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Coda

On mastering your tools

albertc44 profile image Al Chen Originally published at coda.io on ・8 min read

For some of us, work is moving bits and pixels from one side of your computer screen to another. Moving your mouse and plugging in your laptop might be the most physical task you do during the workday. No matter how you define work, you are participating in skilled labor — you have developed an asset that others find valuable.

When I think of traditional examples of skilled labor, the blacksmith comes to mind — a man heating iron in a forge, pounding on iron with a hammer, and toiling away in his shop. Something like this:

Source: Improvement Era, 1941

Source: Joe Sanna

Historically, blacksmiths held an important position in the village. People might go to them for a pedestrian project like fixing a small appliance. They might also get called upon to fix wagon wheels, create armor, and even weapons to be used by the military. A blacksmith’s knowledge of heating iron with carbon gave them the ability to turn a natural resource into any tool that was needed in the village. Naturally, the definition of the job could be extended to bladesmith, nailmaker, and even dentist.

Codans as blacksmiths: We stepped away from building Coda docs one night and forged steel objects at Lawless Forge in Seattle.

Whatever project was thrown at the blacksmith, they found a way to produce the tool necessary and become masters of their craft — something I feel everyone should be empowered to do as they challenge the status quo of their own tools.

Once a toolmaker always a toolmaker

Think about all the online tools and applications you use at work today. Email, internal real-time chat, video conference, project tracking; all these platforms have an opinionated way of how you should get your work done. Have you ever asked yourself the question: why must we communicate or track projects the way the software dictates?

I started asking myself this question early on in my career as a financial analyst. Spreadsheets were a means to an end. I took some numbers, move them around the cells, and bam! The work was done. My stakeholders and management had the numbers they needed, and I could move forward with analyzing another data set.

As I wrote in this post, the skills I learned from analyzing data in spreadsheets prepared me for a career of toolmaking.

I started to question the process in which the work on my team gets done (which typically involved data in a spreadsheet). Instead of the spreadsheet being an opinionated tool for how I should analyze data, I had my own vision for how the spreadsheet could be molded and fine-tuned for my team to work better. The spreadsheet became my iron.

Source: Western Maine Blacksmith Association

Aside from wanting to help my team be more efficient and productive, I could never switch back to a state of accepting a spreadsheet with poorly structured data, incorrect formulas, and inconsistent formatting. Similar to a blacksmith refining his technique through trial and error, I discovered keyboard shortcuts would make me as a toolmaker more efficient in…well…making tools. The spreadsheet would be molded to fit the requirements of the project, and I would accept nothing less.

Makers as blacksmiths

As a master of their tools, the blacksmith knows all the shortcuts to bypass the inefficiencies with building or creating their next project. Makers share many similar characteristics as blacksmiths. Software engineers, for example, are always thinking of the most efficient method of solving a problem.

Clive Thompson discusses these characteristics at length in his book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. In this Wired article, Thompson tells the story of a software engineer named Jason Ho who was helping his dad with creating a more efficient employee clocking time system for his dad’s business. Ho created a prototype in 3 days and eventually productized the tool and started generating $10,000 per month from his project. Thompson describes the reason coders have a passion for efficiency:

Removing the friction from a system is an aesthetic joy; coders’ eyes blaze when they talk about making something run faster or how they eliminated some bothersome human effort from a process.

Thompson’s book includes stories about engineers who may not be optimizing for a financial outcome when working on various projects. For blacksmiths, I’d argue just being able to build the tool, knowing the tool works as intended, and helps others results in an “aesthetic joy.”

One of my favorite stories about a maker-turned-blacksmith who saw an inefficiency with how Instagram influencers get compensated built a bot that would post beautiful pictures of NYC on Instagram:

Chris Buetti wanted to get free lunches in NYC so he had his bot post eye-catching photos with captivating captions to get thousands of followers. He then automated the emails to restaurants saying that he would post about them on his Instagram account if they gave him a free meal. Buetti was a master of his tools, and used it to not only score free meals, but shed some commentary on the influencer ecosystem that has been generated by platforms such as Instagram.

