Every user query is a puzzle

The user didn’t really mean to give you a level 5 puzzle to solve. But that’s what it is. Every time the user asks you to help him solve a software related problem, he’s giving you a puzzle.

Sometimes, it’s a level 1 puzzle, where you don’t even need to fire up your code editor to glance through the code to answer, or give more than a few seconds to think through. Sometimes, you have to really push for lots of hints, like clarifying the user’s query, ask for screenshots (even if sometimes they aren’t enough…), and dig through code archives.

I got a level 1.5-ish puzzle lately… The user said he couldn’t use the delete button. I fired up the application, selected a record, and indeed the delete button was disabled. On a whim, I double-clicked. The details of the selected record came up, and the delete button was enabled.

I have never seen or used that particular section of the application before. The user on the other hand, was supposed to be familiar with the application. Perhaps I’m more willing to try out typing randomly or aimlessly clicking the mouse on an application screen. I certainly typed enough asdf’s…

So, have you encountered any high level puzzles? Share in the comments.

If a bull charges at them, they will run

It’s a natural reaction. When people see an angry animal charging towards them, they run. Very fast.

Charging elephant
[image by RollingEarth]

So why do programmers think setting user interface controls that are enabled to display as disabled, is acceptable?

When users see a greyed out text box, what do they think? It’s disabled. There’s an application I’m maintaining where the text boxes are all greyed out, the same colour as the background (it’s a Windows program).

“Oh I can’t enter anything,” complains the user.
“Really? Have you tried typing something in the text box?” I ask.
“I can’t type anything, I tell you!”
“Ok, let me check…”

*some time later after checking*

“Hi, I’ve checked. You can still type stuff into the text box. It’s just greyed out. And you can save the information too. I’ve also modified the program to make it easier to see.”

Yes, users are so convinced of the obvious that they don’t even bother to check if the text boxes are actually disabled. Is it the fault of users? Is it the fault of the programmer? I feel both are at fault, but the programmer more so. Wrong display of enabled and disabled controls is too simple an error to make.

The scene described above actually happened during my work. It’s not about educating the users that they can actually type in the text box, because it’s a design flaw. It’s the fact that they didn’t even bother to try that I’m concerned with. It makes debugging user queries very challenging…

Sometimes, the obvious blinds us, to the point where we react to something that seems obvious to us, but is not the actual thing. There are now things and events we can have time to think through before reacting. I believe we have evolved more than our hunter/gatherer roots.

Of course, if there’s a raging bull charging at you, don’t stop to ask questions. Just run.

A typical month work load

Climber by Bettina Ritter
[image by Bettina Ritter]

I don’t really have a typical work day. It doesn’t mean I have an exciting job. It just means I can’t tell you what I’ll be doing the next day, because I don’t know for sure what I’ll be doing. What I can tell you is what I do in a typical month, generally speaking. There’s a point to all this, and I’ll start with…

From 8:30 am till 6 pm

Those are my work hours. Except Friday. On Fridays, I get to go off at 5:30 pm. My current job title is IT Analyst, changed from Systems Analyst. And if you think that’s vague, you’re right. My job scope is quite varied. Basically, my contractual terms require me to “do whatever the boss tells you to do”.

The current company I’m working for isn’t a software company. I just work in the IT department. What it means is, programming isn’t as highly regarded as I want, as what I read about in those programming blogs and sites. It kinda sucks, but it keeps me fed.

Let me tell you about the tools I use at work. I’m the “online guy”, which means any user interface related development comes to me. I use Visual Studio 2003 (C# and VB.NET) for all the web applications, console programs and a few software tools I create to help me. I also use Visual Studio 2005 for one particular application, with a graphical user interface. It’s too tedious to explain why I use both versions. It’s enough to know that I do.

I also use PowerBuilder for some Windows applications. It’s really, really painful to work with PowerBuilder code. I tell myself it’s the previous programmer’s skill that’s to blame, not the language, but I frequently fail. Tracing and debugging PowerBuilder code takes a lot of work for me. I really hate PowerBuilder… I think this calls for a separate rant article.

