Solving the Non-Problem

Sometimes the solution to a problem is not technology.

Many years ago I read a column in PC Magazine, written by by John Dvorak. In the article, Mr. Dvorak was questioning the growing popularity of digital pagers. That alone gives a clue as to how long ago the article was published. In the article, Mr. Dvorak made the case that very few people using pagers really needed them. After all, he asked, what business decision can’t wait until normal business hours the next work day? He went on to talk about people wearing pagers on their belt as a way to advertise their own self-importance. I witnessed that first-hand with a co-worker at the time who was always offering to take other people’s pagers while they were on vacation. And he always managed to work into any conversation the subject of how many pagers he was wearing.

I was reminded of this while reading a question posed on the Oracle Technology Network user forums. The person was asking how to implement a database trigger to notify the HR manager — on his smart phone — whenever a new employee record is inserted into the database.


The absurdity should be blindingly obvious. Think about the chain of events leading up to a new employee joining a company. Especially a company that is big enough to have an HR manager and a high-powered RDBMS like Oracle. Regardless of the specific mechanics of each step, we reach a point where a job offer is made. Then the offer is accepted. Then a report date is agreed upon. Then the new hire shows up and reports to the HR department for in-processing. Even in a utopian “paperless” office he is probably going to have to apply ink to cellulose to fill out some forms — some internal to the company and some dealing with government regulations and/or taxation.

So at what point in this sequence of events should the HR manager be notified? And why (and this is the crux of the matter) is it so all-fired important that the manger be notified on his smart-phone the instant any particular new-hire event happens? What is he going to do with that information that can’t wait until the next time he happens to check his e-mail? What is he going to do with that information that can’t wait until the next business day? To repeat a question that is often asked on the OTN forums, “What is the business problem you are trying to solve?” In this particular case, what is the business problem that is solved by notifying the HR manager the instant the process of acquiring a new employee has reached to point of entering them into the database?

And that brings us back to my opening statement. Sometimes, the solution to a problem is not technology. Quite often, the solution is to re-define the problem. Or (as in this case) to simply question the problem iteself. Far too often we see DBA’s simply rolling over for every hair-brained idea the “Pointy Haired Boss” can dream up, and trying to implement a convoluted technical solution to problem that is not really a problem at all. The solution in searchof a problem. The solution to the non-problem..

What about you? What’s the most absurd non-problem you’ve ever been asked to solve?

By the way, I was unsuccessful in finding an archive of the PC Magazine article. If anyone can locate it and post the link, I’d be happy to share it.