and viruses. There are two problems with this. First off, there’s no guarantee that would halt the spread of such malicious programs. How many worms have we seen spread simply because some lazy sysadmins left an unessential port open to the wild? It’s not just the non-techs who are at fault.
The other problem with limiting access to the web is that users of all stripes are our bread and butter. Before 1994, when the Internet was opened up to private enterprise, the web was a pretty boring place. Granted, it was only a year or so old, but other technologies, like Gopher, Email, Finger, Usenet, etc., were extremely limiting. It was a great place for a geek to talk to other geeks, but that was pretty much it. It wasn’t until private entrepreneurs came along and had a chance to turn the potential of the Internet’s connectivity into the grand moneymaker we all know and love. Without the non-tech folks who many scream are making our lives damn near unlivable, we’d all be out of work. Keep in mind that, just before the Internet was privatized, the outlook for engineers of all stripes was pretty damn bleak. I was told again and again as an undergrad in UC Berkeley Engineering program to make sure I had a backup as the unemployment rate amongst engineers was extremely high and competition was fierce. The Internet opened up a whole new field for us.
So here’s the next killer app: simplicity. Both the Windows and Mac operating systems were designed to make using the computer more accessible to the average user. But as more bells and whistles have been added, and more instabilities introduced, users have had a harder time doing even the simplest things. One of the things we discussed at the focus group last night was putting extended information from a billing statement onto a website where navigation would, theoretically, be easier to handle. The looks of fear I saw in the eyes of some of the folks in the room – intelligent, professional folks, by the way, some of whom weren’t much older than myself – really brought home the fact that the web is still a scary place for some folks. They’d much rather wade through page after page of detailed information by hand than try to find it on a website, even if the URL were short and the navigation simple. They are intimidated by the technology because they don’t understand it.
And it really doesn’t need to be this way. All of us in IT know how simple much of this stuff is. We also know that, really, you don’t need to understand the underlying mechanisms in order to make it work. But what happens when a new worm hits the net? We talk of firewalls and closing off ports and updating antivirus software and not opening strange attachments. And we all know what that means. We all know it’s easy to grab a piece of hardware, change the configuration, install a program and be wary of strange messages. But when you don’t know a firewall from a hub from a cat-5 cable, it’s expensive, strange voodoo. And, at some point, many folks just throw up their hands and walk away, never to return. That’s a lost customer. That’s a lost cause. And that’s a lost paycheck for us.
Rather than focus on adding more features to our already complex systems, we need to work on making the existing systems easier to use and deploy. Instead of having to buy a firewall and force the user to configure it according to some esoteric rules, have it autodiscover the network information and block certain ports based not on what daemons they plan on running, but on what they want to do with their machines. Instead of telling them to open port 80 if they want to run a webserver, ask if they plan on using their local computer to server web pages and set their firewall rules accordingly.
Of course, always include an “advanced” option for those folks who’d rather do it by hand. Nothing annoys me more than software that thinks it’s smarter than me. But for those folks for whom this is all greek, we need to really look at technology from their point of view and adjust our offerings accordingly. There’s a wildly untapped market for folks who can take the intimidation out of technology. It’s nice, ripe low fruit ready for the picking. I plan on grabbing some of that fruit myself. Who’s with me?