“I don’t understand computers” is not an excuse

[Update 20 June 2013: I’ve just re-read this post prior to writing an article for ZDNet Australia arguing that politicians, too, can no longer use this excuse. My suggested list of required literacy is clearly out of date. What should it now include? Update 21 June 2013: And here’s the article, Ignorant Oz politicians prevent meaningful metadata debate.]

If you own or manage a business that handles information (and which business doesn’t?) then you must understand computers and the Internet. If you don’t, you’re incompetent. Yes, that’s right, you heard me. Incompetent.

There, I’ve said it. Now, with that out of the way, let me explain…

I don’t mean you need to know how computers work, or how to set them up, program them, maintain them or fix them when they break. You don’t need to know how to connect a computer to the Internet, build a website or any of that stuff either.

However you should know enough to make effective decisions about how they’re used in your business. You should know how the leaders in your industry are using the technology. You should be aware of developments that might affect your plans.

In short, you don’t need to know the technology itself, but you do need to know its implications for your business.

Australia’s had a Goods and Services Tax since 2000. If you waved your hand and said, “Oh, I don’t understand GST,” your shareholders would have every right to sack you for incompetence.

Sure, your accountant handles the details. But at the very least you know that the GST is 10%, and you can handle basic business operations like quoting for a customer’s work.

Well, we’ve had the Internet commercially since 1995, and computers for much longer. They’re a core part of doing business. Waving your hand and saying, “Oh, I don’t understand computers” should equally be a sacking offence.

So what do you need to understand…?

Geeks usually get this wrong, and berate “stupid users” for not knowing how the technology works. No.

A typical small businessperson no more needs to know how computers work than Sir Richard Branson needs to be a rocket scientist to run Virgin Galactic. But he does need to know what’s happening in rocketry.

Most businesses are not IT businesses. Most businesses do something else. They make and sell shoes, plan and execute wedding parties, import stuff and sell it to retailers, sell real estate, make pizzas in 10 different stores and deliver them all over a city, drill holes in people’s teeth and fill them again…

Here’s my first-draft list of some of what a non-IT business should know:

  1. Know the difference between a server, a workstation, a router and a firewall. That’s like knowing the difference between a car, a truck, a tractor and a trench digger.
  2. Know the structure of the industry, and who’s responsible for what. You should know that the person who sold you the hardware is only responsible for the hardware not the software; know whether your software vendor is responsible for training or support or not; the difference between your Internet service provider (ISP), hosting provider, domain registrar, web developer and so on.
  3. Know the expected lifespan of your hardware and software, and the expected replacement or upgrade costs — and be planning for it. Knowing that a computer will last X years and that your operating system will be declared obsolete in Y years is like knowing that your truck will last 10 years with good maintenance and will cost $250k to replace.
  4. Know the likelihood of various things going wrong, and the rough cost and timeframe for fixing them. Do you rely on the information kept on your server? What happens if that server dies? How long will it take to fix? How will you cope in the meantime?
  5. Know current market prices, so you know if you’ve got a good deal. Taking just one example, you should know how much you’re paying for your Internet connection, what percentage of the capacity you’re using, how fast your usage is growing, how long the contract runs — and how that compares with competing plans.

That’s just a start. I suspect the list should be longer. Any suggestions?

Unless you’re a really tiny business you don’t need to know all this personally. However if you’re too small to need a full-time IT manager then someone in your businesses still needs to be across this. Whoever makes the decisions needs to be making informed decisions — otherwise they’re failing in their duty to the shareholders.

Apart from that management-level knowledge, every computer user — you and all of your staff — should know what to do when things go wrong.

If your car’s fuel gauge warns that you’re running on empty, you know to find a service station and fill up the fuel tank. You know roughly how much that’ll cost. On the other hand, if the oil temperature light keeps coming on, or you hear a weird grinding noise, you know it’s time to see a mechanic — an expert. You don’t fiddle with random controls hoping to fix it.

