Marc's Rants


April 26, 1999


Let's talk about tools.

A tool is anything that has been created or modified by people to do work or assist in the accomplishment of a task. Usually, people think of things like wrenches or compressors or backhoes as tools, but neglect to consider other kinds of tools, like staplers, or tape dispensers, or dictionaries. Or computers.

Now let's talk about jobs.

My job is to create Web sites. I use some traditional tools for this, like pencils, paper, and telephones; and I also use some non-traditional tools, like a computer, scanner, and modem.

When I was younger, I had a job working for a home furnishings wholesaler. One of the things I did was load and unload trucks using a forklift.

A forklift is definitely a tool. And before my boss would allow me to load and unload trucks, he required me to demonstrate my competence with the forklift. This demonstration included lowering and raising the forks, removing the forks and installing a carpet pole, maneuvering around the warehouse, and so forth. Over time -- and with much instruction and practice -- I eventually developed proficiency, even expertise, with the forklift. I knew how to precisely adjust the height of the lift, how to tilt the lift back to keep my cargo stable, how to keep the cargo close to the ground before moving the load to its destination. I knew precisely how sharp a turn I could make, and what the maximum safe speed was for the curve. And I knew to always reduce my speed below the maximum safe zone.

The forklift was only one of my tools, and tools weren't all there was to my job -- I also had to understand storage systems, how to read bills of lading, how to clean furniture, and a number of other skills. Nevertheless, the forklift was my principal tool, and I had to understand how it worked. I couldn't repair it, beyond a few simple things like replacing the battery, but I knew how to use it.

I have a friend who's a mechanic. She repairs diesel engines for a living. She knows all about compression ratios and glow plugs, turbo chargers and drive shafts. She knows which tools to use, and when to use them -- Important skills for her trade.

She also had to demonstrate proficiency with her tools before she was allowed to work unsupervised. Her wrenches and gauges and screwdrivers are all important tools, and all her knowledge of the sounds diesel engines make and the practical aspects of internal combustion would be useless to her employer if she didn't know how to use those tools.

I recently read a letter in the San Jose Mercury News from a man in the San Francisco Bay Area who complained about his tools.

In this case, his tools were Microsoft Office applications, specifically Word. He explained that his business was based on these tools, and that he relied on them to create his product. He wrote that they were finicky and ill-tempered, complaining that they would make annoying squiggly underlines and incorrectly change his capitalization. They would assume he was highlighting whole words or whole sentences when he only wanted a few characters. In short, he was frustrated by his tools.

Now, why was he frustrated by his tools? Because he hadn't learned how to use them properly before setting to work with them.

His underlying knowledge couldn't be used to its fullest extent because he didn't understand his tools.

Let's talk about training.

Microsoft prides itself on building software that is easy to use. And, as complex software goes, their applications aren't any worse than most mass-market products. Nevertheless, training is required before going to work. Especially when the work you are doing is critical to the success of your business and your livelihood depends on producing quality outcomes.

A computer is a very complex tool. The individual applications that run on a computer are also very complex tools.

When I operated a forklift, I received training before I was let loose in the warehouse. Although my friend repairs diesel engines, she received training before she was allowed to work unsupervised. The man from San Francisco, thinking that he knew what he was doing, proceeded to use his tools without receiving adequate training.

If you wouldn't allow an untrained forklift operator or mechanic to work for you -- with tools that, relatively speaking, are easy to use -- why would you allow someone to begin using a computer without adequate training? Why would you want to begin working without understanding how to use your tools?

Instead of complaining about the inadequacies of his tools, the man from San Francisco should have learned how to use them properly.

He should have learned how to turn off the automatic spelling and grammar checking.

He should have learned how to set his preferences for mouse-based selection. In Word, these are relatively easy things to configure.

He should have learned how to use his tools. And so should we all.