Own Your Tools

I spent a lot of time with my grandpa growing up. He has spent much of his retirement ‘fooling around’ in a workshop he built on his slice of Pike County, Illinois farmland. From a very early age I spent a lot of weekends and entire weeks of the summer as Grandpa’s little helper.

I’d work on the things he was working on while helping and learning. When I was about 7 years old, I was helping Grandpa refinish a dresser. I had a flat paint scraper in my little hands and was trying to dig into the layers of flaking paint that gripped the dresser. I really didn’t have the strength to get under the paint with that big blade, so I turned the tool on edge and started scratching deeply into the wood.

I was making progress now, but tearing the heck out of the surface. Now in Grandpa’s version of this story, he says that when he saw what I was doing he corrected me too harshly and sharply and later found me teared up in a corner of the workshop sorry for what I’d done.

I honestly don’t remember being that hurt by his rebuke, but I do know how to use a paint scraper and dozens of other tools properly because of that time I spent ‘helping’ grandpa in his shop.

Ownership

As software crafts-people our tools are other bits of software. We spend every minute of every day using software. Our editors, compilers, interpreters, source code repositories, IDEs, debuggers, and test frameworks enable every stage of our work. Everything we do to create and add value to a software project requires another software tool.

At many of the places I’ve worked, the developers have a laundry list of complaints about their software tools. Often, teams develop elaborate rituals to dance around the shortcomings of their tools. “Before you check in, copy this file over there then add a note to that file then spin around in your chair three times and your check-in should succeed.”

Now I agree that there are lots of poorly designed tools out there. Some tools do things that just don’t make sense and others crash all the time, but I have a challenge for us as software craftspeople:

Own your tools.

Tools are software, you are a software craftsperson. You can find or make a tool to do anything you need.

Groups decide to invest in a tool, often at great cost, but very few people end up understanding or even using the tool. The tools usually gets blamed for its shortcomings before anyone has really made the effort to get them to work. They give up on it far to early. Own your tools. Understand everything it can do, and if it isn’t enough, find a way to make it do what you want.

Investment

One of the cool things that happens is that investing time in your tools may give you the chance to explore a new language. One of our goals as craftsmen at 8th Light is to learn a new language every year, but often its hard to justify the time spent in a new language when you are heads-down in a project. Using a new language to create a tool for yourself may give you just the excuse you need to spread out a bit and learn something new.

Is it really worth it? Can the time spent writing “non-production” code really be justified? Let’s take a task, say the creation of a new class in C++. Most people, when creating a new class, will open up the last class they worked on, copy the entire thing, paste it into a new file, delete all the methods and data, then do a find/replace on the class name.

There are probably a few comments that need editing, the revision history needs to be cleaned out and maybe there is a comment header or footer that needs to be updated. This entire process could take maybe 2 minutes. It hardly seems like it’s worth automating. Except…Wait! It won’t compile, because you mistakenly didn’t remove the parameters from the constructor and the compiler can’t resolve the dependencies.

This is a manual process, so it’s error prone. So you spend maybe another 3 minutes getting the thing to compile. Then we need a test harness so you do the same copy, paste, delete, find/replace process.

8 minutes later we have a new class and test harness and we are ready to start working. The hour or so investment to build a tool for yourself will surely be worth it now. If you share your work with the rest of your team and suddenly everyone is saving 8 minutes every time a new class is generated, you might have your hour back by the end of the week.

Some IDEs and editors have some class generation utilities for you. This may get you part of the way there, but it probably won’t put your company’s header on the top or put in your source control keywords. It may not make your destructor virtual or create a private copy constructor to start like I like to do.

The tool doesn’t do exactly what you want. Own your tool. You are a software craftsmen. You can create software that generates a class for yourself. If you are in an editor that supports macros or bundles, you may be able to implement the tool in the editor’s macro language.

Open source at 8th Light

In this spirit, the craftsmen at 8th light have contributed to open source software tool projects for several years. Micah is the author of the widely used Fitnesse acceptance test framework and Eric has taken over the management of Selenium on Rails.

Micah’s also been working on a whole new development framework called LimeLight. We love open source tools because anyone can own them.

Conclusion

Grandpa used to make things out of sliced walnuts. He’d glue together little baskets or crosses and fill the walnut cavities with colorful beads. As you can imagine, a walnut is a pretty difficult thing to slice.

At the very least it’s awfully dangerous to get your fingers that close to a band saw. Grandpa showed me a while ago the tool that he made to save his lower digits. It’s a pretty simple block of wood with a half-walnut sized divot carved out of it. It was a woodworker using his woodworking skills to create (and own) a tool for woodworking.

If you’d like my class generator, you can get it here. Chances are, it won’t do exactly what you need it to do, so…own your tool.

Doug Bradbury, Director of Software Services

Doug Bradbury is a maker, a thinker, a craftsman, and a learner.