On experience and the XY problem


One unsuspecting morning, I checked into the office, and before even making coffee, I heard a colleague murmuring “why doesn’t ps aux work on $Server123”, half to me, half to himself.
This colleague is probably the brightest sysadmin I’ve known; probably wouldn’t be a reach to say he’s one of the best around these parts.

I sleepily ssh’ed, and tried coming back to him, saying that the same command worked for me. He didn’t need almost any time to settle that it was a terminal emulator bug, which was fixed by restarting his PC, and the day went on normally.


Later, when I started thinking about this issue, I asked him how he determined that so fast. He said that other commands such as w, a bare ps worked, as well as redirection of the suspect command to a file. In the meantime, a big find would fail. The terminal emulator wouldn’t scroll past line 12 or so, when a large amount of data was thrown on stdout.

I thought this small story was very interesting because it demonstrates the power of experience, as well as the XY Problem,

I could easily imagine a well-meaning, but inexperienced developer panicking in the same situation, and either giving up, or developing weird, conspiratory scenarios in his head.

  • Why does it happen in my staging server, but works on my local VM??
  • Is the ps binary broken?
  • Is it a weird/rogue process that wants to hide itself by blocking ps?
  • Oh crap, this issue is only on my user. have I been hacked??
  • Oh hell, I can’t even open vi to look at some logs
  • logs into stack overflow Hi StackOverflow, cat myfile | head -n 12 works, but -n 13 freezes my server, what should I do?

I’m not saying it’s a hard problem, but to arrive at a conclusion, or a satisfactory explanation of this, or a similarly simple problem one could need to piece together a strange puzzle; what’s the difference between a shell, a terminal, a terminal emulator? What’s the difference between an interactive session and a non-interactive one? What does TTY show, and what happens when you ssh somewhere?


This simple, silly story is an example how seemingly unimportant pieces of knowledge we’ve gathered over the years can tackle similarly simple, silly problems.

It’s also part of the huge impact of an experienced engineer can have on a team. Tunelling the enthusiasm and fresh ideas into the correct direction, steering away from potholes, and actually concentrating the efforts on directly on X, instead of asking How to do Y? can make all the difference in the world on a project

Written on October 15, 2018