October 18, 2003

Secret Computer-Training Woman

Yet another aspect of the division of labor: sekrit after-hours computer training. Adam Smith would be amazed:

CNN.com - Execs who are tech dummies seek secret training - Oct. 14, 2003: NEW YORK (AP) -- She often meets her powerful clients on nights and on weekends, when no one is around. Some of them insist she call only on their cell phones, fearing the loose lips of secretaries. Yet there is nothing unsavory about Jennifer Shaheen's line of work. Shaheen, 32, is a computer tutor to corporate big shots, giving pointers in the fine arts of opening e-mail attachments, navigating Excel spreadsheets and performing other PC chores the executives' minions probably can do in their sleep.

"You'd be surprised by what they don't know," Shaheen says. "And they're not comfortable asking the IT person in their company because then they show weakness to their staff." Now that the computer revolution is over -- and it's clear the computers won -- some senior executives are in the embarrassing position of being perched atop the corporate ladder without knowing their apps from their elbows.

"It used to be a badge of honor to say, 'Everyone knows how to use the computer, but I don't know how to turn it on.' Now they say, 'I need help,"' says Gerald Cullen, a Gainesville, Fla., consultant who offers confidential, $50-an-hour technology training to executives. Much of the ineptitude is blamed on doting secretaries who handle e-mail and other computer chores for their bosses, computer trainers say. And executives often are too embarrassed and intimidated to attend computer classes with clerks and secretaries.

"These secretaries were typing with 15 fingers and the poor executives were looking for the 'X' key and the 'Y' key," recalls Hossein Bidgoli, a California State University-Bakersfield professor who also teaches computers to executives. IBM Corp. has even poked fun at this type of technophobia with a TV commercial featuring the "executivus obsoletus" -- a dark-suited manager who worries he's became extinct by not keeping up with technology. He's shown on exhibit in a museum with dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. Ian Colley, a spokesman for IBM's consulting arm, says top executives often make ease-of-use a priority in products they seek for themselves.

When a company has many units involved in different types of business, all functioning on a variety of computer platforms, top executives can be overwhelmed. They want what Colley calls a simple "corporate dashboard" -- showing at a glance how their business is operating in real time. But some need more remedial help. Shaheen says one client literally didn't know how to turn on his laptop. So when training her clients, she starts with the basics, physically opening and closing a filing cabinet to explain how computer files are organized within Windows. Though not all clients require that sort of training, it's exactly this type of non-techie approach that attracts executives to personal technology coaches.

Michael Gallin, a partner in the New York construction company John Gallin & Son, Inc., is one of Shaheen's few clients willing to publicly admit to needing her services. He says he was only taking advantage of about 10 percent of programs like Excel, Microsoft Outlook and Timberline project management software. "There are people here who know the system, but they're busy," Gallin says. "They run over and solve the problem, rather than show you how to do it. They hit eight buttons before you know what they did." It's unclear if there is enough business to expand the practice greatly beyond the clients she already has -- about a dozen executives who range from small entrepreneurs to heads of large public companies. Pat Galagan of the American Society for Training and Development says she hasn't heard of a great demand for this type of coaching, though there does appear to be a growing demand for personal coaching in other business areas.

But others see a potential. "I don't think they [executives] want to broadcast their lack of techno-savvy across their business," said Lane Kramer, president of the CEO Institute, a Texas-based networking group of 225 presidents and CEOs. "So they're going to be discreet and low-key about bringing someone in." Shaheen has a message for all the busy bosses struggling to understand the perpetual stream of software updates and patches, viruses and worms, hackers and identity thieves: You are not alone. "When they find out they're not the only ones, it's like this weight has been lifted off their shoulders and they say, 'Really? I'm not the only one who doesn't know what the two mouse buttons are for?"'

We Mac users, of course, don't have mice with two buttons...

Posted by DeLong at October 18, 2003 11:07 AM | TrackBack

Comments

This Mac user does. Indeed, given how many things are ten times easier and faster in OS X with a two-button mouse, I have to say it's kind of retarded to stick to the old kind. These days, having to use an old-fashioned Mac mouse feels like I'm missing my thumb.

