Spinning Code: Tool Building Mindset

Earlier this month, at Mid Atlantic Dreamin’ in Philadelphia, I gave a talk titled Software Super Heroes: Building the tools you wish you had. My goal with the talk was to convince people that should, can, and in fact do, built tools for themselves. If you work with technology, and your job involves repetitive tasks the same applies to you too.

What do I mean by “Tool” and “Tool builder’s mindset”?

I like to use a very expansive definition of tool: “A tool is anything that makes a task easier which would be repetitive, hard, or impossible without it.” In that sense just about anything you make that simplifies you work can be considered a tool: a project estimation spread sheet, a good set of directions for a complex task, a flow for a Salesforce admin, a piece of code to normalize a large collection of files, and more.

My intention with that expansive view is to help encourage people to take on a tool builder’s mindset.

To be a digital tool builder does not require knowing how to write complex software, it just requires you to do what you already do now, but with intention. When we use a broad definition of tools, it’s easier to see ourselves as tool builders, even if we’re just talking about a spreadsheet or a Salesforce flow meant to handle an administrator’s daily tasks. When we see ourselves as tool builders we are more likely to make something worth using more than once.

Why does this matter?

When we approach problems with a tool building mind set, instead of insurmountable challenges caused by gaps in our tooling, we see opportunity to create something new to make the impossible possible. Instead of facing hours of boring repetitive tasks, we have chance to build a more interesting special purpose solution.

Fight the Tool Building Excuses

There are several excuses I commonly hear from people when I encourage them to build their own tools. They range from concerns about not having the right skills, to assuming someone else already built that tool or that the time required isn’t worth the effort.

My general response to these concerns is that while people should indeed look around for tools that already solve their problem, and that some problems are very hard to solve completely, if you start to chip away at a complex problem you often will find that you can create tools that are good enough to save you time and effort.

Don’t try to build the perfect tool that solves all possible edge cases on your first go. Create a tool that takes out some annoying and repetitive task. Then create a tool that solves for another task, or builds on your first time. Chip away.

I often tell developers who are early in their career that I should never see them doing rote repetitive tasks for hours on end. Instead once they understand how a repetitive task is done, they should start thinking about how to build a tool to take over. But that’s not just advice for developers: we invented computers to do repetitive asks (calculating artillery firing tables and cracking codes), let them do that.

Pick Your Tool Building Path

When you set out to create a tool you have two main options: use something you already know, or use tool building as a chance to learn something new. I’ve used tool building as was to teach myself new features of Excel, Google Sheets, Salesforce Flows, Git, and several programming languages. This can be a great way to learn how to use the tool that’s just right for the job. But learning a new tool or technique takes time, and if you have a deadline you may need to move faster.

Personally I try to take both paths from time to time. I use things I know when: they are exactly the right tool, I am under time pressure, or I want to keep my skills sharp. I will take the time to learn something new when: it’s something I need to learn anyway, I am building on my own time, or it’s exactly the right tool for what I need to do.

Neither path is correct 100% of the time. By using them both I am able to create the tools I need, and broaden my skills over time.

Just Start Building

The next time you’re faced with a task that is repetitive or hard with the tools you have: create yourself something new. Don’t get hung up on being perfect, just create something that’s better than what you have at the start.

Then save your tool to use again later. Share it with colleagues, friends, or as an open source project.

When in doubt, just start building.

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