Are Your Lights On?


I work in the IT services industry. What this means is that I work for various clients using my technical skills to solve their problems.

One thing that no-one mentions while you’re at university, planning to go into this industry, is that most of the problems you come across are not technical in nature. Problems with computers are usually fairly tractable and can be solved, even if not elegantly, by anyone who is interested enough to have a go. It’s the other, people problems that are tricky.

And it is for these problems that I though I could do with a hand: a book about more effectively solving problems. It sounds suspiciously like one of those nasty self-help books, but it’s co-written by Gerald Weinberg (of “Psychology of Computer Programming” fame) so I figured it wouldn’t be all bad.

What’s in it?

The book is split into six sections, each drilling down into particular parts of the problem solving process. In itself this might be quite interesting: solving problems is a process, not necessarily just occasional inspiration. Like any process, once you’re aware of it, you can practise and get better at it.

In one section the authors talk about what the problem really is. At first it sounds silly — you solve problems every day so surely you can identify one! — but the more they explain it and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. At each point in their explanation, they enhance your understanding with case studies or examples, and often key phrases get their own paragraph highlighted in bold (“Don’t leap to conclusions, but don’t ignore your first impression”).

This level of detail extends throughout the book. They know that some of it sounds silly, but equally realise that you probably do need to know about.

On the downside

For such a small book, there’s a lot of useful information. The hints are relevant and easy to understand. However, I found it all to be an irritating experience. It took me a couple of months to finish and it’s not because I’m a slow reader!

The fact that many of the “case-studies” are incredibly twee makes the whole experience incredibly irritating; I hated the style so much that I nearly didn’t finish it. That would have been a shame.

I’d like to think that the reason I didn’t “get it” was because I’m too old, that format could work quite well in a school book, but I don’t think that school-children would get much from a book about some computer programmers and someone who wanted to fix a lift. It really is a book with content aimed at adults and a style developed for children.


So the conclusion is somewhat mixed: there’s useful stuff in there if you can survive the style. Personally I preferred the more academic, less strictly relevant “Conceptual Block-busting.”

The facts

Author: Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg

Cost: $13.95

ISBN: 0-932633-16-1

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