A sheep in wolf’s clothing

I had an interesting conversation with my company’s owner yesterday. By “interesting” I mean several things.

I should say up front that as bosses go, mine is fair-to-middling. I’ve had worse, but I’ve had better too. I don’t always agree with his management style, but in general he doesn’t interfere with my duties, which can be a huge obstacle in some Japanese businesses.

But something I have always suspected about him became alarmingly clear yesterday — that his technophiliac posture is just that: posturing.

I’ll explain. In the past few months, another of the office laptops has been relegated to the shelf where the crude little Sotec has sat since I put it there, many months ago. This one is a Toshiba something-or-other, probably a Pentium III and no doubt also infested with any number of spyware scanners, malware filters, Norton utility suites and so forth. It could probably handle Arch, if not Ubuntu.

We are a small company, and so as I’ve mentioned in the past, he generally does all the technical services himself, or asks one of his friends to come to the office and solve problems. The only time I have ever seen a professional technician in our office was when the new desktop machine arrived, and Vista was preinstalled. The reason a pro was needed should be obvious just by saying that.

Yesterday I mentioned that there were quite a few leftover laptops (in other words, two) sitting unused on the shelf, and I offered to buy them for cheap, with the intention of donating them to charity. It is, after all, what I do.

At first, the idea of getting money from them seemed attractive to him — after all, he is a Japanese businessman — but it came crashing down again when he realized the computers would be given away to someone completely unknown. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be an issue (we do a lot of charity fundraising at times), but because there was the possibility that customer information might be on the drive, he wasn’t interested.

Of course, I tried to explain through my muddled Japanese and his thin technical understanding, that it was possible to completely eradicate everything on the drive, but I realized my error too late. Because he hadn’t ever heard of these things, he thought the files would be deleted manually. In his mind, the new owner would be receiving the machines with the standing software installation in place, hopefully sans any client information that had accrued over the decade they had been in our office.

Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. But when we crossed into an area that he wasn’t clear on, or what had become new territory, his tone changed. He went from amiable to authoritarian, I took the hint and closed the discussion.

I have met other people like that in my time, who occasionally profess or even boast of a measure of technical proficiency (or are “gamers”), but once their comfort zone is expended, their supposed technophilia turns to technophobia. I don’t resent it; I only find it irritating when, as is the case for my boss, one person’s technical inability infringes on the ability of other people to do their job.

And ultimately, ignorance is expensive. This is the same boss who dumped an easy US$1000 into a brand-new (albeit low-end) desktop machine because the old one was running slower and slower. Instead of taking the time to learn how to fix the old one, the solution was to get a new one.

In my opinion, fear drives technophobes to pretend to be technophiles, and I don’t say that to suggest I am someone with superior ability or know-how. You can see this in almost any technical field, from medicine to car repair to wine-tasting. When a self-styled network administrator — or outdoorsman, or teacher of classical Greek drama, or what have you — encounters something that suddenly tests their expertise, that fear suddenly becomes a barrier.

In this case, my boss’s fear manifested itself in that sudden change to an authoritarian tone, and his signal that the issue was closed. In other people it can be hedging, stipulations in the conversation or even outright prevarication. I have heard some interesting solutions to medical problems coming from people who had reputations as health care professionals, who didn’t know that I have medical qualifications of my own.

The unfortunate consequence is, of course, that two otherwise servicable laptops won’t find their way to new homes. No matter to me; there are a lot of other junk computers out there. But ultimately fear and pretension (and I daresay a small degree of pride) will keep those two stacked on a dusty shelf in an office for the next decade or so, whenever the business comes to a close.

And whither then? I cannot say.

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3 Responses to “A sheep in wolf’s clothing”


  1. 1 Cae 2009/08/07 at 1:53 PM

    Sounds so familiar.

    Having a boss that knows “everything” and brought in a new chap who knows that subversion is a new technology (oouch!!) and to teaching the rest of the company on version control.

    Life is great isn’t it ?!

  2. 2 wwzulu 2009/08/07 at 3:28 PM

    My observation is that many if not most bosses are like that – they are more conservative than a proactive member of the team in almost any aspect of worklife in a company; be it what printing paper to buy for the office or making a decision about expensive equipment.

    It is partly that they are concerned about stability/ security issues in the firm but mostly their ignorance and laziness regarding occasional change and new stuff. They want to have maximum result with little to no effort and/ or risk. It takes a lot to be a flexible professional at a managerial position I guess and they simply don’t feel like making the effort.

    I don’t want to go on too much about bosses because this would be rather off-topic and slightly unfair if I think it’s all their fault and so I want to throw a different accusation for such situations. M$ has been trying for almost two decades two cast a cloud over the minds of people persuading them that “If you do not use Windows your computer will break!” .. and they have succeeded. People are scared to explore options :|

    There is an upside to this, though, you have yet another chance to be a rebel – something that a lot of us have forgotten since being a teenager … Well this time at least you can be more open about it – there’s a whole universe of space where you can put your thoughts so people can read and see there’s more than one side to the coin.

    P.S. I wonder what your boss would say if he ever reads this blog :D

  3. 3 Shae 2009/08/08 at 3:35 PM

    I am rather saddened by those laptops collecting dust when there are people who would be ecstatic to make use of them. But there is also only so much you can do about people who think like that. Push them too hard and you will find that defensive, authoritarian tone as a defense mechanism for computer-illiteracy. With some time and patience, he may lighten up to the idea.

    But another issue here is the “old” = slow mantra that some people seem to love. If you put enough stuff on a computer, you will slow it down. But if you keep a trim set of packages and not install every MSN “smiley theme” (and similar ideas in Linux and MacOS), then those computers are perfectly serviceable little machines. They might not run Crysis, but not everyone needs that. Technology companies have it made in the world of “old” = slow and it must be “upgraded” right away to the next hottest thing that will become the outdated model right after you buy it.

    If it ain’t broke, it is probably not time to buy a new one.


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