Right Person, Wrong Job

June 03, 2010

Posted in Small Business, Technology, and Web Industry.

big engine, little car! on Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/50826080@N00/2668301430/

Years ago, when I was running my own little web business, one of my clients was a car insurance company. We designed their website, but had inherited an online quoting system written in approximately 100,000 lines of terrible Perl code.

Every few months, my client would send me updates that required me (back in my programmer days) to dive into this horrendous tangle of if-then conditionals and half-assed subroutines. In short, it was a mess. But their business depended on it.

One day, I got a call from the president of the company. He accused me of holding their website hostage because I wouldn’t let their marketing person, Becky, update the quoting system. Becky was very nice and I’m sure she was quite good at her job, but she wasn’t technical and there was no reason she should be plunged into code. I tried to explain why this was a bad idea.

“You don’t think she’s smart enough?”

I pointed out that it was a specialized skill and I’d been programming for many years – and it was hard enough for me to do it.

“You don’t think she can learn?”

I grasped at straws. Knowing that he was a car collector and had a full-time mechanic on his staff (to work on their beautiful showroom of classic vehicles), I asked him,

“Would you ask her to work on the engine of your car?”

He immediately responded with an emphatic “hell, no.” From there it was easy to connect the dots and convince him it was in his interest to keep Becky out of the code and leave it to the professionals.

The right job, the right tools, and the right person.

Since then, I’ve learned a valuable metaphor. If you need to hammer a nail, chances are you can learn how to hammer a nail. If you need to cut down a tree, you might learn how to use a chainsaw. But it’s a lot more dangerous. You can hurt yourself. It only takes a small slip-up to do a lot of damage. And it certainly takes more training. At some point, it’s better to pay someone else to do it for you.