However, what really caught my eye about the above was the blithe blaming of "doting secretaries." They pretty much come out and straightforwardly say those bad secretaries are to blame for their bosses' cluelessness. Jesus H. Christ.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on October 18, 2003 11:22 AM

Ah. But note the use of the passive voice: no identifiable individual blames the secretaries...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 18, 2003 11:32 AM

A decade ago, at least, the overwhelming majority of MS-Windows users did not know what the second mouse button did; I don't know if that's still so.

The reason Macs only have one mouse button is that the original Mac UI team found that beginning users were confused and intimidated by multiple mouse buttons and they had a goal of basic usability for a beginner in half an hour.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on October 18, 2003 11:49 AM

...they had a goal of basic usability for a beginner in half an hour.


Absolutely. Which also had the unintended consequence of crippling speed/power/functionality/flexibility for advanced users for the entire lifetime of the single-button-mouse machine.

Simpler is not necessarily always better. And even the cretinous Windows lusers around here seem to have figured out that the second button does *different* stuff.

Posted by: marquer on October 18, 2003 12:18 PM

my mothers macintosh has a mouse with 5 buttons and a scroll wheel....

it only took a few minutes to teach her that there is one button that she would be using most of the time.

i think the scroll wheel is the most useful item though.

Posted by: sampo on October 18, 2003 12:38 PM

Most Mac apps are cross-platform. Mac developers tend to put the functionality of the second mouse button under the Control key on the Mac. Generally, first mouse button to directly manipulate an object (open, move, etc.), second mouse button/control click to indirectly manipulate an object (change color, associations, etc.). One-button mouse is a bit cluky in this regard.

**********
This kind of article pokes a stick in the eye of the "computer savvy people are on top of income inequality growth" idea. Most growth has taken place at the top, and I would imagine that few at the top are actually engineers. This article is saying that there are plenty at the top that are technically illiterate. Maybe time to revise a popular idea about income inequality...

Posted by: Saam Barrager on October 18, 2003 12:39 PM

Most Mac apps are cross-platform. Mac developers tend to put the functionality of the second mouse button under the Control key on the Mac. Generally, first mouse button to directly manipulate an object (open, move, etc.), second mouse button/control click to indirectly manipulate an object (change color, associations, etc.). One-button mouse is a bit cluky in this regard.

**********
This kind of article pokes a stick in the eye of the "computer savvy people are on top of income inequality growth" idea. Most growth has taken place at the top, and I would imagine that few at the top are actually engineers. This article is saying that there are plenty at the top that are technically illiterate. Maybe time to revise a popular idea about income inequality...

Posted by: Saam Barrager on October 18, 2003 12:44 PM

I seem to be the only person out there who views this as behavior not as a joke but something truly frightening.

In my world, people who are good at their jobs are secure in their confidence and unafraid of asking questions. They know they cannot do everything or know everything and don't pretend otherwise. They know that their role in an organization is to perform certain tasks well, and to work with other to achieve those tasks.

What this article tells us is that a substantial number of those running companies appear to be very bad at what would appear to be their primary responsibility: leadership. They appear to know full-well that they cannot justify their existence solely by what it is that they do, whether that is selling, financial engineering, motivating or what-have-you, and so are resorting to the usual tactics of weak men in over their heads---intimidation and throttling the flow of knowledge. Because, of course, it is people who rely on such tactics who cannot "afford to appear weak" in front of their minions. Competent leaders couldn't care less about admitting that they don't know how to set up their computer for printing, just like they don't know how to cook bread, or how to service a car engine---they never claimed such knowledge, and it's not part of what they do for the company.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on October 18, 2003 01:56 PM

I am sampo's mother...
and I say that the scroll wheel really rocks! I was content with a one button mouse, but I love this new mouse. My other hand is gently poised over the keyboard with my thumb on the Apple key (and can slide right onto the space bar - for a page down move), my left index finger on the W key (for closing windows/tabs when pressed with the apple key), my ring finger on the ~ key - to move to other browser pages or slide down onto the tab key to move to another open application - when pressed with the apple key.

Posted by: eyesopen on October 18, 2003 02:20 PM

Some of us old-time DOS users remember that in the PC world, the huge effort to develop a usable graphic interface seemed to coincide with getting executives to use PCs, rather than secretaries and geeks.

