Willy Wonka and the I.T. Department

IT Department
    Photo by EverJean

Last week I was watching RiffTrax (if you’re a geek who hasn’t yet discovered them, you owe it to yourself to check them out.) The particular RiffTrax I was watching was the classic, Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It brought back a number of childhood memories, mostly painful ones.

When I was about 8 or 9 I watched this show with my family on T.V. and it scared the living hell out of me. It wasn’t the Oompa Loompas, though they did happen to traumatize another friend of mine in his childhood. No, it was the children disappearing from the tour group one at a time. For some reason I thought the children were dying or being permanently disfigured. When the little Gloop boy got sucked up into the chocolate tube I was certain he was being chopped up and packaged in candy bars. Veruca Salt and her dad were undoubtedly burned up in the incinerator (though this was left a little ambiguous, they may have been.)

Watching the movie now as an adult I can see how silly that was. It was made very clear that they weren’t dying, but it would have been nice if the movie ended like the book with the children and their parents emerging from the factory (relatively) unharmed. And even if the effects to them were permanent, it’s satirical fiction and not something to be afraid of. It got me thinking about how different things look through someone else’s eyes. It’s not possible for me to look through my own childhood eyes and see why I was so scared. I can scratch the surface and begin to see what was scary at an intellectual level, but I’ve changed so much in the intervening years that all I can wonder is “what in Wonka’s name was I thinking?”

This relates to us as system administrators in the way that we don’t have the eyes of our users. Things like mysterious error messages, menus that change suddenly, and network connection properties are just normal things to us, but to non-specialists these things can be very unnerving. When clicking on a button can turn you into a giant blueberry, even if the IT staff’s magic incantations can bring you back, you’re still not going to be working with much confidence.

The fact of the matter is that we will never be able to see computers as our users’ see them.  They have been permanently changed in our psyche (or, more accurately, our psyches have been permanently altered to understand and not fear them.) It is why we sometimes end up looking like Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy. There’s just a big disconnect and the fault isn’t the users’, but ours for not understanding how they see technology. Unfortunately, we can’t actually use their eyes, all we can do is simulate them. Good sys admins are able to simulate them better.

Next time a user is freaked out by a missing file, try to remember the skinny kid sitting in front of the 18-inch T.V. worried that little (very little) Mike Teevee is going to have to spend the rest of his life in his mother’s purse.