Similarly, you should be able to handle day-to-day computer issues. When an error message says that you’re out of storage space, you should be able to tell whether it’s your local computer’s hard drive that’s full, or your server, or your email mailbox or whatever. You should also know when that error message is serious enough to call in that expert.

To discuss your car with a mechanic, you need a common language: brakes, steering wheel, gear lever, radiator, tyres. Similarly, you should know the basic parts of your computer, both hardware (monitor, hard drive etc) and software (web browser, word processor, dialog box, menu bar etc).

You should also know about the security risks you face online, and how to operate safely and securely.

There may once have been a time when you could get away with “Oh, I don’t understand computers.” That time has long since gone.

If you and your staff don’t know this stuff, then it’s your job as manager to make sure they do.

Finally, IT and the Internet changes fast. I know personally that technical solutions I might have recommended only two years ago are now inappropriate. But most non-IT businesses aren’t used to this pace of change, and their knowledge is often out of date. To cope with the faster pace, they need to change the way they operate.

Most importantly, businesses need to adopt a process of continual review and improvement.

OK… where’d all this come from?

Over the years I’ve had various Prussia.Net clients say “I don’t understand computers” as if it’s OK to be ignorant of that aspect of their business. But imagine if someone said “Oh, I don’t understand money,” or “I don’t understand insurance.” You’d wonder why they’re allowed to keep running that business!

I don’t want to brow-beat anyone, but I do want to stress that it’s something no business can ignore.

A business can certainly decide, for example, that they don’t need a computer-based customer relationship management system. But they should know what a CRM system does, at least, and whether it’s the right choice for them.

This is very much a first draft. Comments are more than welcome. My focus is on the smaller end of the small business market — 10 computer-using staff or less — where these issues are often ignored.

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13 comments

  1. Eric TF Bat’s avatar

    I’d add this:

    Know the difference between shrinkwrap and custom-built software. Sometimes a task can be automated with an Excel spreadsheet or a copy of Quicken. Other times you need to hire programmers or buy software from someone who writes it for you. You need to be able to make a judgement as to when that’s necessary, and have a good idea of how long you’d expect a software development project to take and how much you’ll need to pay.

    It may be costly to get someone in to write the software to handle sales and ordering for your little shop selling hand-knitted Etruscan snoods, but if you try doing it in Excel you’ll quickly fall in a heap forcing your entire business to fit into rows and columns, but buying a generic inventory program off the shelf won’t help you deal with the tricky bits involved with the different grades of Carthaginian yak wool and their effect on knitting time.

  2. Quatrefoil’s avatar

    This was useful. I’ve always been a reasonably intelligent user, with enough of a knowledge of information management to talk to the geeks to get what I want, but in recent years I’ve fallen behind. Where would you suggest I go to upgrade the kind of knowledge you’re talking about, given that I don’t want to do a programming course?

  3. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Eric TF Bat: Excellent addition, thank you! In fact, I have that very issue with a client today who’s asked for a recommendation for a tool (for an as-yet-undefined project, of course!) when it sounds like they’re really looking at custom work.

    Another client avoided having to spend thousands on a custom membership management system by linking their simple, existing membership database to MYOB with just $500 of programming.

    @Quatrefoil: Good question. I shall take that as an on-notice one. Immediate but less useful answer would be “Teh Internetz”.

  4. Quatrefoil’s avatar

    The problem with asking ‘The Internetz’ about things you don’t understand is that it’s hard to ask the right question, or necessarily understand the answer even if you have. I usually go to wikipedia for the cut down racing version of what something is, and that tends to work up to a point, but it’s not so good for questions along the lines of ‘do I really need to buy an x’ variety.

    I’ve also discovered that asking my geek friends questions along the lines of ‘I’m having this kind of problem with windows’ tends to get me answers like ‘Nobody uses windows, it’s a pile of crap’. Which may well be true, but if it’s the environment you’re stuck with, it doesn’t get you very far. I really think there’s a market out there for training People Like Me who will be making decisions about what to buy. I get very frustrated with geeks who make the assumption that I’m stupid.

