When I was a younger lad with stripes on my sleeve, I used to work at a specialized computer that was especially intimidating to new trainees. I wish I could tell you why, but I’d be clapped in irons and sent to the gulag if I did. What this computer did was not exactly a secret. If you had made your home in the Denver metro area when I did, and you paid any attention at all to what was going on at the air base just east of town, you’d know pretty much all the interesting things there was to know. But I can’t tell you, now or ever, because I don’t like leg irons. Or the gulag. So you’ll just have to take my word for it that this computer was terribly important, and that hitting the “enter” key could be just a tad intimidating.
Trainees usually started out confident because they sat beside me for about a week and watched me point and click and tappity-tap-tap the keys. I wasn’t trying to make it look easy, or hard. It looked like a video game. A really nerdy video game, but not too different from any arcade game you’d pay a quarter for ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of fun.
So after a week of watching me play the video game and reading a training manual that was obviously written by someone with expository skills not much more advanced than they themselves possessed (everyone I’ve ever met thinks, “I could write that”), the trainees felt pretty confident about their ability to do this thing … and then I stepped aside and said it’s time for them to sit down and actually do it.
The first time they hit the execute button and it didn’t do what they thought it would do, they’d quietly mumble a clipped phrase under their breath, usually something like, “What the —?” before cutting themselves off. This is an important first step, but only a first step, because they were depriving themselves of the relief offered by a truly heartfelt cussing.
The next step I watched for to see if they were progressing was when they asked the computer a point-blank question. They’d bark out something like, “What’s the problem? There’s nothing wrong with that!” And then a light bulb would come on over their head and they’d start typing again.
The final step was when they just cussed outright, usually a good, soul-cleansing “FUCK YOU!” and it did exactly what they told it to, but they realized the moment they hit the “execute” button they did it wrong. I knew they were doing even better if they slapped the desk as they cussed. The louder, the better. If it sounded like a big-bore shotgun going off, they were ready to fly on their own.
My boss used the same yardstick to evaluate trainees. She would visit my desk from time to time when I had a new trainee to see how things were going. If she asked and I answered, “Pretty good, he’s starting to talk back to the computer,” she walked away pretty satisfied.