Knowing where to tinker makes all the difference

I came across a famous story the other day – I’m sure you’ve read it before:

“Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some
kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the
problem area. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a
small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him
to send an invoice.

The bill arrived, for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent
another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an
X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it.”

“Know Where Man” Urban Legend, hosted by

Sometimes Engineer Charlie Steinmetz is the hero of this tale, as in this recounting.

A similar story involves Picasso:

One day, Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Now some people have argued that one or both of these accounts are apocryphal, but the historicity of these narratives is beside the point. The point is that although an experienced hand makes a difficult job look easy, that must not dissuade you from charging full price for your work.

I’m a software designer, so the refrain I hear is, “but it’s only a couple of lines of code!” Irrespective of whether it is or it isn’t just a couple of lines of code, what this really means is, “I don’t want to pay for your time and expertise.” So I just reiterate my cost estimate and ask them how many lines of code they’d like. 🙂