Can I Touch Your Meatball, Please?

October 20, 2008

A few years ago I injured my arm. I won’t go into details about the stupid things some of us do when we are off work, but the long and the short of it was that I ended up with a broken elbow. The surgery to repair the damage left me with a knot near my elbow. Hardly noticeable, in my opinion, but there if you know what you are looking for.

Not too long after the accident, my son, who was 5 going on 6, asked if he could have a friend spend the night. Sure. I picked the two of them up, loaded them in the back seat, and headed for my house. When we reached the first red light between the school and my house, I snatched my Diet Mountain Dew from the console and took a big swig. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head. It was my son’s friend.

“Mr. Francis,” he said shyly. I thought I knew what was coming. His mom had been very specific. No caffeine.

“Yes,” I replied quickly tilting the bottle to my lips operating on the premise the best defense was a good offense and if I just drained the soda entirely my problem would be solved.

“Can I touch your meatball, please?”

About then is when the carbonated soda came spewing forth from both nostrils.

“What?” I sputtered, my eyes watering and my nose burning. I checked the rearview mirror certain Chris Hansen from Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” was going to smiling at me from the backseat along with an entire NBC camera crew. There was no Chris Hansen. Just my son and his school buddy giggling.

“Your meatball,” the kid said, pointing to the bump near my elbow. My own child nodded enthusiastically.

Ah, now I understood. There had simply been a miscommunication.

Certain the last thing I needed was some kid going home telling his parents Mr. Francis let him touch his meatball, I politely told him not only could he not touch my meatball but it would be best if we didn't talk about my meatball at all. Both boys seemed mildly disappointed but quickly got over it when I suggested we make a detour for the nearest McDonald’s.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when we had our monthly development meeting here in the SoftLayer headquarters facility. Our VP of Development, Matt Chilek, gave us a talk about the importance of clear and concise communications. Specifically error messages in the portal.

The SoftLayer customer portal is probably the most sophisticated tool of its kind for remote management of servers. So no matter how much testing we do internally, now and again an error will pop up. Sometimes, these errors are legitimate bugs. Other times, they are runtime issues, such as a temporary outage of a database or some support hardware. In either case, how we present the error to the customer is of the utmost importance.

I’ll give you an example. The first time I worked on the WSUS update page in the portal, if my application failed to get a response from the MS Windows Update Server I threw up an error message: “fatal error”. Which is accurate. Sort of. The error is fatal to the application at that particular time. But that doesn’t really give the customer or our datacenter technicians a lot to go on. A better error message is “No response from WSUS server @192.100.12.1. This server could be temporarily offline for maintenance or updates. Please try again in a few minutes. If the problem persists contact technical support.”

While both error messages alert us that something went wrong, the second lets us know what the error was. Exactly which hardware was the culprit. And that the issue might only be temporary so give it a few minutes before crying that the sky is falling. Clear. Concise. To the point. That is the only way to keep a tool as complex and feature rich as the SoftLayer portal from overwhelming our customers and employees alike.

So the SoftLayer development team is making a concerted effort to do just that. And we could really use the help of SoftLayer employees from other departments as well as our customers who use the portal on a regular basis, in pointing out any areas where the language used or information presented is not as clear as it could be. It only takes a minute to fill out a ticket with a note to the dev team, and, in the end, it is you who will benefit.

Alright, I suppose I should get back to writing code instead of writing about writing code. But first I think I’ll make a quick trip to the employee break room to grab some caffeine. And if by chance you run into me in the hallway, no you can’t touch my meatball—so don’t even ask.

-William

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