Studying Jeff Atwood’s Paint Can

I just found Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror blog. He’s an interesting writer and thinker.

One of his postings presents a good example of the subtle role of skill even in highly scripted activities. He writes about following the instructions on a paint can. His article links to an earlier article, so you might want to read both.

The article is based on a rant by Steve McConnell in his book Rapid Development about the importance of following instructions. Steve talks about how important it is to follow instructions on a paint can when you are painting.

I want to talk, here, about the danger of following instructions, and more specifically, the danger of following people who tell you to follow instructions when they are not taking responsibility for the quality of your work. The instruction-following myth is one of those cancers on our craft, like certification and best practices.

[Full Discolosure: Relations between me and McConnell are strained. In the same book, Rapid Development, in the Classic Mistakes section, Steve misrepresented my work with regard to the role of heroism in software projects. He cited an article I wrote as if it was indicative of a point of view that I do not hold. It was as if he hadn’t read the article he cited, but only looked at the title. When I brought the error to his attention, he insisted that he did indeed understand my article and that his citation was correct.]

Let’s step through some of what Jeff writes:

“But what would happen if I didn’t follow the instructions on the paint can? Here’s a list of common interior painting mistakes:

The single most common mistake in any project is failure to read and follow manufacturer’s instructions for tools and materials being used.”

  • Jeff appears to be citing a study of some kind. What is this study? Is it trustworthy? Is Jeff himself telling me something, or is Jeff channelling a discarnate entity?
  • When he says “the most common mistake” does he mean the one that most frequently is committed by everyone who uses paint? Novices? Professionals? Or is he referring to the most serious mistakes? Or is he referring to the complete set of possible mistakes that are worth mentioning?
  • Is it important for everyone to follow the instructions, or are the instructions there for unskilled people only?
  • Why is it a “mistake” not to read-and-follow instructions? Mistake is a loaded term; one of those danger words that I circle in red pencil and put a question mark next to. It may be a mistake not to follow certain instructions in a certain context. On the other hand, it may be a mistake to follow them.

Consider all the instructions you encounter and do not read. Consider the software you install without reading the “quickstart” guide. Consider the clickwrap licenses you don’t read, or the rental cars you drive without ever consulting the drivers manual in states where you have not studied the local driving laws. Consider the doors marked push that you pull upon. Consider the shampoo bottle that says “wash, rinse, repeat.” Well, I have news for the people who make Prell: I don’t repeat. Did you hear me? I don’t repeat.

I would have to say that most instructions I come across are unimportant and some are harmful. Most instructions I get about software development process, I would say, would be harmful if I believed them and followed them. Most software process instructions I encounter are fairy tales, both in the sense of being made up and in the sense of being cartoonish. Some things that look like instructions, such as “do not try this at home” or “take out the safety card and follow along,” are not properly instructions at all, they are really just ritual phrases uttered to dispel the evil spirits of legal liability. Other things that really are instructions are too vague to follow, such as “use common sense” or “be creative” or “follow the instructions.”

There are, of course, instructions I could cite that have been helpful to me. I saw a sign over a copy room that said “Do not use three hole paper in this copy machine… unless you want it to jam.” and one next to it that said “Do not use the Microwave oven while making copies… unless you want the fuse to blow.” I often find instructions useful when putting furniture together; and I find signs at airports generally useful, even though I have occasionally been steered wrong.

Instructions can be useful, or useless, or something in between. Therefore, I propose that we each develop a skill: the skill of knowing when, where, why and how to follow instructions in specific contexts. Also, let’s develop the skill of giving instructions.

Jeff goes on to write:

“In regard to painting, the most common mistakes are:

* Not preparing a clean, sanded, and primed (if needed) surface.
* Failure to mix the paints properly.
* Applying too much paint to the applicator.
* Using water-logged applicators.
* Not solving dampness problems in the walls or ceilings.
* Not roughing up enamel paint before painting over it.”

Again with the “most common.” Says who? I can’t believe that the DuPont company is hiding in the bushes watching everybody use paint. How do they know what the most common mistakes are?

