2007-04-01

RTM!

One of my fondest memories of growing up was trying to fix or assemble something with my dad. At the time, it was always a frustrating experience, but looking back, I'm quite thankful for the experience that I gained. We bickered and exasperated each other over bikes, changing oil, setting up the swamp cooler every spring, roofing, sheds, laying pavers, and the list goes on an on. (In one infamous situation, we had to cut a box spring in half to fit it down the stairs, but that's for another time.)

At the core of our disagreements was what I thought was a stubborn unwillingness on the part of my father to read directions. On more than a few Saturdays, I was summoned from the basement and utter catatonia in front of the Nintendo to help dad with whatever project my mother decided to afflict him with that weekend. More times than I care to remember, it became apparent that things weren't going well, and I would have ask, "Did you even read the directions?" The answer, invariably, was a mumbled and unconvincing, "yes" from my distracted father. At this point, I would sigh in disgust and march off to acquaint myself with the obscure diagrams and parts lists while my dad continued to futz around with parts in various stages of haphazard assembly.

Now in my late 20's I realize that my Dad's "yes" actually translated into: "Yeah, I looked at the directions and got the gist of them, at least the first 5 pages. Being a Man, and qualified to do Manly things such as this, I assumed I could just cut to the chase, throw the thing together, and be done in time to fall asleep on the couch by 4. I'm a 40 year old with a college degree, so I should not need the directions. But, since you bring it up, smart-ass, I am clearly in over my head, and I don't really want to talk about it right now." (Funny, the interior monologue I attribute to my dad is a lot more verbose than an actual discussion with my dad.)

Oblivious to the simplistic intricacy of my father's thoughts, I figured it was my duty as a son to help him out. So, some time later, I'd come back, point emphatically at the diagrams and poke at the various components strewn about, making it clear that they looked like an erector set assembled by a crack addict. Frustrated by the whole situation, my dad would grudgingly submit to the tyrannical rule of the instructions, enforced by a very smug 13-year old.

It's to these experiences that I attribute my relatively handy nature and unusual level of patience with complex problems, so I owe my dad thanks for that. And in the end, I can't blame him for not reading instructions. As the reader of the instructions, I know how terrible they really are. And as more and more products are produced in Asian countries, they get even worse. (See engrish.com for proof). As a naive youth, lacking the experience of my dad, I already knew that I didn't know how to put it together. My dad, on the other hand, assumed that assembly of the widget would certainly proceed according to the tenets of some instinct folded deep within our male chromosome.

Indeed, when a Man thinks about assembling a shed, or a dresser, he invariably says to himself, "I've been in lots of sheds, and I've used dressers since I was four, this can't be too bad...(and I don't ever remember my dad reading directions...)" But, when he opens that box and out falls bags and bags of unlabeled screws, bolts, and random pieces, it is instantly clear that he has absolutely no idea how this pile of junk could form a structure of any kind -- he might as well be a monkey playing with Lincoln Logs. If you've ever bought furniture-in-a-box from IKEA or Target, you know exactly what I'm talking about... (next time I'm just buying the dresser they have on display.)

In the software industry, we frequently encounter this problem with users who refuse to read the instructions or the manual. So many people assume they are so smart that instructions should be unnecessary. It's so common that every nerd understands the abbreviation RTM (READ THE MANUAL) as well as the even more powerful exhortation RTFM!

So, the moral to the story is to RTM, or, if you just don't have all day or an adroit 13 year old to help you, JUST PAY SOMEONE TO PUT IT TOGETHER.