People are fascinating, and their beliefs can be quite odd. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses some commonly-held beliefs about technology that make it difficult to keep a business operating smoothly. Also, pudding.
I was chatting with one of my mates from London this weekend about how his holiday was going, and he made a passing comment about his ‘Christmas pudding.’ It threw him a bit when I instinctively recoiled in horror; we’d blundered into one of those curious points of divergence in our shared language. As I understand it, y’all use the word ‘pudding’ to refer whatever gets served as the dessert course of a meal (like a lovely slice of cake); for us yanks, a ‘pudding’ a very specific form of dessert that’s made of equal parts sugar, thickener, and elemental evil, like tapioca, sweetened caulk, or the blue fluid that leaked out of the ‘blanks’ in Simon Pegg’s The World’s End.
If it wasn’t immediately clear, I’m not a fan of American-style ‘pudding.’ I don’t begrudge people who enjoy it. My darling wife will occasionally make chocolate pudding and drop spoonful of peanut butter in the serving dishes, and then tell me afterwards how scrumptious it was. I’m happy for her; I, in turn, see her pudding approaching and politely flee the dinner table. To me, ‘pudding’ will always be a sticky, oozy, disgusting thing. To each their own. You’re welcome to have my serving.
Along those lines, I didn’t understand the meaning of the phrase ‘the proof of the pudding’ when I was a wee lad. The Peanuts special It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown first broadcast in 1974, and featured the phrase ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The proof of the pudding is under the crust.’As a young fellow who cared not a whit for the overly-sweet mahogany slime, I couldn’t fathom what in blazes that phrase meant. First off, you don’t need to delve into the interior of an unsettling blob to determine that it tastes like sweetened glue; every part of it tastes exactly the same. Moreover, if your chocolate pudding ever did develop a ‘crust,’ it probably meant that the whole thing had spoiled; therefore eating it would cause you to die of botulism or something equally terrifying.
I didn’t learn the actual meaning of the phrase until I was a teenager. It makes much more sense when you realize that the phrase comes from the proper English meaning of ‘pudding,’ and that the ‘proof’ in question refers to perceiving the actual execution of an untried product. It can also be used as a conversational reminder to withhold judgment on something until it’s been observed in operation.
Up until I learned that alternative definition of ‘pudding,’ I believed that there was some peculiar mystery to the noxious that I simply didn’t grasp. Maybe ‘genuine’ pudding was substantially different from the cheap mix that we bought at the grocers. Maybe there were boffins who made a living differentiating between orthodox and heretical pudding.  I wasn’t sure, but I felt that the phrase must mean something. Every time I was offered pudding, I wondered what exactly it had to prove.
Beliefs are weird. Beliefs are often completely irrational, derived as they often are from misunderstandings, flawed premises, or good old-fashioned crazy. Absurdist beliefs cover the entire range of possible subjects, which is why we encounter them so often around the office. Some odd beliefs are endearing, many are inconsequential, and some are downright destructive. The further up the corporate chain you go, the more destructive a person’s beliefs can be. That’s why we have an obligation as corporate leaders to ferret out what exactly our executives believe and why they believe it, so that we can evaluate whether or not the decisions being made for our company’s future are rational … or utterly barmy.
One word of warning: probing another person’s thinking can be an unsettling endeavor. Discovering that your boss holds a deep dislike for the sitting Prime Minister is only mildly interesting; discovering that her dislike is borne from a grim certainty that the Prime Minister is a space alien, on the other hand, can be deeply disturbing. Once you realize that your boss holds indefensible and borderline-insane beliefs, all of their motivations and arguments start to lose credibility. As a practical example: are we deploying e-mail to employee smart phones because it’s a cost-effective way to keep our employees connected? Or are we embracing iPhones because the CEO thinks that her BlackBerry handset is secretly recording her thoughts? In short, are you implementing a sound business decision or a steaming bag of crazy?
This is a larger problem than you might expect. Human beings are capable of harboring some seriously bizarre and contradictory ideas. Most of the time, these beliefs don’t negatively impact the bearer’s daily life (e.g., ‘the moon landing was a hoax’). Some only come into play on very rare occasions (e.g., ‘all Belgians are left-handed’). It’s relatively rare to find someone in a business environment who holds a belief so wild that’s effectively debilitating (e.g., ‘all gingers are predatory cannibals who covet the flesh of accountants’) because truly outré ideas tend to manifest early on in the new employee on-boarding process, and with sufficient reaction to blunt the bearer’s ability to function in civil society.
I’m not considering simple technical ignorance (e.g., ‘When I delete a file from my hard drive, it can never be recovered’) to be in this category. The type of belief that I’m concerned about (as a technology professional) is the kind that (a) prevents the bearer from operating effectively in the workplace, and (b) is just subtle enough that it’s hard to discern.
These are some actual, expressed-out-loud, wacky tech beliefs that users have expressed to me over the years that truly hindered the bearer’s ability to make sound decisions in regards to essential business functionality:
Delusion 1: ‘Company A is the only company making innovative (products); Company B simply copies everything that Company A did first, and should therefore be ignored or marginalized.’