Posted by: Altoid on October 18, 2003 03:09 PM

It has been easy enough to attach a multi-button mouse to a Mac for years now; that's been an option for power users for quite a while.

The last time I looked, two or three years ago, the Windows interface guidelines were specific: the system must be usable with a single mouse button because there were many people that did not use the second button.

"it only took a few minutes to teach her that there is one button that she would be using most of the time." yes, however, it is not generally possible to provide a teacher with each new computer.

By the way, the scroll wheel has a precedent--a knob--in the HP computers that I was using in the early 1980s.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on October 18, 2003 04:38 PM

Some of this illiteracy is a hangover from the traditional managerial contempt for typists and secretaries. Working on a keyboard was long regarded as a menial task. Back ~1970 ambitious career women refused to learn to type because they didn't want to get shunted into clerical roles. One of the many nightmares of English majors even today is becoming a secretary for some hard-charger who never bothered to learn to type or spell.

Posted by: Zizka on October 18, 2003 06:48 PM

"Maybe time to revise a popular idea about income inequality"

Saam: Your cynicism is understandable, but I'll remind you we live in a meritocracy. My betters told me so. And I suggest you make peace and embrace the Giving Hand, lest you become acquainted with the backside of it. ;)

Posted by: andrew on October 18, 2003 08:57 PM

Hmmm... who's butt to kiss... the su at root who can crush me like an other at 770, or the prickly executive with his eye on the sharpened stick...

Posted by: Saam Barrager on October 19, 2003 01:18 AM

Wow, I had no idea Stephen Glass was working for CNN.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on October 19, 2003 02:45 AM

Twenty years ago middle management typically did not use keyboards. But their secretaries and assistants did.

Today, much of middle management is gone and those that remain frequently do not have dedicated secretaries or assistants. Today's middle management does their own typing, email, etc. This is a much more efficient or productive workforce.

This is a trend that will continue -- people leveraging their efforts with computer assistance will be more and more productive over time. And the computers will not just be doing menial tasks but will be given more and more complex tasks to perform. The transformation this will bring in the future will reshape our society.

And economists wonder where the productivity gains are coming from?

Posted by: i dunno on October 19, 2003 04:12 AM

i dunno writes:
>
> Today, much of middle management is gone and those
> that remain frequently do not have dedicated secretaries
> or assistants. Today's middle management does their
> own typing, email, etc. This is a much more efficient or
> productive workforce.

This argument has always sounded pretty good, but I should point out that until *very* recently, it was remarkably difficult to show any productivity gains due to PCs. Let you think I'm some kind of nutbar, I suggest you take a look at Thomas K. Landauer's 1996 book "The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity". So the nutshell argument against productivity gains due to word processing is that what computers *first* do is make it much easier for you to do multiple drafts of a memo, or make the memo longer. Then you get a GUI, and we all like to play with fonts... But none of this stuff does much for the bottom line. Also, ironically enough, is the fact that (at least initially) replacing the typing pool with a model where everybody typed up their own stuff had the potential for replacing an hour of work by a highly-trained and expert typist earning less than $10 per hour with two or three hours of work by a poorly-trained and often incompetent (at typing) executive earning much more.

None of this is to say that it isn't weird to have executives who need such skills finding themselves in a situation where they are embarrassed to ask their own staff about how to get training. But the power of typing is at least a partially mixed blessing. The length of the average article in my field has gone up *significantly* in the last two decades, and each cites more of the literature than ever before. But the modal number of citations for any article in the field remains steady at 0, while the median number is still (I believe) 1.

Posted by: Jonathan King on October 19, 2003 08:51 PM

I'm currently working as an administrative assistant to an executive assistant to a vice president.

Both of them have at some point E-mailed me a file with a request to (a) print it on their printer, or (b) E-mail it to someone else at a given address. Both of which could of course have been done by them with equal or less effort than sending me the file. Another middle manager called me a "genius" for locating the Windows Calculator accessory.

The down side of this kind of thing is that they'll then ask me to design some rather advanced database, with no clue that that's actually a little harder than the previously mentioned tasks.

Posted by: Eli on October 20, 2003 11:02 AM
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