I shall take advantage of this opportunity to unburden myself on you with a little story.

You know, before I was a programmer, I was a barber.

One day I was sitting in my shop when a fellow came in carrying some shears that one might use to trim a hedge. He had long hair that stuck out in all directions.

“I want you to cut my hair using these!” he said.

“No, no, I can’t do that – it would be awful, I couldn’t bear to look at it.” I protested.

“Ah, but I insist. And to save you from the offense of looking at it, I have brought along a blindfold which I want you to wear while you are cutting my hair.”

“No, no. This is getting ridiculous. You would look awful. And you might get hurt!’

“I will sign a release. Do as I say. I insist” .

“But I can do it right. I know how.” I implored.

“Could you guarantee that it would be perfect and that I would never have to get another haircut, ever? Could you make me look like Fabio? How about Brad Pitt?”

This was asking too much. At best, I could make him look like Buddy Hackett. I admitted that I could not, only that I could do a better job without the shears and the blindfold.

Back and forth we went, and finally he wore me out. I gave up my resistance, put on the blindfold, and took some swipes at his head using the hedge shears. When I thought I had done enough, I took off the blindfold.

He was a mess. His hair was all in clumps, with bare spots mixed in among the uncut long spots. His ear was bleeding where I had nicked him. I felt awful about the job I had done. I could say nothing.

But he thanked me politely, paid me and even tipped me, and walked out the door.

That night I wondered about this whole scenario, and I was happy the next morning when he walked into my shop. He was carrying a tiny little mirror, the kind that women carry in their purses, looking at himself. He pointed to a tiny spot in front of his right temple, outlining a two-inch square, and asked me to fix that spot. “Make it even, do it right” he invoked me.

“Please let me do the whole thing right. I know I can fix it” I implored.

But again he insisted, and, knowing I could not convince him, I used my clippers to make the patch in front of his right temple as fine as it could be. I refused his offer of payment. In the barber business we think of work done like this as “warranty” work.

Two hours later he returned once again, mirror in hand. Another two-inch spot in the back of his head. I implored, he insisted, buzz, buzz, and out the door.

And two hours after that, and two hours after that, and, indeed, it took me three days to give this man a haircut. And he didn’t look as good as Buddy Hackett.

After that, I became a programmer to avoid such frustrations.

The author comments:

The story was one of those analogies of a frustrating project that I am working on now. They insisted on doing it in a way that I strongly disapproved of, but gave in on, and now we are re-doing it piecemeal as they see, one-by-one, the errors in their choices. It wasn’t worth quitting over.

The trickiest part which I have not figured out yet, is to use this story with them, without beating them up with it. Or what else I could have done under the circumstances. Except for the strange way they want me to “cut their hair,” they are decent people and even friends.

This is generally rare. My opinion is very well respected among my users and my peers. I am usually not in the position of formal authority, but on many occasions when we have had a disagreement about how to do something and they have decided to do it the other way, I close the discussion with a request that “I want to make sure that you understand that if you do it this way it will be against my recommendation. Is that correct?”

Quite often they say “Yes” and the meeting is over, but most of the time they get to think about it overnight and I get a call in the morning of reconsideration. This time it didn’t happen. I can’t win them all.

Please feel free to post it or use it any way you wish, including this commentary.

© Jim Batterson, 2000