Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Extra tech support

Right then, after yesterday’s victory dance, let’s get back to talking about work, shall we? Don’t get me wrong, I could keep talking quite a bit about the Super Bowl party (spirited discussions of Bill Belichick’s coaching strategies to inspire championship performance, including black bag operations against players’ loved ones and dealings with dark eldritch soul-thiefs) and the fallout of the party (my wife and I were in headed for bed by 9:30 last night, and that was later than we had intended) but at a certain point even I acknowledge enough is enough already.

To those of you who wound up here because you Googled 'Bill Belichick + Mind Flayer' ... you're welcome, nerds!
OK, now it’s enough.

I’ve long accepted the fact that the specialist knowledge-gap between myself and my co-workers is a double-edged sword. I’m indispensible (as much as that means anything in our insecure modern economy) because no one else knows how to do what I do, and I’m given lots of leeway to do what I do in my own way and on my own time because, again, no one else knows the nuts and bolts of what I’m doing, how long it should take, &c. On the other hand, I’m isolated, and when I run into a problem there’s no one else I can turn to for assistance (or even sympathy, really). But, as I said, that’s my lot, and I will take it, even when attempting to bridge the aforementioned gap gets odd.

It’s not that odd when I have to perform contorted mental translations while discussing things with my contracting boss, who for example will refer to a web application as a database, which to me only refers to one component of the application but to him basically sums up the whole purpose of the app as a collection of information. At least I can wrap my head around how he defines terms, and I’m not so screamingly pedantic as to try to correct him. We manage to overcome the point-of-reference barrier more often than not.

It’s also not that odd when I get asked questions about things which are epically outside of my expertise, because if no one understands exactly what I do, then no one is going to understand where what I do stops and other things, similar only by virtue of being “techie”, begin. I’m so used to this phenomenon by now that I have a fairly robust set of boilerplate replies to deploy at a moment’s notice which convey that I understand the question but can’t speak to the answer, which I regret while simultaneously completely understanding why the question was brought to me in the first place. I may think like the stereotypical Office Computer Guy but I strive not to project those thoughts too loudly.

No, what’s odd is when I get the creeping feeling that I’m the only one in the room who knows the most fundamental basics of computer operation. Elementary web programming is almost laughably easy, once you take the time to learn the ropes, but I can understand how baffling it may seem to an outsider. And the intricacies of relational databases, or the various mutable factors affecting server performance, those really are things which a non-specialist has absolutely no reason to possess any insight into whatsoever. But in this far-flung outpost of the computer age known as the year 2012, I guess I expect everyone who works in the Big Gray’s office setting to know his or her way around Microsoft Windows and its productivity software. Yet just this week my boss was expressing some concerns to me about updating one of our web apps, which would require a review and rewrite of the content, although the original storyboards for the content seemed to be locked such that people couldn’t update them. He forwarded the material to me and it turned out that the storyboards were just PowerPoint slides and the files in question were read-only. It’s really not that hard to get around that, yet I found myself explaining to my boss how Save As would do the trick while hoping that I wasn’t going to have to pay later for being condescending. It looks like I needn’t have worried about the last bit, which is right back to the double-edge again: I’m happy to help, I just can’t believe anyone else needs that kind of assist.

The good news overall, of course, is that if all of this mystifying file editing gets sorted out, I may end up with actual updates to make to an actual web application, which is always good for my intermittent efforts to rack up accomplishments I can put on my next annual review. But as with all things government agency-related, there’s an awful lot of ground to cover between where we are now and that hypothetical future point, so we shall see.

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