My colleague Michael Bolton suggested that the most common mistake is “getting the paint on the wrong things.” Personally, I suspect that the truly most common mistake is to try to paint something, but you won’t see THAT on the side of a paint can. As I write this, my bathroom is being repainted. Notice that I am writing and someone else is painting. Someone, I bet, who knows more about painting than I do. I have not committed the mistake of trying to paint my own bathroom, nor of attempting to read paint can instructions. Can I prove that is the most common mistake? Of course not. But notice that the rhetoric of following instructions is different if you draw a different set of lines around the cost/value equation represented by the word “mistake.”

Also, not knowing much about painting, I don’t understand these “mistakes.” For instance:

  • What is a clean surface? How do I sand it? What does “primed” mean and how do I know if that is needed?
  • How do I mix paints? Why would I even need to mix them? What paints should I mix?
  • What is the applicator and how do I apply paint to it? How much is enough?
  • What is a “water-logged” applicator? How does it get water-logged? Is there a “just enough” level of water?
  • How does one recognize and solve a “dampness problem”?
  • I assume that “roughing up” enamel paint means something other than trying to intimidate it. I assume it means sanding it somehow? Am I right? If so, how rough does it need to be and how do I recognize the appropriate level of roughness?

I am not kidding, I really don’t know this stuff.

Then Jeff writes:

“What I find particularly interesting is that none of the mistakes on this checklist have anything to do with my skill as a painter.”

I think what Jeff meant to say is that they have nothing to do with what he recognizes as his skill as a painter. I would recognize these mistakes, assuming for the moment that they are mistakes, as being strongly related to his painting skill. Perhaps since I don’t have any painting skill, it’s easier for me to see it than for him. Or maybe he means something different by the idea of skill than I do. (I think skill is an improvable ability to do something) Either way, there’s nothing slam dunk obvious about his point. I don’t see how it can be just a matter of “read the instructions stupid.”

Jeff writes:

“My technical proficiency (or lack thereof) as a painter doesn’t even register!”

Wait a minute Jeff, think about this. What does have to do with your proficiency as a painter? You must have something in mind. If proficiency is a meaningful idea, then you must believe there is a detectable difference between having proficiency and not having proficiency, and it must go beyond this list of issues. Rather than concluding that your skill doesn’t enter into it, perhaps one could look at the same list of issues and interpret it as a list of things unskilled people frequently do when they try to paint things that often leads them to regret the results. It’s a warning for the unskilled, not a message for skilled painters. A skilled painter might actually want to do these things, for instance, to paint with a water-logged applicator to get some particular artistic effect.

Jeff writes:

“To guarantee a reasonable level of quality, you don’t have to spend weeks practicing your painting skills. You don’t even have to be a good painter. All you have to do is follow the instructions on the paint can!”

Now I have logic vertigo. How did we get from avoiding obvious mistakes, where we started, to “reasonable quality”? Would a professional house painter agree that there is no skill required to achieve reasonable quality? Would a professional artist say that?

(And what is reasonable quality?)

Even following simple instructions requires skill and tradeoff decisions. A paint can is neither a supervisor, nor a mentor, nor a judge of quality. Don’t follow instructions, instead I suggest, consider applying this heuristic: instructions might help.

And one more thing… Does anyone else find it ironic that Jeff’s article about reading instructions on paint cans would include a photo of a paint can where the instructions have been partly obscured by paint? Perhaps the first instruction should be “Check that you see this sentence. If not, please wait for legible instructions.”

2 Responses to “Studying Jeff Atwood’s Paint Can”

  1. Kevin Lawrence Says:

    That’s very funny. I love that phrase “to dispel the evil spirits of legal liability”. I hope you won’t mind if I borrow it.

    I have wanted to blog, for several weeks now, about certain usability bugs in my new Prius. Your phrase captures entirely what the problem is. Thanks. I am inspired now to go write that blog.

  2. Jared Says:

    Which came first:

    Chicken – “Wisdom is experience worth having, born of mistakes,”

    Egg – “You must know and understand the rules before you break them.”

    I also like, “Monkey see, monkey do, don’t eat the poo.”

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