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By Jack Ganssle

Sharpening the Saw

Summary: Dull tools and dull developers cripple productivity.

We had three large black oaks taken down recently. For some time I tried to convince myself that we could fell them but wise wife talked me out of it. Watching the tree service do the work made me realize just how little I know about safely making trees go "timber!" These experts downed the trees with accuracy of a billiard player pocketing a ball. I never tire of watching pros work, especially those in the trades. White collar workers are sometimes subtly biased against the trades, but those folks work with every bit of the skill and precision than we who sling bits for a living.

I asked the service to leave the trees in the yard, and have been cutting them up for turning blanks, firewood, and hope to take the best stuff to the sawmill to cut up for lumber. On nice days I run the chainsaw and splitter, which is both fun and a welcome diversion from the keyboard. As soon as a chain starts to dull it gets swapped out for a sharp one. In the evenings I dismantle the saw, clean it, and sharpen the chains. Then the tool is ready for use whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I hate dull tools.

Stephen Covey's seventh habit in "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is "sharpen the saw," by which he means one should spend time getting better and improving oneself. It's a pithy bit of wisdom most of us ignore. Dull workers and dull tools cripple teams.

A basic tenant of eXtreme Programming is that everything changes, all of the time. Technologies, tools, processes and people constantly evolve and at times shift suddenly and radically. Unless we're dynamically engaged in self-improvement we'll be run over by these changes and will be at the best inefficient; at worse, obsolete. Dull. Both are career-killers in these hyper-competitive times. The big boss really needs those 8 figure bonuses, and will happily replace your team with any of the many lower-cost alternatives. especially when they can make a better productivity argument.

So I suggest a New Year's resolution: spend two hours a week learning something new about building embedded systems. Learn a bit more about your tools so you can exploit worthwhile features you haven't been using. Take classes, on-line or otherwise. Read a technical book every month.

Bob Dylan anticipated Covey decades earlier, when he wrote "he not busy being born is busy dying."

Published December 21, 2009