The Screwdriver Test

A year or so after we launched canada.com, Pete and I found that we were spending just as much time administrating the server farm as we were developing new features.  Our boss at the time once joked that Pete was the only Director he knew of that walked around with a screwdriver in his pocket.  Little did we know how important that screwdriver would become.

Although we had a great (small) team surrounding us, it was just myself and Pete looking after the hardware and developing the software for canada.com.  With a small team, you end of doing whatever it is that needs to get done.  The two of us carried pagers hooked up to automated monitoring systems that would alert us if and when things went wrong and needed our attention, 24×7.  (Even after we put additional support in place, we didn’t give up those pagers until many years later.  Now we just have Blackberrys to keep us up at night)

Things were getting busier, and this type of maintenance was certainly not the best use of our time and “expertise.”  After a regular episode of taking some servers offline to upgrade their memory, we decided to take the next logical step and hire a Systems Administrator on contract to relieve us of this burden.  I can’t recall how the interview process went, but we did end up with Bob (not his real name), our first systems administrator.  It became Bob’s job to upgrade the memory, monitor the servers, install patches and wake up in the middle of the night to restart the web server(s) when they crashed.  Pete and I were relieved of the operational side and given our freedom to concentrate on building the product.  Or at least, that was the intent.  It never really worked out that way.  Bob had a decent grasp of the basics, but he needed to be hand-held and micro-manged to get anything of significance done.  During his tenure with us, I’m fairly certain he cost us more time than he saved.  It certainly didn’t save either of us from having to answer that pager in the middle of the night.

So Bob didn’t seem to be really working out for us, but the final nail in the coffin came when Bob was asked to go downstairs and install some more memory in one of our servers.  The very task that had essentially initiated his time with us ended up being the very thing that confirmed he had to go.  Pete gave Bob some very detailed instructions on what to do, and then promptly handed him his screwdriver (out of his back pocket of course) so that he could begin.  Bob went back to his desk and I noticed him fumbling with the screwdriver for what seemed like an eternity, examining it every which way.  Finally out of desperation Bob wandered back into Pete’s office with a question.   This is paraphrasing a bit, but it’s pretty much how it went:

Bob:  Can I get another screwdriver?
Pete:  Huh?
Bob:  I need another screwdriver.
Pete:  Why?  Just use that one.
Bob:  I will, but I need another screwdriver to get the bits out of the handle.

Now, if you’ve been fortunate enough to have known Pete for any length of time, you’ve probably seen (or even received) that wonderful look he gives when he thinks the person he’s talking to is a complete idiot.  (I know I have).  Anyways, this magical screwdriver was one of those handyman specials that contained 6 to 8 interchangeable bits that are stored in the handle.  Bob shows Pete the handle, pointing out the small screw fastening the top of the handle to the hinge.

Pete:  Or…. you could just do this.  (Grabs the screwdriver and swings open the top of the handle)

I honestly don’t how either of us kept a straight face at that particular time.  (We sure did laugh our asses off once he left the room, and still do whenever one of us recants this story).  I think we were just too dumb founded to realize what had just occurred.

Now you may ask, what’s the point of this story?  Is it simply to have a good laugh at the expense of a former co-worker?  You bet, and there’s much more to come!

I kid.  Yes, it’s an amusing story, but like any good after-school-special, there’s a moral to this story.  One important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that some things just can’t be taught.  I don’t care what you call it, intuitiveness, common sense, or whatever else.  I’ve had the good luck to work with a number of great people who have it, and a few that don’t.  No matter what I’ve tried, those who don’t, I feel, are doomed to never have it.  Yes, education matters and experience matters even more.  Those two together can get you to the point of being really good at what you do.  But in order to achieve greatness, those two alone are not good enough.  And that’s not just limited to the area of computer science and engineering.  I’ve seen it across a range of disciplines over the past 12 years.  So to those of you hiring out there, if you’re unsure about a particular candidate during the interview process, hand them a screwdriver and see what happens.