Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Minefield of Low-Hanging Fruit

Today's XKCD comic makes an interesting point:

I've spent a lot of time with computer programmers, trying to coax them into adding this or that feature. And given that it's incredibly hard for laymen to judge which tasks are easy and which are difficult, you can find yourself unintentionally pushing buttons.

For example, you might ask a programmer if he can add feature X, and he might reply, "No problem, that's easy!". You ask about adding feature Y, and he says the same. Then you raise the possibility of feature Z, and he snaps at you, because this one is really hard and would take a long time and be a major headache.

After being snapped at a few times, you learn to ask differently - in a timid, defensive crouch - because you lack the expertise to judge difficulty, and people, for some reason, can't handle even the mere mention of crushingly difficult tasks.

"Hey, Stu, it's not, like, necessary or anything, but I was just wondering if it might be a simple thing to add feature A?"

"Oh, that's no problem; yeah, I can do that super-easy!"

"Fantastic! Let's do it! Hey, I hate to press my luck, but if that was easy, how about this other totally-not-a-high-priority feature B? Hypothetically, might that be also be super-easy?"

"Yup! That's easy too! I'll get on it!"

"Ok, well, hah-hah, if I'm on a streak of finding nice easy jobs, might feature C also be something you could throw in without any trouble at all?"

"What are you, trying to fucking kill me? That would take weeks, and I'm already up to here with your stupid project! Please wait while I throw my coffee cup angrily at the wall and check my email to see whether any other job offers have arrived!"

It's like a minefield; stepping gently won't avert maiming explosions. One option is to simply stop asking for stuff, but it's dangerously tempting when some task proposals are greeted with such cheerful nonchalance. You find yourself trying to to add on as much "low-hanging fruit" as possible, but you're shooting blind, unable to gauge what's low-hanging fruit and what's crushingly impossible. And while the person you're talking to does have that expertise, he will exhibit the emotional steadiness of a first-trimester expectant mother. Even if he maintains a poker-face the first few times, you must know that, behind the mask, he is loathing you.

It's not just a problem with computer scientists. It's a bug in the human operating system. I've seen it with contractors, plumbers (at least ones who aren't on the clock), etc.. And I've even experienced it from the other side as a writer, editor, musician, and arranger.

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