General Howe’s Dog

The morning after a battle — one of the first won by the American army in its battle for freedom from the British Empire — if you happened to be on the scene, you might see an American soldier, under a white flag of truce, struggling with something small he is carrying between the lines. Approaching, you can see the package is, in fact, a small terrier — a dog. If you could read the note the carrier is holding there in his scrip, you would find it says —

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return to him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on his collar, appears to belong to General Howe… October 6th, 1777

So — in the midst of a war that cut people down from their young lives, we find a singular scene of a man carrying a dog across a field to return it to the enemy’s commander. What has any of this to do with the life of an engineer? Perhaps more than you think.

Let me return to a much younger time in my technical life, a time when I was engaged in a battle that seemed, at the time, to make a huge difference to the world at large. The part of the Air Force in which I worked was poised to make a major and lasting decision — to deploy Banyan Vines or Novell NetWare. Don’t snicker — we invested a lot of hours into the decision, including writing two white papers, setting up labs, pulling out a sniffer to examine the two on the wire, doing full feature comparison charts, considering which one would deploy better — even going to the point of trying a trial run deployment in the field. The considered opinion of those of us in our little office was that Vines would fit what we wanted to do. There was just one problem — our HQ had already deployed NetWare. You can imagine how things turned out from there — politics virtually always trumps technology, and it did in this case, as well.

But what was most disturbing was the rather personal nature of the fallout for those who were on the “wrong side of history,” as we might say today. There was little thought other than “how do I get on the winning side as quickly as possible, pushing any of my part onto the people I’m leaving to hold the bag.” The process ruined several military careers, and cause not a little bit of fallout in various other places. What was really needed was a little dog returning. What was accomplished, instead, was the impact of a crowd running one top of one another seeking the exits, knowing that whoever exited first was going to have the least amount of career impact.

Over my years in IT, I’ve seen this effect a number of times (in fact, it’s pretty common in the wider world right now in several specific areas, but we’ll restrict ourselves to IT for this discussion). There is, in some way, something about interacting with people through a screen that makes them seem less than human to us — more like a thing to be used or fought or defeated than a person to be respected.

That’s the real evil behind texting: the lack of immediate social consequence. It used to be you’d have to ingest liquid courage before a face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) confrontation because in the interaction, the other person would have a chance to respond. Not anymore — now you send off a snide text and turn off the phone. When you turn it back on, delete the message entirely — no reading required. It’s popular, it’s gleefully acceptable, and it’s inexcusable.

This isn’t just about thinking, “next time I might lose,” for you could win every battle in which you engage for your entire life (okay, I doubt it, but it is remotely possible). Rather, it’s about thinking, “they had good technical reasons, and I need to divorce their conclusion based on those reasons from them as a person.” It’s about taking the strengths of their solution as the weaknesses of yours, and pulling them into the project to use their ideas and knowledge to make it all work.

If you’re on the winning side, then, it’s all about returning the dog. And if you’re on the losing side, as General Howe happened to be that day, it’s all about accepting the dog with grace. As Washington’s 110th rule states —

Learn to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial Fire Called Conscious…

Essentially, treat people with respect regardless of which side of the war they’re on.