Craft and Tooling

You may have heard the idiom “it’s a poor craftsperson who blames their tools”, which offers advice that seems to make sense on the surface: focus on skill, and not on tools. But there’s a danger in taking that advice too far and ignoring tools completely, and I don’t know of any craftspeople who would recommend that.

Hi, I’m the Internet’s Ash Furrow and today we’re going to talk about a problematic tweet I saw today.

Okay so first off I just need to say that looks awesome. That surfer is kicking ass at making upturned-furniture surfing look cool and fun. But just like our idiom earlier, there’s a danger in taking away the wrong message: that tools don’t matter at all. Tools definitely matter.

So let’s talk about tooling! It’s really important to understand that different people work better or worse with different tools. Let’s look at guitars as an example. People with smaller bodies sometimes use 3/4– or 1/2–size guitars, beginners sometimes start on classical guitars with nylon strings that are easier to learn to plan on, and different types of guitars lend themselves to different styles of music. My point is: the guitar itself matters.

When you’re first learning a craft, the tool you use is going to heavily affect your ability to function and learn. Returning to the guitar metaphor, if a guitar is ill-suited for an individual, then they’re going to have a hard time staying motivated to keep learning the guitar. This is in contrast to an expert guitarist, who already has the skills to make an ill-suited guitar sound great.

So not only do tools matter, but they matter more for beginners than experts.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes more sense when you consider that experts are more experienced at picking the right tool for a job.

When we focus on skills to the exclusion of tools, we risk falling victim to survivorship bias. In any field, experts (who have already “survived” the learning process of their craft) are especially prone to falling for this logical fallacy; tools don’t matter as much to them anymore.

As developers, we need tools that support experts, and beginners, and everyone in between. And we need to recognize that while skills matter, tools play a really important role in how we acquire those skills.

So enjoy a hearty laugh at that fellow who can surf on an upturned coffee table – it’s pretty cool! But keep in mind that it took skill to do so – skills acquired with better tools. The longer you’ve been working in a field, the less tools will matter to you. Just be aware of your bias when your talking to beginners and you’ll do great!

Posted on December 31, 2016