If the Only Tool You Have is a Hammer…

For as long as there have been comedians, there have been jokes about the differences between men and women. Among them is the notion that men always want to “fix” when women just want someone to “listen” instead.

I am guilty of this.

Not just because I’m a man, but because I have an engineer’s mind. When I see a problem, I start analyzing ways to fix it. To illustrate the point in a humorous way, my wife showed me this video by Jason Headly1.

This issue goes beyond gender, though. Those of us who work in technology often have a “solve it” mindset and seek to fix the technology instead of listening to the person in front of us.

A great example of this is from when I was working as a Genius at my local Apple Store. I had been back from training less than a month and was working at the bar with one of my mentors. For today’s purpose we’ll call him Steve. It was late in the evening and someone came in with a sick iPod and no appointment. Steve was quick to let the person know we had a no-show and brought him over while I finished up with my customer.

The gentleman started explaining the problem. His daughter’s iPod was clicking and wouldn’t turn on. Steve instantly knew what the problem was and with a smile gently took the iPod from the gentleman who was still explaining the backstory and why it was important to him and his daughter to have a working iPod for some advanced classes she was taking. I don’t think Steve heard a word of it. He turned away from the customer stepped to the credenza behind us and with a single action forced the sick iPod to release the stuck drive arm and it spun up. The gentleman was still talking (this was less than 20 seconds) when Steve handed it back to him and cut him off saying, “Okay. You’re all set. Thanks for coming in.”

The customer was stunned. That shock quickly turned to anger. He expressed his concern to Steve that he didn’t think Steve was listening. To which he replied, “but I fixed it. You’re all set now.” This only made the customer more upset and after they went back and forth a bit, the customer pulled me aside telling me that I needed to talk to this “kid” (I’m a few years older than Steve) about his attitude.

I’d seen Steve help a lot of customers both before and after that incident. He’d been doing the job since the store opened. He was great with customers and could figure out almost any problem put before him. But this time he wasn’t listening. He just wanted to fix.

Conversely I had a similar situation come up about a month ago or so. The woman who manages the “doggy day care” where we take our two Beagles called my wife in a near panic. After a few minutes of playing relay between Diane and me, my wife handed me the phone asking if I could take over. It turns out the five year old smartphone that work had issued her suddenly lost all the SMS history. Some of those chats included pictures of dogs that were no longer alive. It also appeared that all of the contacts were gone and there were concerns about the hundreds of pictures still in the camera roll on the phone. As calmly as I could I asked when the last backup had been done. As I expected the phone had never been backed-up. So as evenly as I could, I explained that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get the chat messages back, but maybe AT&T could. She said she’d rather work with me and didn’t want to talk to them. Once I had established that there was little I would probably be able to do for the lost data, I would come by the next day with my computer to make sure all the photos were backed-up and recover what I could.

The next morning I arrived and all the contacts had managed to put themselves back. We both suspect it was just user error, but either way she had what she needed. When I checked the phone I quickly found the problem. The phone listed “zero bytes available.” The phone was just full. That’s when she told me that for the last couple of days the camera wouldn’t take any more pictures as well. I explained my hypothesis that the phone had filled up and the SMS database couldn’t write properly and had become corrupted.

I connected the phone to my computer and copied all of the pictures and videos onto a folder on my computer. Over 6gb of data. I asked her if I could delete all the photos off the phone so there wouldn’t be any more problems. I assured her that I had all the pictures and that I would copy them onto a flash drive for her. She agreed.

One of the pictures was corrupted and had an odd name. After the usual “IMG_1234.jpg” type name there was an additional pair of extensions that was something like “sms.3gdb.” It looked like the last picture before the crash had become concatenated with the SMS database. Since there was nothing I could do about it, I explained it and set the file aside.

For the next couple of weeks, every time I dropped the dogs off she thanked me again and again for the help. Why? Aside from copying some photos I hadn’t really fixed it. She had called wanting to get all the SMS messages back and I couldn’t fix it.

But I listened.

Instead of fixing the tech, I listened to her concerns. Instead of bringing data back, I just put other more important data out of harm’s way.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow2 once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Sometimes we can’t fix the problem. But if we keep whacking at it with our prized hammer, we could just make the problem worse. Sometimes it’s important to add another tool to your toolkit.

  1. Used here with permission.
  2. Source: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_instrument

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