The best and the brightest didn’t write the manual

STACK OF USER MANUALS

By Joe Diorio

I had to read a lot when I started my job at IBM in 1982. I was responsible for publicizing how customers in the Southeastern U.S. used IBM products, but first I had to get up-to-speed on computers and computer-industry news. Yes, I said “computers.” This was the early 80s and the word “laptop” had not been coined. No one called them PCs and virtually no one was using the internet.

So, I read news magazines, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Computer Week and dozens of other trade magazines.

I also read IBM user manuals about products called the System/360 mainframe, the System/36 mid-size computer, and this quirky product no one at IBM wanted to sell called the IBM Personal Computer. I would spend days reading user manuals. When I finished I had the following revelation: I didn’t know anything more about IBM computers than I did before I started.

Each book began with the following line (these aren’t the exact words, but they’re close): “Before reading this manual, refer to technical journal XXXXXXXX.” And once I found this missing manual, IT told me to find yet another manual for further reference.

I never found “manual zero,” but I did learn why IBM user manuals were so poorly written.

Back in the 1980s IBM didn’t fire people. “Full employment” was the company line. If you were hired by IBM, then you had a job for life.

But what if you were bad at your job? No problem. IBM’s human resources folks would have you reassigned to a different job. And if you were bad at that new job, you would be reassigned yet again. This process would continue indefinitely.

Well, almost indefinitely. Eventually more than a few employees were found to be so bad at everything that the folks in human resources were left flummoxed as to where to assign them. Were those bad employees fired?

Nope. They were given the task of writing user manuals.

That’s right. The least talented people – the ones who couldn’t do any other job well – were responsible for writing user manuals explaining how to use IBM products.

I often wondered who would use IBM user manuals and I think the answer is virtually no one. Not even people who work for IBM.

I say that because by 1991 I had left IBM and was starting work as a freelance writer. My wife still worked for IBM; she was a Systems Engineer responsible for helping customers set up their computers. We used her employee discount to buy an IBM Personal Computer for my business. When the PC arrived, she ripped open the box and started setting up the PC. Yes, you had to set up a new PC; load software, plug the monitor in to the processor, and so on. Bear in mind, however, that my wife had never set up a PC before. Remember I said IBM sales professionals didn’t like selling PCs. The commissions were too small.

In setting up the PC she had tossed aside the manual. I picked it up, held it out toward her and said, “Don’t you want to look at this?”

She stopped long enough to look at what I was holding and said, “Oh, screw that!”

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

 

 

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