These words were sung by Paul Simon over 20 years ago, and the song has forever stuck in my head1. I often think of this song whenever I realize that people don't know what they don't know.
This past weekend I was forced to give up my secondary job due to a simple thing like incapacitating back pain. For most of the last week I was in extreme pain whenever I would use any muscles in my lower back, and this certainly gave me some appreciation for how often we use our lower backs throughout the day. To that end, I was forced to prematurely end the contract with that company and begin looking elsewhere for supplementary income.
On a chance encounter, I happened to overhear a store manager at a semi-local herbal store complain about how long it took to do an inventory count and line it up with their monthly purchases and sales. Seeing this as a prime opportunity, I asked how they performed this task and was shocked to hear that this small company relied 100% on paper.
While this might not have been so strange 5 or 10 years ago, to hear of a company not using a computer at all in their day-to-day operations is quite amazing. Aside from "cash only" restaurants, I didn't think any tax-paying company would ever want to do things the hard way. When I had asked why they hadn't gone computerized, the reply was "Inventory systems cost way too much, and none are designed for a herbal remedy store".
I've been working with custom software packages that track everything from inventory to accounting to fulfillment for several companies. A small business like this could be a cake-walk if they truly feel that nothing on the market will work for them. When I asked what they would be looking for in a software package, the list was pretty light. They wanted an automated inventory system tied to a POS that could handle basic book-keeping. When I asked some more detailed questions such as what information they would need to track about customers, or vendors, or inventory receipts I was greeted with a blank stare. They hadn't thought about it before.
Of course, the manager wasn't really thinking about everything they needed right off the bat. Such a thing isn't normally remembered my anyone because they're too busy dealing with the day-to-day operations of a business. I advised the manager that I could write some custom software for them pretty quickly, and could even have it in place within a month. I offered to work on a special rate, too … 1/2 my normal rate, and a store credit for the rest. I visit that business often enough every year that I could easily have a great supply of stress-relief tea and dry skin lotion (not to mention the occasional stomach relief pills).
Today the call came in, and the manager would like me to put something simple together just to walk through what they could have, and work out what they actually need. So I'll drop 4 hours of design time into the application using basic requirements, and then approach them with the rest. The biggest questions I'm going to have will revolve around what these people may not know, and none of us know what we don't know.
I certainly hope that this good fortune doesn't turn out to be the end of a steady client-vendor relationship.