This is Joshua Wehner's archaic Blog

Logistical empathy

I keep encountering this… thing, this psychological reaction, lately, that I don't think has a name, so I'm going to give it one: logistical empathy. Specifically, I think most people lack it.

A couple of examples:

  • Liz was doing some work that involved traveling to Hawaii. When it came up in conversation, people tended to imagination their idea of a trip to Hawaii: vacationing on the beach. For her, the trip wasn't all beaches and sunshine – there were steep up-front costs, some driving up mountain switch-backs in the dark, mild altitude sickness – not a vacation.
  • We encountered similar reactions when we told people we were contemplating moving to the Netherlands – a typical reaction could be "Oh, you should definitely go…" But for us, there was a lot of angst – how much will this cost, what kind of visa requirements are there, what about Badger – the whole "planes, trains and automobiles" thing.
  • I don't think this is unique to us – I mean, we may be a bit on the analytical side, but we're not crazy. Anecdotally, I know this pattern is often seen by those who occasionally (or frequently) travel for work, especially between parents and their children – an initial reaction of "Oh, how fun, a trip to New York! I love New York", with "Yeah, but I'll be in meetings all week…" as the reply.

As much as empathy may be itself a rarity, I suspect that there exists a particular difficulty in "logistical empathy". When dealing with someone else's problem, we tend to visualize the goal (or our goal), but when dealing with our own problems, we tend to visualize the process.

This provides an interesting perspective on two problems I frequently encounter professionally: the "estimation problem" and the "client-doesn't-realize-they're-asking-for-a-miracle-to-happen problem".

The first is something Joel Spolsky writes about frequently and eloquently. To summarize him: Asking someone who isn't going to do the work themselves to provide an estimate of how long it's going to take won't work. And, accuracy in estimation hinges on thinking in units as small as possible. If you write "build a web site" on the task list, your estimate will probably suck. I've personally seen bids where the initial estimate only covered the first task in development.

The second is harder to describe, but many people I know who work in the professional services area – from hair-dressers to architects to graphic designers – often lament that "the client doesn't understand what they're asking for". I'm probably biased, but I think it comes up more often with services that seem more accessible – "I have a computer, I know how computers work, it can't be that hard". While things are constantly improving, there are still some areas of web work that are consistently hard – semi-transparent images, universal compatibility, "intuitive" design – but I wouldn't expect Average Guy to know that.

It's been my experience, that only people who've really "been there" provide valuable advice on logistical matters. In fact, at some point in our pre-move prep, we began ignoring any advice, hints or suggestions from anyone who hadn't moved to another country at least once in the last ten years or so, because we found that the ideas offered by those with similar situations to ours were the closest to our real worries.

For example, someone who'd also moved to Europe recently gave us some really good advice on avoiding some additional taxes during the move (useful). Someone who spent a semester studying in Leiden warned us about steep Dutch stairs, suggesting we bring luggage with backpack straps (very useful). Several people who've only rarely been to Europe suggested we buy a car when we got here (really not worth it).

There's been an increasing trend toward language specialization in my field – I see more and more ads for gods, rock stars, gurus, and so on – in other words, job ads that ask for almost nothing beyond language competence. I suspect this is barking up the wrong tree. Sure, language fluency is important at times, but I'd rank "task knowledge" above language fluency, any day of the week that ends in "y".

I mean, if you're building yet another photo sharing app, hire the gal who's just off a similar gig, and don't worry about the language she prefers to write code in. Her mental image of the logistical problems you're about to face is probably a lot closer to reality than some self-described "language god" who's never worked in the area before.

Permalink • Posted in: rant, travel, work stuffComments (2)


Chris Dolan Oct 27, 2007

On the language point at the end of your post, I agree completely. My current job is managing digital media in Java and C++. My previous job was managing digital media in Perl, Objective-C and Flash. After a couple of weeks at the beginning remembering all of the Java and C++ syntax (and catching up on changes in the languages over the intervening decade), I had no difficulty making the switch. I'd say learning Ant was a bigger challenge — it's so verbose it makes Makefile syntax look elegant.

Ben Oct 30, 2007

Ah... empathy.

To a certain degree, I understand where you're coming from- customers not knowing what they are asking for or how long it will take to accomplish what they want.

I guess that patience is what is required?