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Tuesday September 10, 2002
05:11 PM

The Free Beer Maneuver

[ #7666 ]

I spent the weekend with a friend who ships really big boats (like the sort you see in the America's Cup). He has to deal with all sorts of people in the workplace, and he mostly gets along with everyone. However, his most frequent problems come from engineers. They think they should be able to ship these fancy boats all over the world without dealing with customs (foreign and domestic), highway regulations, teamsters, longshoreman, and everything else it takes to get a large object half way around the world. My friend knows which paperwork to do, what to put on the bills of lading, and who to talk to if he needs to make something happen.

Engineers keep asking him questions like "Can't you just ship it without an invoice?" to which my friend has to answer "I can't get it through customs unless they can figure out the duty and taxes, which means I need an invoice with a buyer's name and a dollar amount."

Things would go much smoother with beer, but few many people take that seriously. Only one person has ever bought my friend beer (a nice German beer) to get some help with international shipping, but he was in customer service. My friend ships stuff when other people have it ready to ship, although he will help you get it ready to ship, which is not his responsibility, if you show him that you appreciate the extra work.

When I teach various Perl classes, I usually have some reason to mention buying the sysadmins beer, which serves both as a joke and some serious advice. Most people only see the joke, though. I've bought a lot of people beer, and not only do they usually do more than they should to help me on my immediate problem, but it is easier to get them to help me later too. Sysadmins usually have their own problems, so a little bribe makes your problem more interesting to the people who have to solve it.

I learned the Free Beer Maneuver in the army (and used it to get Perl Mongers going too:). Good sergeants and officers, whether infantry, tankers, military police, or any other branch, take care of three people: supply sergeants, mess sergeants, and truck drivers. Those key support positions spend most of their time taking care of other soldier's problems (like sysadmins and shipping clerks do) which means most problems simply get in line behind all the other problems. However, if I take care of those people with some free beer, a bit of extra work, or a favor, my problems don't necessarily stand at the back of the queue. That customer service representative learned that in the army too, which is why he doesn't have problems with international shipping.

We can optimize programs and software, but we cannot do that in the same way with people and systems of people, and we should not make people act like disinterested computers. We need to get other people interested in our problems. It does not matter if we think that is right or moral or good. Turn on the -beer switch and just get things done instead of asking "Why can't you just...".