Let's Talk about Tools

DALL-E's musings on engineering tools

So many people have become so used to technology to solve problems that many still believe in the concept “for every problem, there is a tool to solve it”. It is, however, the apotheosis of short-sightedness, the nadir of logical thinking to believe that tools solve problems. The correct way to do this is to identify your problem, determine how important fixing it is, and then see what might be used to fix it - maybe a methodology change. Usually not a tool, though. So, let's talk about our industry’s collective obsession with tools and how they lead us to our inner caveman.

Of course, we rely on tools to implement innovative technical solutions, and choosing the right tools is often critical to success. But too often, tools do more damage than they help solve problems in development. They are sometimes even our most significant obstacle to progress: destructive where they should be constructive.

So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I will try to convince you that tools are often the most dangerous impediment to change facing the entire industry today. There are at least five ways that tools and tool choices stand in the way of innovation and reduce our ability to adapt and improve.

1. The "yes, but" developers

We are all familiar with this annoying rhetorical abomination. It should not come as a surprise then that there is an equally ubiquitous version for choosing (or not choosing) tools and tooling. I hear this one at least once a month. Someone identifies an interesting niche problem and proposes a new tool to "fix" it. The response, however, isn't "ok." Instead, someone invariably says, "great, but there's also this other tool". Two problems manifest in a single statement: the first is whataboutism which is more annoying than anything else. The second, however, contains a built-in assumption that a tool will improve any situation, and I know which tool to use. The latter is problem number 2.

2. The “my tool” confirmation bias

Have you ever heard the following? “I used another tool in my previous company,” followed by an implicit, highly dubious and thoroughly illogical assumption, “therefore, it must be better than what you are proposing.”, In selfish language, this means “the learning curve will be lower for me than everyone else so I can act knowledgeable and important for a few months while building my street cred and hopefully getting promoted.” Confirmation bias is a reaction to something called cognitive dissonance. Most people seek to avoid stressful or uncomfortable situations and will actively rationalise why they should not change something even when it does not suit their purpose. This extends to convincing yourself that what you already know must be better than something you don’t.

3. "I heard about this new tool at a conference,"

Sometimes there is a variation on this apriorism - “a salesman called me (by name), so I think we should buy his new wonder tool.”  (We’ll ignore for the sake of our sanity the developer who proposes a tool, “folks on Stack Overflow say is the best.”). You get the idea. In all likelihood, the proposed tool will do half of what an existing tool does at twice the price.

4. “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM”

I remember hearing that line in the 1980s. This old chestnut just won't die. While technically not a tool, IBM, like its modern brethren (SAP, Salesforce, Atlassian, Google, etc.), make up the corporate process constabulary. Each is as insidious as a tool because not only are they imposing a collection of proprietary tools, but their evil suites force one into compliance with their way of working. They have created a perfect trap: a high barrier to entry, an impossible exit. All these suites have in common: you adapt your company to fit their tools, not their tools to fit your company processes. "Eventually, every company needs SAP, right?" WTF?

5. "Not invented here"

Finally, the infamous “not invented here” logic and its ugly cousin, “we’ve been using this other tool for years.” So many positive changes are avoided because of these two detours from reality. We have all confronted “not invented here”, though few probably know it is part of a larger phenomenon called conceptual conservatism or sometimes belief perseverance. How many companies are still using Excel as their database “tool”? One needs to look back no further than the end of 2022, and the meltdown of Southwest Airlines scheduling “software” to see what keeping antiquated “tools” in operation past their expiration date leads to.

Where, then, does this leave us? How do we confront and enlighten the naysayers and resistors? Well, if we believe the physicist Max Planck we don’t. He wrote that "the new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up familiar with it". [Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, 1968]

Enjoy! If not, we have an app for that.

The Candidus

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