The Right Tool For The Job

Eddystone, Pennsylvania - Railroad parts - Baldwin Locomotive Works - Blacksmith and helper forging and hammering tools, March 1937
Try doing this with a spatula…
(image: The U.S. National Archives, license: No known restrictions)

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey contains cinematic images that are so powerful, you find them flashing before your eyes years later. That happened to me as I sat down to write this: I had a vision of my favorite sequence from the film, called “The Dawn of Man.” In it, we see a monkey sitting amongst a pile of bones. The ape picks up a large femur and begins to swing it around, tapping it here and there on the skeletons that lay on the ground around him. His initial strokes are playful and tentative, but they quickly gain momentum. Soon, ribs are flying and skulls are being crushed in a frenzied rage. An “Aha!” moment occurs for the monkey: “This isn’t just a useless piece of bone! I can use it to strike harder and faster than my hands will allow.” With this invention, new food sources are now possibilities. Kubrick drives home the point for the audience by cutting to a large beast (a Tapir) hitting the ground. The horns in Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra rise to underscore the importance of what would normally be just an animal playing around with some bones: this ape has discovered the first tool! Later on, we see the sinister side of this discovery, that tools can be used for good or evil. That same bone has been turned into a weapon (a kind of tool) and used against a rival pack of apes to deliver a vicious beating.

2001 is fiction, and it could have happened differently… But, imagine being there at that moment, when primitive Man first picked up a rock or a bone or a branch and realized it was more than just a rock, bone, or branch. Every time you wield a screwdriver or a hammer, you are part of that amazing human legacy of technological innovation that stretches all the way back to the discovery of that first tool.

Today, the number of tools available to help you accomplish your goals number in the millions. General ones, like the venerable hammer or Swiss Army Knife, can be used in a wide variety of situations. Others, like a strawberry-stem remover, can be amazingly specific and narrow in their application. Also, tools aren’t just things you can hold in your hand: there exists a whole slew of things to help you find and fix problems in the digital world too (debuggers, log analyzers, etc.).

But before we talk about having the “right tool for the job,” maybe it’s a good idea to look at the pain of choosing:

The Wrong Tool

I’ve had moments in my life that made me feel even more primitive than that monkey in “The Dawn of Man”: they usually involve having the wrong tool for the job. One such frustrating example occurred when I first tried to wire a computer network for one of the fledgling companies I co-founded. I was stringing network cables around our office: the goal was to connect wall outlets with a patch panel on the other end.

Wiring Closet Patch Panel (fisheye)
Terminating these wires without the right tools will drive you insane.
(image: ChrisDag, license: CC BY 2.0)

First off, using a razor blade, just stripping the insulation from the wires was its own challenge. I’d sometimes nick the conductor and have to start over by cutting the whole thing off (yes, I know now that there’s also a tool for removing wire insulation). But, that was nothing compared to getting the wires into the posts on the patch panel or wall outlets. Using just a screwdriver, it was so hard to keep the wire in line with the top of the post. I would have it lined up, and then it would slip off. Getting the screwdriver to penetrate in just the right place was also challenging: it frequently ended up embedded in my thumb! Cue: swearing that would make a sailor blush. I tried everything I could with the tools I had on hand. In my mind, I built up a picture of network cable installers as supernatural beings: master craftsmen who could make those damned little wires rest neatly within their posts. After an hour, I was only able to do one before throwing up my hands in frustration and retiring for the night. Even so, the one cable I was able to terminate was a mess, with the posts bent and deep scratches from my screwdriver everywhere.

The next day, I went back to the store where I bought the cabling materials and had a chat with the owner. I told him my tale of woe, how terminating network wires was clearly the realm of divine beings. He walked me back to the aisle with the network cables and thrust a “punch-down tool” in my hand. I brought it back home and punched down my first connection with my new tool. The difference blew my mind. What was incredibly frustrating before was now the simplest thing in the world: even a child could terminate network cables. The punch-down tool even made a satisfying “ka-ching” sound as it did its work!

The Right Tool…

Tools are born from the frustrations of pioneers who try to do something for the first time. Then they’re honed by those who come after and try to make a living doing what those first-movers have set in motion. Like plants and animals, tools evolve over time, incorporating revelations of better ways to accomplish a task. When you buy a tool, you’re buying more than just an object: you’re buying the sum of what humanity knows about how to best do a job. Be grateful that you didn’t have to endure the pain that lead to the creation of a tool, you get to tap into this fount of hand-held knowledge with just a swipe of your credit card. As you can see from my experience with terminating network cables, the right tool can make a job go from “impossible” to “easy.”

If you’re doing something unique and off-the-shelf tools aren’t available, consider making your own. But, I don’t have to suggest this, necessity will force you! You’ll know when to become a toolmaker: it’s when you need to repeatedly do a time-consuming or frustrating task. Consider improvising with tools from other trades or industries. I’ve often taken things that weren’t necessarily made for my particular situation and adapted them for my purposes with great effect. Of course, my accomplishments pale in comparison to the undisputed King of Tool Improvisation: MacGyver. I still remember the episode of MacGyver (“The Prodigal”) where he made a harpoon launcher from a telescope. That’s world-class tool improvisation!

You’ll recall that there are two steps you need to take in any troubleshooting exercise: 1) finding the problem and 2) executing the fix. You might associate tools with just step #2, but they are critical for the entire process. Diagnosing a problem may require different tools than the repair phase, but they are tools nonetheless. Tools for problem discovery usually include information gathering devices like meters, gauges, and probes. There will be some tools that are required for both phases: that’s because finding the cause of a problem often requires disassembly to allow the observation of internal components. When it comes time for reassembly, chances are you’ll need the same tools.

…At The Right Time

Possessing the right tool is only half the battle. The competent use of a tool also requires:

  • Knowing how the tool works and being proficient in its use.
  • Knowing when to use the tool.
  • Having the tool available when it’s needed.

Any one of these pitfalls could be a reason why the best tool for the job is not used. How many times have you been on the roof and discovered the tool you need is inconveniently located 3 floors below in the basement? Or, it was sitting in your toolbox just a few feet away, but you forgot that it existed? Good “toolsmanship” requires the functioning of the most important tool of all: your mind. After all, a tool is just an inanimate object–you are the bridge that connects the reality of a situation with the most effective means available.

*** Questions? Comments? Have a related troubleshooting story that you’d like to share? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section below! ***

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