Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Apr 24, 2014 12:07pm

making the right job for the tool

Near the second half of most nerd debates, your likelihood of hearing the phrase “pick the right tool for the job” approaches 100% (cf. frameworks, rails, more rails, node, drupal, jquery, rails again). “Right tool for the job” is a conversation killer, because no shit. You shouldn’t be using the wrong tool. And yet, working in code is working in language (naming things is the second hard problem) so it’s equally in-bounds to debate the choice of job for the tool. “Right tool” assumes that the Job is a constant and the Tool is a variable, but this is an arbitrary choice and notably contradicted by our own research into the motivations of idealistic geeks. Volunteers know the tools they know, and are looking for ways to use their existing powers for good. They are selecting a job to fit the tool. Martin Seay’s brilliant essay on pop music, Ke$ha’s TiK ToK, pro wrestling and conservatism critiques the type of realist resignation that assumes the environment (the job) is immutable:

It is a sterling example of what a number of commentators—I’ll refer you to k-punk—have characterized as the fantasy of realism: an expedient and comfortable confusion of what is politically difficult with what is physically impossible. … This kind of “realism” offers something even more desirable than a clear-eyed assessment of your current circumstances, namely the feeling that you’ve made such an assessment, and that you’ve come away with the conclusion that this is as good as it gets. … This is professional wrestling again: the comforting notion that you know what you need to know, that everything is clear.

At some level, our tools come preselected. At Day Job, we have tool guy Eric Ries on our board, and by design stick to the universes of web scripting languages and user needs research. Going in to a government partnership, we know that the set of jobs for which we are suited is bounded by time and scale. Instead, we look for opportunities where governments are creating the wrong jobs based on the tools they have available. One example is Digital Front Door, an emerging project on publishing and content management where we’re looking at the intertwined evils of CMS software and omnibus vendor contracts. Given a late 90s consensus on content publishing, it seems inevitable that every website project must result in a massive single-source RFP, design, and migration effort. So much risk to pile onto a single spot. How would a city government change the scope of a job if it knew it had other tools available? Would the presence of static site generators and workflows based on git-style sharing models influence the redefinition of the job to be smaller, lower-risk, more agile? I think yes.

“Pick the right tool” is common-sense advice that elides a more interesting set of possibilities. When you can redefine the job, the best tool may be the one you already have.

Comments (1)

  1. "One of my most productive days was deciding, 'You know, my tools aren't meant for this job.'" -- with apologies to Ken Thompson. [1] Nerd debates recognize this on at least one level: "It's np-complete! There's no tool for this job." [1] http://quotes.cat-v.org/programming/

    Posted by robb seaton on Friday, June 6 2014 1:14am EDT

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