Unknown Technologies

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Several years ago I was working on a website for a large bank; we were setting up processes to allow people to apply for a credit card.

Part of this was meeting with the credit card division head and explaining to him just what the heck this was, since the project was being pushed from another department that was trying to get the other divisions interested in using the web to reach customers.

As an interim solution, we ended up having to convert the applications to faxes and send them to the existing department fax number. This would be (and was) replaced with an electronic channel later on, when the appropriate systems were in place.

We went over the process thoroughly, explaining how the applications would get filled out and sent to a secure server, which would convert the information into an intelligible report and then generate a fax to the credit card division. When we got to the end, we asked if he had any questions:

Him: "What happens if the fax gets dropped?"

Me: "If the fax call gets interrupted, the fax server won't lose the fax, it'll try again. It'll keep trying for three days, and then it'll save the fax and yell for help. We'll almost certainly detect the problem before the three days and probably call you on a voice line to see if there's something wrong with your fax machine."

Him: "No, I mean, what if it gets dropped after it gets to our fax machine?"

Me: "Uhm ...you mean what if, after it gets printed out and your employee takes it off the fax machine, somebody drops it on the floor and it gets lost?"

Him: "Yeah."

Me: "Well... what happens now??"

Him: "I guess it gets lost."

Me: "Then that's what'll happen. What happens if somebody drops a bomb on your processing center?"

At the time I was flabbergasted. He thought we could somehow reach out and affect events at his site? As I later got a chance to think about it, I realized how much of an unknown the web represented to this guy and most people like him. They don't think of it as a technology or a channel from the customer to them. As a matter of fact, they don't think of it at all. To reach them, you have to bridge that gap.

On reflection afterward, I realized that in fact I screwed up. I missed an opportunity. I went in with, somewhere in the back of my head, an adversarial attitude. I went in thinking, "I'm here to explain what we built to them" instead of "I'm here to take the next step in solving their problems". Instead of reacting to division head's request by stopping to think about how I could help him with his problem - clerks dropping faxes - I thought about it my frame of reference, not his. I thought about it in terms of how it related to explaining our system. In fact, I could have done something to help him. Several things, for example:

  • Dating and numbering each fax so the clerks could spot
  • out-of-sequence faxes,
  • Keeping temporary copies of the applications after faxing
  • available for resending,
  • Faxing a log of the applications for that day, once or twice a
  • day.

    Live and learn.

    See original (unformatted) article


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