I’ve been asked to investigate C and C++ code on Unix machines too. So yes, I understand make files, shell scripts and cron jobs. I even know how to use the vi editor! I used to telnet to the Unix machines with TerraTerm, which is now abandoned for a more secure client application. Can’t remember the name because I rarely use it, because I rarely need to telnet.

Database admin, server admin and LAN admin

Despite the fact that I’m completely ignorant of SQL and databases in my formal education, I’m thrust full force into it at work. I’ve worked with the Oracle, SQL Server and Sybase databases, know most of the nuances between them on SQL syntax, and understand how to use stored procedures. I handle them all.

I am also completely in charge of a few Windows servers and the SQL Server databases running on them. Server maintenance, backup schedule and tapes, security patches, SSL certificates, IIS configuration, server performance.

Then I’ve got to know about the opening of ports for security purposes, who to notify when there are application or server changes. I need to know ping and tracert and ipconfig and other network related stuff.

All of that maintenance and administration is on top of my development work.

I don’t need to connect to Oracle databases now, but I used to do so with TOAD. There’s a limit to the number of licenses, so I wrote my own database connector program. It only does retrieval of data, basically the select statement, but it’s enough for current tasks. The Oracle databases belong to another team, and they’ve only needed me to help out rarely.

I use the Enterprise Manager and Query Analyzer for the SQL Servers. They’re great tools, and they come with the database installation, which is cool. There’s also another tool that has saved me many times. It’s the DTS, Data Transformation Services. I’ve used it to transfer data interchangeably between Oracle, SQL Server, Sybase and get this, Excel. Users take to Excel much better, so I need to use their form of “database”.

Designers, comparers and reflectors

I’m also a web designer. I suck at it, but I’ve been lucky enough to muddle through, and my users and their customers think my user interface looks awesome. I use Paint.NET (and sometimes the inbuilt Windows Paint program) for my image editing tasks. Plus I’ve got some colour tricks up my sleeve.

Some time ago, I had to verify some old code by another programmer. He can’t remember what he changed, and I obviously don’t know what could possibly be changed. I needed help! Fortunately, I found CSDiff. It allows you to compare two files (or even folders) and lists down differences between them. Much better than checking line after line of code by inspection.

And if you do .NET work, you must get the Reflector by Lutz Roeder, which had been taken over by Red Gate Software. It allows you to get back code from compiled .NET DLLs and programs. The result might not be the prettiest code, but with sufficient talent and patience, you can get something out of it.

I’ve used it on my own code and other team members’ code to check for disparity. Sometimes, you forget which version you’ve compiled that code into… Sometimes, it’s for self study, to understand what others have done.

The phone calls. Oh the phone calls.

My phone rings a lot. There are over 10 people in my immediate vicinity. I can tell you that, if you add up all the phone calls all of them ever receive in a month, it would still be less than what I alone receive in that same month.

Remember I told you I’m the “online guy”? That means a lot of users know me, and I don’t know all of them. Since they usually interact with the application interface, any problem is routed to me. Whether it’s data inconsistency, business logic query, application error or failure, all of them come to me. I’m a one-man helpdesk I tell ya.

It was so bad that sometimes, I’ve had to solve and handle user queries for entire days on end. Due to the nature of my work, the start and end of the month are particularly busy for my team. The number of times my phone rings goes through the roof. Maintaining decent phone etiquette starts to be a strain…

Wait, there’s something missing…

Where’s the source control software I’m supposed to be using? Well, I’m the source control. My team is very small in size. Company directives dictate we send work to our offshore colleagues. I think those (typically recent graduate) colleagues have some problems of their own, let alone set up a source control system that works across geographic boundaries.

I’ve not been with development teams at other IT departments, but I think we would totally fail at the Joel Test. Totally.

Despite these circumstances, I still manage to do development work, sometimes with surprising and outstanding results. I believe good task management is crucial to my balancing act. Which brings me to…

Holistic approach to programming

If you’re working at a software company, or on something focused on software and programming, I envy you. I really do. You’d probably get to talk with other programmers on interesting topics. Your work is really appreciated, because it goes to the bottom line.

I might not be programming exclusively, but I get to see the bigger picture. I get to liaise with people from sales, marketing and customer service. I get to talk with upper management and even the actual customers. I get to see the kinds of products and services offered, and how it’s implemented and supported by software.

