2010: The Year I Make Contact

Late in the afternoon on December 25, during one of the loudest, howling winter storms I’ve ever experienced we lost power. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal except I was in a vacation house with 20 other people, basically my wife’s entire extended family.

After the power went out, the heat did not fire up. The tree went dark. So did the TV, DVD player, and Wii.

Using a pair of LED headlamps my wife and I received for Christmas the 20 of us took turns rolling and stuffing homemade ravioli dough for dinner. Christmas ravioli making is extremely serious business and I had finally been promoted to “unmonitored ravioli stuffer” this year. Luckily we had manual pasta rollers to flatten the dough. There’s always talk of “upgrading” from the hand cranked system but this year, tradition trumped technology.

Once ravioli are stuffed, they have to dry for a few hours before cooking. In the years past this was the time to play with new games or watch a new movie. Of course, without electricity most of our new toys were rendered useless.

Since the heat was off and the vacation house was gigantic, the fireplace in the living room was our only option for warmth. Lighting the room was the handful of candles we had, originally intended for dining ambiance, and the low glow from the fire.

To pass the time, we sang Christmas carols in the near dark. It was all sort of surreal, a setting I am certain we would not have created on our own had we not lost electricity, had we not been so completely pushed out of our comfort zone. Even more fantastic was that after over 20 years of putting it on my wish list, someone actually gave me a pair of night vision goggles for Christmas. Surprisingly, this "toy" is the real deal. I was able to wander around a completely pitch dark house with no problems. The night vision, along with the head lamps (which single handedly saved dinner), were by far the best gifts of the day. The electricity turned on around 1:00am that morning and by the next morning, everything went back to the way it was.

Sitting in the dark on Christmas night got me thinking. This was an experience that I never would have chosen, a situation I would never have intentionally embraced, but it turned out to be pretty fun. How many opportunities have I missed because my default attitude was to stay inside my comfort zone? While happy accidents are great, can’t I do more to create opportunities rather than relying on happenstance? Given the time of year it only seems appropriate to ask these sorts of questions.

I’m a technologist, a scientist, and an engineer at heart. I love playing with gadgets, tinkering with software, and working on interesting and challenging problems. Sitting in the dark with no power, my normal pursuits removed, it was easy to remember that people are important too. Sure, when building software everyone always talks about how people are important, but when building software we call people "users" essentially reducing their humanity. After all, there are only two industries where the customers are called "users" - software is one of them.  Is it really appropriate to use the same term to describe software clients and drug addicts?

My lesson from the night: the technology and gadgets and programming and processes and everything else are awesome, but they are meaningless if they fail to create a genuine relationship with people.  I do believe that relationships matter and that people are important. I’d like to do a better job of thinking about people first this year. In the rush of excitement surrounding every new technological achievement, it’s sometimes easy to forget that helping people is why I build software.  It's too bad it took a harsh winter snow storm to remind me of this.

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