If you haven’t picked up a copy of Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, I highly recommend you take a look at it. I personally consider it to be in the top 10-15 books I’ve ever read, and it has really changed the way I think and my perceptions about the world around me.
The World Is Flat is essentially a look at how various “flatteners” such as supply chain management, electronic commerce, open source software, the internet, and various other technological advances in the past 20 or so years have really flattened the global economic playing field and drastically altered the dynamics of how business and life get done these days. Even more exciting are the insights about the “untouchable” jobs in the future, commentary on topics that are still in the pipeline, and the opportunities that lie ahead. If you have concerns about a book laden with more politics than you want to read (perhaps like The Lexus and the Olive Tree), I think you’ll find this one to be much more enjoyable and easy to digest.
Earlier today, I identified a fairly severe problem with my bank’s online website and called it in to their tech support line, and this experience reminded me of one of the examples from the book. Someone picked up rather quickly, and after I explained the problem, I got the typical responses I expected to hear: Have you cleared your cache? Have you deleted your cookies? Can you shut down all instances of your browser and try again from scratch? None of these things worked (nor did I expect them to work), and the technician was left scratching their head saying, “Ummm. Well, I don’t see the same problem in Internet Explorer. Let me see if someone familiar with the browsers you are using is available. What are they again?” I responded that I’d tried both Firefox and Safari with no luck.
I was a good sport and played along, but when they put me on hold for 5 minutes, I decided to just go ahead and give them a hand, so I started up FireBug (a must-have Firefox plugin if you do any web development at all) and almost immediately identified the problem. Once the technician got back to me (with no new answer), I explained in a courteous manner that I had discovered their problem while on hold and pointed out actual line numbers in their source file so they could take a look. (It turns out they were doing a document.getElementById() with a string argument that was CamelCased when it should have been all lower case — something IE will apparently forgive but Firefox will not.)
The representative seemed somewhat awe struck at my apparent skills and said that they’d noted everything I’d said for their engineering team, and a patch would be pushed out later tonight. The funniest part of the conversation was when before hanging up, they asked me if there was anything else that they could do for me? I pondered the meaning of that question for a moment before politely thanking them for all they’d already done for me and hanging up.
I believe what was just described is a good illustration of interaction that’s probably becoming more and more typical in the flat world. After all, it wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the flattening factors like technical education that’s freely available on the internet, third party plugins for open source browsers, freely available debugging tools, and the like. For that matter, this scenario probably wouldn’t have happened at all back when the fundamentals of web development were much less mainstream — nor would a high quality toolkit have been freely available that could identify such problems back then.