Programming is kind of … an elite thing. When I was studying C programming in university, I was surprised that many of my fellow students struggled with it. I took to it like a fish in water. After a while, I realised that most people cannot grasp the thinking required in programming, even if they opted to study it themselves.

So I’m going to state this. Many people are not going to understand how great that piece of code you’ve written. Many people think software can make their lives easier, but fail to realise that not everyone can write good software.

This is where all your other skills come in. You have to sell what you’re doing to other people. Convince them that it’s useful, that it’s awesome, that it’s relevant, that what you do and what you propose is important.

Sell your ideas. Market your ideas. Your software is more useful if you see it from a bigger-picture point of view, from other people’s point of view. That requires you to understand other concepts. Concepts that aren’t related to programming at all. And you synthesise them together to make your code better.

And that, is my point.

When even screenshots fail

My best weapon for handling user queries is the screenshot.

User: Hey Vincent, I’ve got an error when doing X.
Me: Send me a screenshot.

User: Hi Vincent, sorry to disturb you. The application Y doesn’t work.
Me: Send me a screenshot.

User: Dear Sir, I cannot log in to application Z. Please advise.
Me: Send me a screenshot.

I’ve been fortunate in that I don’t have to educate my users on how to create a screenshot. Imagine the conversation with me describing where the PrintScreen button is…

User: Uh, how do I send you a screenshot?
Me: Just do a PrintScreen.
User: How do I do a PrintScreen?
Me: Just press the PrintScreen button.
User: What PrintScreen button?
Me: It’s a button on the top right corner of your keyboard, beside the Scroll Lock button.
User: Ok, I’ve pressed the PrintScreen button. Now what?
Me: Now send me the screenshot.
User: How do I do that?

I’d probably slam the phone down and throw it halfway across the hall.

PDFs, Word documents and bitmap files

Anyway, even with the absence of the kind of inane conversation above, I still receive some interesting emails. I might receive an email with a PDF file. I open the PDF file and lo and behold, there’s a screenshot inside, all shiny and black and white and kinda fuzzy and grainy due to the warping from the PDF writing software.

Yes, there are users who are more adept at creating PDFs than Word documents.

Then there are screenshots where the user diligently took a capture of the screen. With the actual error obscured by another window.

Then there are the emails with a file size of 2 megabytes. Think bitmap file attachments with a resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels.

Then there are the clever users who took a screenshot, and to compress the file size, they dumped the contents into a Word document. Word automatically compresses the bitmap. I can’t blame them for not knowing how to use an image editor, even one as simple as Windows Paint. Didn’t get any fancy meta-screenshots, though I’ve gotten a screenshot in a PowerPoint file before.

Then there are the ultra-clever users who know how to take a screenshot, use an image editor to crop it, and *exclaim* save it as JPG or PNG. Even then there are problems. Let me first show you this:

Yellow screen of death

If you’re familiar with ASP.NET, that’s everybody’s favourite error screen. It has useful data such as the general error message, the line of code where the error occurred and the stack trace. The stack trace contains information such as what events were triggered so you know for example, which button was clicked.

Now I have this web application with a loading screen, played out with an animated GIF image. And when there’s an error, something like this shows up:

ASP.NET error with Now Loading

I’m terrible at drawing stick figures… It’s supposed to be a stick figure searching for files in a file cabinet, and throwing any useless files behind him.

Well, my user sent me that. Most of the useful information was below the screen. So I asked her to scroll down so I could see them.

Me: Can you scroll down and resend the screenshot?
User: How to scroll down?
Me: Just use the scrollbar and scroll down.
User: What scrollbar?

That’s the compressed version of a few emails back and forth. I didn’t quite throw my phone across the hall, but I did take a deep breath and drink some water.

Then I took her screenshot and added some comments in it.

ASP.NET error screen with comments

I accompanied that modified screenshot with more comments in my email. I can’t remember what I typed, so here’s the closest version:

Hi,

I’m sure the man throwing files all over the place is all very nice, but I can’t see the actual error below him. Please scroll down so I can see more of the error message.

Regards,
Vincent

Sometimes, you’re not just debugging code. You’re debugging human behaviour.