You are a maker

My own maker experience is far from unique — Buetti’s own experience shows that the barrier to being a creator in today’s digital landscape is very low. The rise of “maker” communities ranges from YouTube creators on one end of the spectrum to engineers releasing cutting-edge open-source technologies on the other. This TED@MotorCity talk by Dale Dougherty of MAKE magazine gives a nice overview of the “maker movement,” which has evolved to include people building digital products.

Your perception of a maker might be someone who is good with building with their hands or likes tinkering with electronics, but I believe the definition of a maker stretches way beyond that. You may not identify as a maker today, but chances are you have already “made” something in the past month. For example, if you have created YouTube video, taken a recipe and changed it a bit to fit your tastes, or invented a new workout routine at the gym, I would argue you are a maker. There is a lot of creativity that goes into creating engaging online content, and understanding the algorithms behind platforms like YouTube require patience, testing, and experimentation.

For example, think about Cassey Ho, creator of Blogilates, the #1 female fitness channel on YouTube with over 500 million video views and 4 million subscribers.

As a fitness instructor, she deeply understood the barriers people face to exercise and decided to challenge the status quo of the traditional pilates class. By combining fun music and innovative choreography, Cassey created an entirely new genre of exercise: Pop Pilates. Through her dedication to her craft, she shaped the fitness industry and paved the way for YouTube creators to come.

Or consider one of my favorite TV shows growing up--MythBusters with Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Adam and Jamie would spend the whole show creating some contraption to test a hypothesis and potentially dispel a myth. What I loved the most about the show was that these contraptions were sometimes way over the top and Adam and Jamie probably could’ve tested their hypothesis with a highly controlled experiment in a lab. As the duo are building their contraption, you could feel the excitement and joy during their process of imagining and building their creations even though the final test may only last a few seconds.

Source: Business Insider

The key takeaway from the show that applies to this story is that becoming a maker doesn’t mean you have to be driven by profit, fame, or views. What Dale and and MythBusters teaches us is that you can be a maker by just being curious about the world around you and the tools you use. During a 2012 Maker Faire talk, Adam sheds some light on his journey becoming a maker:

It doesn’t matter what you make. And it doesn’t matter why. The importance is that you are making something. When you are making, the process you’re going through, the problem solving, the shaping your future with your hands, it’s inherently a good and positive conversation. It makes you into a critical thinker.

Be the master of your craft

In Hammer’s Blow, one of the journals produced by The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America, you’ll typically find tutorials and diagrams on how to build certain tools and crafts. The content is not too dissimilar from a video tutorial you might find today of some digital cloud platform. The author of one of the issues pays homage to and reminisces on a conversation with Francis Whitaker, a famous blacksmith who passed away in 1999:

Hammer’s Blow, 2000

You’re the blacksmith…you are the expert on ironwork. You must do the highest standard of work possible, then use that work to teach your clients of the possibilities of hand forged iron. Through the work you will find the clients who value it. — Francis Whitaker

By becoming a master of ironwork, Whitaker was able to create pieces that his clients didn’t even think were possible. He teaches us that knowing a tool inside and out not only makes you an expert on that tool, but gives you satisfaction in knowing you are getting closer to perfecting a craft.

I think the values of the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association can crossover to so many other industries. Especially if you are in an industry that is averse to change and generally doesn’t adopt new methods or ways of doing things. The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association shows us that we can all be makers and change the course of our careers and industries. This quote from the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America’s mission statement is illuminating:

With hammer and anvil, we will forge for mankind a richer life. We will preserve a meaningful bond with the past. We will serve the needs of the present, and we will forge a bridge to the future. Function and creativity is our purpose. Our task is great and so is our joy.

While the traditional blacksmith only had an anvil, hammer, and iron at their disposal, today’s digital maker has hundreds of SaaS tools, design tools, and APIs to build unique tools that traditionally would take a large development team to build. Instead being a master of one “tool” like the spreadsheet, these makers are masters of integrating toolsーbeing able to connect disparate tools together to build something greater than the sum of its parts.

Like Whitaker said, we should all pursue the highest standard work possible, shining a spotlight on ideas others have never seen before. In order to do this, we can no longer be complacent with the tools we are given. As we acknowledge ourselves as makers, we should feel empowered to become masters of our crafts and challenge the status quo of the tools we use.


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Al Chen

@albertc44

Former Googler. Live and die in spreadsheets. Building solutions at Coda.io.

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