blackbox revisited


Oh shit they've miniaturized HAL

The other day I wrote about the concept of the blackbox. I focused specifically on the idea of a blackbox as us programmers think about it. I’ve been thinking about it more and more though and realized that there are blackboxes all around us. There are processes that our often complicated, confusing, manual messes that our non-programming friends and family have to suffer through. If they knew a little bit of ruby or maybe some batch programming they would be able to save mountains of time and effort, but they don’t, so that’s where programmers can shine. The problem is that to help our friends and family we have to shine some light into their blackbox tasks and figure out what they do, that’s not the easiest task for a programmer to take on.

Recently at work they announced a change to the timecard system that we use, all timecards MUST be submitted by 10:00am Monday morning. The old system was, they should be in sometime on Monday and if not then our very nice receptionist will send out a sternly worded email shaming you into submitting you timecard. Being curious (and being that the explanation was just a few more lines down in the email) I wondered what change had occurred to the system to require this 10:00am deadline. Ends up that our receptionist used to enter this data by hand from the system we enter it in into the accounting software. This was a tedious and error-prone task, once someone bothered to look at it they realized that with a little bit of code they could automate this all and get these programs chatting back and forth like old bridge partners. A couple hours of programmer effort later and now our receptionist is able to answer calls and do all the other receptionisty things that she is great at instead of spending time copying numbers from one program to another.

The blackbox, timecards turning into accounting information, was illuminated and the process was horrible, a little bit of code applied and BAM new productivity abounds. It gets me to wondering, how many other blackboxes are all around me, waiting for someone to shine some light in, see the inefficiencies, and offer up some soothing code. I’ve given myself a new little game to play when talking to my friends and loved ones, when they start complaining about something that they have to do in their day to day, instead of just offering a sympathetic, “Sucks to be you loser” I start digging deeper. “These reticulated splines are giving you a lot of trouble, how exactly do you make them?” Normally they will reply with a bit of hesitation, maybe even a polite, “Oh, its boring, you don’t need to know about that.” But if you keep on gently nudging, you can find out enough of the process to help.

It doesn’t always have to be by providing code, sometimes just the general nerdy computer knowledge that we have can be incredibly beneficial. It’s easy to forget that not everyone knows the little tricks to make the computer easier and more fun to use. I was able to save my mother hours a day by explaining to her that despite what her boss told her, she does not have to shut down Photoshop between opening every file. Until then she had been instructed and believed that she had to wait a good minute for Photoshop to boot up in between every file, opening hundreds of files a day, you do the math. By asking my girlfriend some questions about something she does at work I was able to throw together an Excel spreadsheet to save her a ton of time. The magic of VLOOKUP and some well placed formulas was all that was needed to take a boring repetitive task and make it much simpler and less error-prone.

For those in the computer-know it’s easy to look at the computer as a simple tool, something to be mastered and leveraged to make our lives easier. For many people though, computers are blackboxes, confusing little machines that spit out weird error messages and are constantly fighting them to get things done. And there is the other edge of this sword, by shining light into a process blackbox and making life easier you do the double duty of helping illuminate the blackbox for a computer novice. You help show by example that the computer is not mean or frustrating (well sometimes they are frustrating) but just a tool that with careful skill, some essential knowledge, and most importantly a lack of fear, you can make bend to your will.

Go find the blackboxes around you, help someone save 15-20 minutes a day, show someone that computers are not just useful in general but can be made personally useful. You will be a technology hero to them, you will find an interesting puzzle to play with for yourself, and at the end of the day everyone will be better off. Find the blackboxes and start pouring in light, you will be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

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