This has been going on for decades. You can drop Apple versus Samsung into this argument for smart phones and/or tablets, or Apple versus Microsoft for PC operating systems, or Apple versus Google for phone operating systems, or Sony versus Microsoft for game consoles, and so on. The argument is a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance, whereby the believer attributes authorship for some aspect of their preferred product and ignores the mountain of evidence that demonstrates how other designers or companies had experimented with that same feature, either first or concurrently.
Technical innovations don’t arise purely in a vacuum. Innovation in IT is most often the product of one boffin figuring out how to use something that another boffin created, only in a slightly different way. Every tech company scrutinizes what its competitors are doing (or might be doing), and learns from their competitors’ successes and failures. All of us ‘win’ as a result, in that the best-possible features usually become de facto standards across most successful products.
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, most tech products do some things very well, other things acceptably, and many things poorly. No product is perfect, but very few are so terrible that they should be expunged from the world. When it comes to basic business functionality like e-mail, web browsing, and assembling PowerPoint slides, just about any modern device can get the job done.
Most of the passionate arguing over Apple versus Google versus Microsoft versus Sony is just conversational filler, and ought to be ignored.
Delusion 2: ‘My computer isn’t fast enough to allow me to do my job.’
This one’s usually bunk and balderdash. I’ve heard this argument since the Macintosh SE was the new rock star in the office. Users have complained to IT about the inadequate speed of their devices for as long as there have been users and devices. It’s a time-honoured tradition.  There are very few professions where raw system performance actually makes a meaningful difference in productivity.
Several years back, I had a division-level executive complain that his PCs were all too slow, and that all of the people at his campus couldn’t do their jobs. Therefore, the executive opined, the IT department should pay to replace all of his department’s PCs. I politely declined to indulge the fellow, but he didn’t let up. He came after us for months, demanding ‘compensation’ for his employees’ claimed lost productivity. It was true that the computing experience at the poor fellow’s site was considerably slower than on identical machines on the main campus – but that was the inevitable result of being downstream from the main data centre over a saturated WAN link.
The same sort of problem afflicted several of our other user groups during that same period. Many tech-savvy home users complained that the ‘entry level’ Celeron processors in their office PCs were simply inadequate for their ‘demanding’ business needs. When audited, however, their XP-on-Celeron machines were just as slow (or as fast) as all the other machines in the complex when it came to running Outlook, Word, and the like. The legitimate lag that the users were experiencing came from the servers on the other end of the WAN link up to the national office. The users’ PCs were idling 99% of the time while they waited – bored – for data to arrive from a distant host. That’s a networking problem, not a processing problem.
Still, the dissatisfied users’ subjective experiences always carried more weight then any rational proof. The thing that made our PC techs secretly giddy was how our most vociferous irritants would initially praise the speed and responsiveness of their newest machines … for about a month. Six months after delivery, they’d be right back in the Help Desk queue complaining about how annoyingly slow their kit had become.
Delusion 3: ‘It’s possible to make our computers perfectly secure.’
This delusion is quite popular among executives. It grows out of a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word ‘secure;’ the concept that a device, place, person, or object can be made impregnable or perfectly resistant to outside attack. The grim truth of the matter is that nothing in life is perfectly secure. A modern Main Battle Tank can shrug off bullets, rockets, grenades, sharp rocks, and harsh language, but you disable one with an incendiary grenade placed atop the engine. Likewise, you can lock down your PC with all the best configurations and patches, but it only takes a simple spear-phishing e-mail to deftly undermine all of that painstaking configuration work.
Security is both a mindset and a process; it’s a journey, but it’snot an achievable state. You can freeze water and make ice; you can’t muck about with a PC and ‘make’ it ‘secure.’ You can, realistically, make a PC more secure than it was previously, but you’ll never make a PC impregnable.
Delusion 4: ‘You IT blokes are causing my equipment to malfunction because you don’t like me!’
Oh, for the love of …
No. No, we’re not. Let’s examine this logically, shall we? If we really don’t like you (which doeshappen; we’re only human), why on earth would we want to do anything that compelled you to spend more time with us than is absolutely necessary? We’re not masochists; we’re just trying to get through the day, same as you. It’s in our best interests to get you sorted and then get you the hell away from our department just as quickly as possible so that we don’t have to endure your abuse.
Some clever users have worked that fact out, and make it a point to be as annoying and as abusive as possible when phoning up IT, just so that we’ll go the extra mile to make them go away. I hate to admit it, but … yes, that approach works.
Delusion 5: ‘The prime minister/president/prince/entertainer is actually a space alien.’
Actually, I can deal with that brand of crazy. Conspiracy buffs need the Internet to keep their theories alive, so they have a vested interest in keeping their office PC in top form. They tend to have the latest web browser, current patch levels, proven anti-malware utility, etc. They’re also loath to call the Help Desk for fear of being eavesdropped on by the Illuminati or whomever it is that they believe is orchestrating the world behind the scenes. So … Hmm.
Carry on, lads. Thanks for keeping your end up. And would you care for some pudding?
 Just goes to show you … if you think you’re invented something new, Google it. It probably already exists somewhere on the Internet.
 Within the IT department, we often refer to these users as ‘vexatious complainants’ or ‘VIPs.’
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).
His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.