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E-Business in the Enterprise – September 30, 2003

Hooked on tools

By Sean Mc Grath

One of my pet theories (Oh no! Not another one!) is that there is a simple way to tell the difference between mere competence (or incompetence) and expertise in Information Technology.

A competent person wields the tools available well. The complex systems grinding underfoot are understood through the conceptual models reflected in the tools. An incompetent person is one who has yet to figure out the tools available or who may need more tools to get to that level of comfort.

An expert on the other hand, sees right passed the tools to the reality of the systems underneath. Where necessary, an expert can bypass all the tools, or indeed build new completely new tools out of odds and ends. A merely competent person however, is lost at this level. Without tools, the competent are powerless. Without tools, experts remain calm, exude patience and find a way to get the job done.

I think my little theory applies to fields other than Information Technology by the way. In fact, I propose to demonstrate its global applicability with two embarrassing examples from my own experience. Let's go fishing and then let's go buy a used car.

First, let's go fishing. I was fond of doing this with my dad as a kid. He had a fishing rod he made himself out of a car antenna (I kid you not) and some old bits and pieces he had picked up over the years. All his hooks, weights and so on would fit into a small rusting tin. I on the other hand had a flashy rod and reel to accompany a box of bits and pieces so big that it doubled as a seat. I'd blabber on about the benefits of all my brightly colored and expensive equipment and he'd just smile at me with that knowing smile.

Now let's buy a used car. Would you believe that I had owned my first used car a full year before I figured out how to flip the lid to get at the engine? A friend of mine gets *under* any car he is interested in before ever getting into it. I'd blabber on about the dashboard and the comfy seats and he'd just smile at me with that knowing smile.

These embarrassing episodes from my past came back to me recently. The trigger was a program on TV about fishing in which an old chestnut question was asked. Namely, how much of the fancy fishing equipment on the market is designed to snare the fisherman rather than the fish?

Whoosh! My whole life flashed before me. All those silly fishing gadgets I had bought, not to mention some highly questionable, but pretty, used cars!  How could I have been so naive as to be influenced by the color of that fishing reel or the texture of the plastic on the wing mirrors of that car?

However, these cringe-inducing examples pale into insignificance compared to some more recent examples of my weakness for flashing lights and go-faster stripes. Suffice it to say that I have bought my fair share of silly programming tools in my time. Tools which, yes, I admit it, were probably designed primarily to lure the non-expert into a purchasing decision than solve any real problem.

Thankfully, at least in that areas of computing I specialize in, I now see past the tools and indeed build my own where required. They tend not to have flashing lights or go-faster stripes but they get the job done.

As a consequence of thinking this through, I have a new rule of thumb to go with this pet theory. Get experts to buy tools to be used by non-experts and be very careful about tool recommendations that emanate from non-experts. Oh, and ask new hires for the IT department, what their favorite tools are and which ones they made themselves.