On making tools…

My favorite tool is an 12oz ball peen hammer.

I should probably have prefixed this with the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time doing metalwork, and if I thought of myself more as an artist, I’d say that was my preferred medium. Lots of metal work: casting with bronze, tin, and silver, soldering, forming, cold metal work with copper, pot metals and steel, forge work with iron and steel. When you’re doing metal work like this, you live with a LOT of hammers. For a while in my basement (when I lived in Missouri), I had a wall with over 40 hammers on it – and thought that was a reasonable number. I show outright jealousy towards some long-time smithy workshops that have 70+ hammers.

I’ve mostly shut down that metalworking shop these days, but I still keep some pieces of it around. The 12oz hammer is one of those items that I’m just damn fond of. It’s a good weight, not too heavy and not too light. When I was doing forge work, I learned early enough that while a big ole sledge was a fine thing for rapid moving, the really interesting work could be best done by a light touch with a fairly light hammer.

One of the aspects that I like most about the smithy workshops is that it’s just understood that you’ll make your tools. You’ll build exactly the tool you need to make the end result that you’re after. The other aspect that I learned (after many, many screw ups) was that you’d best be thinking about finish up at the very start of a project and not just the end. Know what you want the end result to be in all its form and function, and then make it happen.

I took those concepts with me into software and have wound around a number of different gigs, mostly ending up somewhere between development and operations in “Internet companies” – and yeah, making tools.

A couple of years ago I got to see Michael Johnson give a talk about making tools – which he does for Pixar. A year later I had a chance to talk with him directly after he was presenting to a bunch of Disney Internet Group folks – both presentations where basically the same: about making tools.

I suspect I’ll ruin his general thesis, and certainly it isn’t a good synopsis, but the gist I got from his talks was that making tools was about shifting the effort from one team to another. And that if you’re doing that – you’d better make sure that it’s the right way to make things better.

In a larger organization, the process of shifting the work from one group to another is often a messy process. Things break, misunderstandings can happen, and maybe not everyone understands why you’re doing what you’re doing. In a smaller organization, some of these folks don’t exist – it’s almost easy (and mandatory) to make a larger use of tools to get stuff done. But for me, the larger, messier wins are the ones that really pay off. It takes more work, no kidding, and a lot of communication to go along with the technical efforts. In fact, I’d say they’re darn near equal in terms of need inside the organization to make a tool successful.

There’s a lot more that goes into it all – making tools. I’ve got a lot more thoughts and ideas – but I wanted to post something up here on my blog for anyone wandering by and wondering about “this guy at Disney” who’s hiring for an automation engineer.

If you end up interviewing with me, tell me you read the post – and what you think. I’d like to know…

2 thoughts on “On making tools…

  1. What is the relationship between making tools, and shifting work between groups? The latter sounds like one group making more work for another group, but, I’ve never thought of that as related to making tools to solve a problem. I must be missing something obvious — what is it?

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  2. Making a tool is always about shifting work – getting leverage to make something easier. When you do that in an organization, then you’re usually shifting around work from one group to another. When that happens, things that were hard before become easier and people can shift into new positions and possibilities open up. That shifting can be scary to a lot of folks.

    The potential downside of tool making is that it’s also possible to make tools that shift effort in the wrong direction – that make more work and restrict potential.

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