Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tools of the Trade

I'm a programmer who is interested in much more than just putting in my eight hours a day and drawing my paycheck twice a month. I want to excel at creating software. Learning to do so will be a life-long pursuit sitting at the feet of masters who are kind enough to pass on their expertise. Standing alongside excellent works by Martin Fowler, Michael Feathers, Brian Marick and others, one of my favorite books on my shelf is "Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings" by Aldren A. Watson. Mr. Watson is a Vermont woodworker and illustrator who has spent many thousands of hours with the tools of his own trade. He says this about his tools:
"In one sense, tools are simply things of steel and wood, attractive to the eye, perhaps even beautiful in their efficient lines, functional design, and appealing contrasts of texture and color. In another, it might be imagines that they only wait to be taken up and used, when they will then automatically perform with the precision that their appearance implies. This is an illusion. Tools can indeed be made to perform extraordinary tasks, sometimes with such impressive dispatch that they seem to have life of their own. However, it is more realistic to see that a tool has no more and no less than a high potentiality for capacity performance. At the same time each one has its own peculiar ways and workings, individual quirks of personality, if you like. These traits must be discovered, at times only through dogged trial and error, and the knowledge of them applied with persistent discipline and an attitude of acceptance, for the tool will not change its ways. When a tool is picked up and used in recognition of these limitations, then its full capability can be exploited to your purposes, and the two of you will work agreeably in tandem. Thus there is a sharp distinction between working with you tools and merely working them on wood. “To my way of thinking the most practical means of acquiring this intimate understanding of the ways and workings of a tool is to take apart, see how it is built and how its mechanism controls its performance. Sharpen the cutter iron, clean and oil the tool, and put it back together again. Then look into its adjustments, trying out each one of them on waste pieces of wood. Experiment, too, with the different handholds, and the stance of your feet to determine what effect they have on the ease and efficiency of using the tool. “All of these factors operate in a cyclical fashion. As the potentialities and limitations of a tool are explored and understood, the quality of work tends to improve; and along with it grows the confidence that even more professional procedures are possible. As the tool begins to show signs of functioning more nearly as it was designed to perform, you may perceive that he implications of the phrase ‘in good hands this tool is capable of the finest work’ is not after all beyond your reach.”

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