What my first email taught me about pattern matching in tech

posted Aug 29, 2012, 2:10 PM by Jenee Pearson Hughes   [ updated Sep 19, 2012, 4:10 PM ]
I remember the first time I sent an email. It was in elementary school, and my YMCA's director was leaving. I wanted to keep in touch, so she told me her email: "YMCAwomyn at aol dot com".

I wrote it down, and as soon as I was home, I rushed to log onto AOL via dialup. BBBRRR boo DOOO DURRRRRR RWWWWWRRRRRR (warning: that link leads to sounds).
Then, I tried to send my email.  I knew, from my experiences on the internet, that it was important to add "www." in front of things that end with "dot com".   So I did.   In the To field, I wrote: "www dot YMCAwomyn at aol dot com".

The email bounced back at me. I tried again and again, and it kept bouncing.  I was practically in tears by the time I went to grab my dad: "My email won't get delivered and now I'll never talk to Kris agaaaaaaiiinn!".

Dad came to the rescue.  He came over, and looked at my email. "Are you sure that's her email address?" he asked. 

I was adamant that it was.

"Because email addresses don't normally have www. in front of them."

I was sure that hers did, because it ended with dot com, but I decided it couldn't hurt to take it off. 

The email sent.

Why does this matter?

When you're experienced in a technical field, it's easy to become overconfident in your assumptions. I wasn't NASA-level experienced like my Dad, but I was a lot more experienced than most of my teachers.  I knew how websites worked. I knew that they ended in dot com, and started with www, and that there were a bunch of characters in between those two bookends.  

It's not unreasonable that my pattern matching recognized an email address as a website.  How was I to know that the @ symbol was special?

Recently, I was trying to learn VBA. I spent several days trying to make a simple script work. It took 1.5 days before I could even get to the point where I had compilable variable declarations. VBA code is similar enough to the codings paradigms I know, and I was trying to apply those paradigms.  That ended up not working so well. After a week of banging my head against Excel and having it freeze every time I tried to run the script, I decided to do everything in Python.  I finished that in two days.

I ended up expressing my hatred for VBA to everyone I knew. "It's so stupid, because it doesn't do what I think it should do!" But the truth is, it's really just that I'm upset that my assumptions didn't hold true for it.  

I think the same is true for non-technical people and computers. The programs they're using don't match the patterns they're expecting, and so they get frustrated, and angry. Their frustration turns to hatred.

Our world would be a much better place if we all recognized that tech-hatred is just a symptom of failed pattern-matching, and did our best to teach (and learn) new, necessary patterns. 

Just a thought.