I had a meeting with a customer (let's call her Kate) last week, and she wanted some changes to a web-based messaging application that my group owns and manages. That meeting didn't exactly go as planned.

Blame Tennis

Here's how the conversation between myself and Kate went:

Matthew: OK, so the request you submitted said you wanted the icon on the task bar to flash orange whenever a message comes in from the messaging application, right?

Kate: Right.

Matthew: Unfortunately, that kind of thing is basically impossible in a web app.

Kate: What? Why?

Matthew: Well, it's a completely different environment. The old app was a Windows application, where this kind of thing is trivial to do. But now, the app is a Web app, so it's a totally different environment.

Kate: I don't understand.

Matthew (exasperated): ...See, the web app only exists in the browser, and the browser exists in Windows. But the code can only call it's container. So the web app can call the browser, and the browser can call Windows. But the web app cannot call Windows.

Kate: You just said it could. The app can call the browser, and the browser can call Windows. So the app can call Windows and make the icon flash orange.

Matthew (confused): No. That's not how it works, because if it did work that way it would be a massive security risk. Imagine a malicious website being able to screw with Windows without you downloading something. That would be incredibly bad.

Kate (desperate): But the old app did that!

Matthew (resolute): Right, I know, but that was a Windows app, not a Web app. Making the taskbar icon flash in a web app is basically impossible.

Kate (angrily): It can't be impossible! They did it before.

And around and around we went. She wants something, I say we can't do that the way she wants, she says "but you did it before," ad infinitum. It's an endless game of blame tennis, where she serves with "we did it before!" and I return with "we can't do that now!" over and over until one of us collapses from exhaustion. It's maddening.

Throughout the game, it struck me as odd that she held steadfast to the idea of "well you did it before, why can't you do it again?" Because, to me, the very idea of a web app making Windows do something is preposterous, laughable. It's so far removed from "normal" web development as to be obvious to even the most junior web programmer.

But that wasn't at all obvious to Kate, and I should have known that would happen.

Basically Magicians

Developers, programmers, tech people in general (yes, including me) often forget that to all the people who don't work in the tech world, we are basically magicians. We take abstract ideas and turn them into concrete applications by using indecipherable texts and acronyms known only as "MVC" and "IDE" and "HTML". We are wizards using tools and laws that seemingly break the rules of physics and are seldom understood by persons who are not part of our "exclusive" club.

With that kind of power comes the responsibility to explain ourselves, clearly and thoughtfully, without resorting to name-calling or annoyance. Because, despite our myriad skills, varied experiences, and entirely different tech stacks which we work on daily, to the vast majority of people it's all just software. It's all the same.

This is the key thing that I failed to remember in my conversation with Kate. To her, to anyone who doesn't deal with these things on a regular basis, it's all just software. It's all 0s and 1s and true and false and math and colors and little buttons that won't do anything and links that don't open new windows unless you count to 6 and summon Beelzebub. It's all just crap that gets in the way of doing their job. If they didn't have to deal with it, they wouldn't.

Check Yourself

Kate and I eventually reached a point where we could solve some of her other issues with this system, and she felt pretty good about those agreements. We never got a resolution on the taskbar icon flash thing, and we never will. But eventually we got to a consensus where she understood why this was impossible, and can now go to her boss and try to find alternate solutions (like providing her teams with two monitors each instead of one). We got to a resolution, it just took a while.

We could have gotten there faster if I'd left my attitude at the door.

It is not the customer's job to know the ins and outs of our daily lives. It is our job to explain it to them, so they will know that we are not magicians but craftsmen, plying a trade and solving their problems with code. It is their job to explain to us what they want us to do, so that together we can work up a viable plan for getting their needs met. Both sides must do their part in order for anything to get done.

Nobody wants to play blame tennis; everybody just wants to find a solution. Leave your racket and your attitude at the door, and we can work it out together.

After all, it's all just software.

Happy Coding!