Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Overcoming the Typing Paradigm

Once upon a time, a friend of mine was telling me what he was looking for in a secretary he had decided to hire for his office. The secretary would be his first employee. One of the requirements he wanted to fill was that this secretary could type as quickly as him. Since he was up to 80 words a minute, that might rule some good candidates out. I told him that he might be making a mistake, and that he might be falling for the Typing Paradigm.

Why I have no love for the typewriter

I remember the good old days, before email was common place in the office, and when you were lucky if you were the one in the office with a computer that had a word processor (fortunately, I was).

I recall having to help replace typewriter ribbons, because they were such a pain to thread into typewriters.

I recollect the temptation to use correction tape on an official document because making a mistake at the end of a typewritten page meant having to type the whole thing over again.

Memories, painful memories of the days of typewriters.

I first learned how to use a wordprocessing program when I had a long paper due in school, and needed to get it done. I installed myself in the school computer lab on a Friday morning, and, except for a few short sleep breaks, spent most of the next few days sitting in front of a terminal, learning how to handle the templates of Word Perfect 5.1. After I had finished 80 pages, and 118 footnotes, my paper was done. And I was just beginning to overcome the typing paradigm.

With a copy of the paper printed out, I also had a copy of the paper on a floppy, so that I could easily add, amend, update, and delete as I saw fit, without having to start over again.

Unknown to me, and even better, my use of Word Perfect's "reveal codes" function was getting me ready for my early days of learning html, where I could separate the content of a page from the look of that page.

The more I learned about how to use different programs, the more I learned that a computer was capable of so much more. And, it made me capable of so much more.

The typewriter took away my potential, and my productivity.

Overcoming the Typewriter Paradigm

After computers became a little more common in my office, and everyone had one that could use Excel, and Word, and Access, I was asked to help format some labels in an old Dbase III program. The labels were going to be attached to a memo asking around 500 contractors if they wanted to use their social security number, or their firm's EIN number on the the 1099 form they would be getting for performing services as a contractor. The form would be printed, photocopied 500 or so times, and the labels would be stuck on to personalize them.

The letters would then be placed in envelopes, with addresses typed on them, and mailed out to those folks. My coworkers were having a hard time getting the old Dbase III program to format the labels correctly. So, they asked for my help. After calculating that their method might take someone a week or so to prepare some ugly looking documents, I asked them if I could take over and do it my way. Unsurprisingly, I received no opposition.

I took the Dbase III database of names, addresses, firm names, social security numbers and EIN numbers, and imported it into Excel (about four minutes). I typed out a template of the original memo in word (about ten minutes). I checked to make sure that we had enough window envelopes (another four minutes). And then I used a mail merge, and printed out 500 or so sharp and stylish looking and professionally drafted, individually personalized letters (a very leisurely hour-and-a-half in which the printer did most of the work).

I noticed a few jaws drop when I came back in about two hours with a stack of documents ready to be folded, put in envelopes, and mailed out.

As you may guess, once a year, it was my job for the next five years to prepare those documents. I tried to teach some of the others during their spare time to use mail merge. They never had any spare time. Somehow, I often did. When I handed in a two week notice, there were some people lined up for crash courses in how to do a mail merge.

A post from Jim Horton, of Online Public Relations, takes a humorous look at Bitter Lessons learned in the ways a mail merge can go wrong. I've been there, Jim. But, I'd rather face those problems that have to type out all of those letters.

Sometimes the World View Changes Easy

I began this post, more than a couple words ago, with a story about a friend who was hiring a secretary. When I started to explain to him that he was making a mistake when he told me he wanted a secretary who was a fast typist, he wanted to know why.

I asked him how many words a minute I was typing when I exported 100 records from Quickbooks into an Excel spreadsheet, merged them with a mail merge into 100 invoices, and printed them out in about twenty minutes. His answer:

"Ok, I want a secretary smart enough not to have to type 80 words a minute."

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