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Unresolvable Oppositions

I came into the office from a three-day weekend (I work a compressed four-day week) to find my phone blinking. In my job I consort with a lot with libraries and this message was from a librarian who called to ask if I had any recommendations on what to look for when interviewing an IT manager. The answer was, not really - I'm a web programmer, and haven't spent much time around IT managers - but I know some interviewing tricks.

I gave her three questions. The last was my favorite:

In the position of IT manager, how would you resolve the issue of security versus access in your day-to-day decision making?

This question presents the interviewee with an unresolvable opposition - an opposition as fundamentally unsolvable as whether art is to teach us or delight us, whether the needs of the group or individual should be primary in developing policy, or whether vi or emacs is the better programmer's tool.

An unresolvable opposition asks a person to reveal how he or she thinks, how he or she resolves issues and strikes balances, and in the case of our interviewee, whether his or her values match the organization's interests. For an IT manager of a library, that's important. An IT manager who values security so strongly that he or she will super glue the USB drives of public access computers into inoperablity is probably not the ideal candidate for the job. Libraries, of course, are all about access, throwing the security vs. access debate into high relevance.

The thing about unresolvable oppositions, though, is that they are unresolvable. They're the ground from which "wars" (like the vi vs. emacs Editor War) are born, and they are also the place where talk of striking a balance springs forth - a form of never-ending peace-making.

In short, they're just plain fun to grapple with, and they tell you a lot about a person.

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