  5. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Quatrefoil: Your observation that…

    … asking my geek friends questions along the lines of ‘I’m having this kind of problem with windows’ tends to get me answers like ‘Nobody uses windows, it’s a pile of crap’.

    … is almost exactly why I said:

    Geeks usually get this wrong, and berate “stupid users” for not knowing how the technology works.

    Apart from “nobody uses Windows” being demonstrably wrong, that response is a combination of arrogance (I won’t even bother considering the question asked) and ignorance (in many cases it would be extremely expensive, if not impossible, for someone to move their work to a different platform).

    On the latter point, I have clients whose entire business is run on an off-the-shelf vertically-integrated application for their specific industry. Moving from its Windows environment is not an option without writing a completely new application (tens of thousands of dollars) and completely re-training all of their staff (ditto).

    More and more I reckon there’s a market for information aimed at small business owners or individual users that’s not about the technology and gee-whiz factor as such, and not funded primarily by the vendors, so it has a chance of being neutral.

    Lots of good thoughts triggered here. I shall return to them.

  6. tim’s avatar

    Business schools tend to be pretty good at teaching concepts like “money”. They don’t tend to teach concepts like “the difference between routers and firewalls” at all. Computer geeks like us pick it up by osmosis, or reading geeky technical documents, or other routes that businesspeople probably don’t even know about.

    Perhaps your rant would be more appropriately directed against business schools that graduate students without teaching them the knowledge they need in this century.

  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @tim: I agree that business schools perhaps need to include more stuff than just money — I say “perhaps” because I’ve never looked at what business schools actually do. Then again, small businesses probably aren’t run by people with tertiary-level business qualifications. Only bigger businesses tend to have “professional managers”.

    That said, the main point is really about continuing eduction. In the 21st Century I don’t think we can expect to learn stuff at a school and then have that make do for the rest of our working lives — in any field. Things move to fast and we all need to be able to pick it up by osmosis.

    Maybe we need to be teaching people “how to learn” rather than “how to do skill X”.

  8. Pastor Geek’s avatar

    Your observation that this is mostly aimed at small businesses is true. But they at least have the excuse that they are busy trying to keep customers happy and stay in business. My neighbor is a small business owner. He runs a main street clothing store (not a franchise, his own honest to goodness store) and he does a good job at that, but every so often, I have to help him with computer things.

    It’s the corporations that don’t have this excuse. Nearly everything they do touches computers in some way. Do you think the finance folks add numbers by hand anymore? Point of Sale is handled by computerized tills that send the transaction data back to HQ to be crunched by more computers. Inventory data is all stored electronically. HR records are computerized. Payroll is often done by direct deposit. (They get quite unhappy when you ask them to generate old fashioned checks!)

    As a geek, it has long been drilled into me (over 20 years) that I need to understand the business that I’m supporting. I have worked in several different industries and have made substantial efforts to understand them, so that I can write my software better to solve their business problems. I have rarely found the favor returned by business folks.

  9. krangsquared’s avatar

    I like your comparisons with motor vehicles. Very apt. Nobody’s afraid of trucks and cars, and most have some ability to troubleshoot it when things fail. Or at least to know what bit is which. Not so with computers. There still seems to be this air of mystery about them for some people, and a reluctance to engage them and/or gain something beyond basic “how do you start Word and Excel” kind of competence on them.

    I think one problem for non-techie people engaging with computers, in the sense of knowing what’s wrong and how to deal with them, is the fact that software errors are *extremely* baffling and the interaction (or infighting) between Windows and whatever software is running can be very confusing. When things go wrong it is frequently unclear which bit of software is stuffing things up. The usual response is to just turn the damn thing off and see what happens. Resetting works a treat for electrical/ electronic appliances, why not computers – the thinking goes.

    Great blog. Added to my bookmarks. 🙂

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