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Take it to Zdrabko

Sun 23 Feb 2020 by mskala Tags used: ,

Many years ago, when I was less than half my current age, I worked at a software company where they had a unique engineering process I haven't seen anywhere else. It was called something like "taking it to Strafco"; it wasn't a written-down process and when I first heard about it I wasn't sure of the spelling, but that was what it sounded like.

When there was an issue with how to do something that someone wasn't sure about, they would usually discuss it with the other programmers at a formal or informal meeting. And quite often, just talking it over in a meeting was enough that we could reach a consensus on what should be done. But if that wasn't enough, usually someone would end up suggesting that we should "take that one to Strafco."

I puzzled over what that might mean. It sounded like it could be a corporate name ("Straf, Co."?) so maybe a consulting company that they'd sometimes hire? This was in Western Canada, where there are a lot of geographic names commemorating a certain Donald Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal - such as Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island - and many of the programmers were avid hikers. So maybe, I figured, they were planning to go on a retreat, and climb a mountain or something while thinking about the question. Or maybe Strafco was the name of a library where they could research information on solving programming problems.

It wasn't until I had worked there several weeks that I found out how this process worked, and had the opportunity to do it myself. I learned that the correct spelling was Zdrabko, which I couldn't have guessed from the pronunciation. It was the name of a person. Zdrabko was an older fellow from Eastern Europe who had a PhD in Computer Science and was one of the company's first hires. I think he only worked there part-time, because he was in a position of being able to negotiate that. He would come in a couple days a week and sit in an office and drink tea.

If you had a knotty engineering problem, taking it to Zdrabko meant that you'd go visit his office and tell him your problem. And he'd listen carefully, and sip his tea. Then he'd tell you how to solve it. It was that simple.

I guess nobody is infallible, but as far as I could tell he was able to give a sensible answer to every question that came up. This was not only a matter of being generally smart, but also because he'd been there from the early days of the company. Our product was for talking to mainframes, and this was long before mainframes ran Linux, so there was a lot of relevant history. Any time there was a fence built across a road, Zdrabko knew why it had been built there.

His problem-solving abilities seemed to be general enough that I was tempted to take other kinds of problems to him - like "Zdrabko, how can I get girls to like me?" He probably could have said something helpful about that too.

At the time, that was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

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1 comment

This story reminds me of the Queen of England.
Queen Elizabeth has been sent an official "Red Box" every day (excluding Christmas and Easter) since the dawn of WWII. It is a dossier of the most important classified information of the day. Which she reads then burns in the fireplace. I doubt she is mentally there now given her age. Still this must make her the single most well informed person in all of human history.

I feel that every organization benefits from someone of this Zdrabko nature. And that any organization without a guru of experience and perspective is severely handicapped.
Steve - 2020-02-27 10:15

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