Using the Right Tools

Using the Right Tools

June 5

About 8 years ago I was working on my home’s cooling system (a swamp cooler) and replacing some tubing. I didn’t have the right tool to detach the tube so I was taking the easy way out and cutting it with an old utility knife I found in my toolbox.

Let me take a moment to underscore the word “old” in the previous sentence. This utility knife was rather dull and covered with paint and maybe a little rust. Knowing that this tool was less than ideal I went ahead and tried to cut the tubing anyway. It was just tubing after all and the summer weather was hot enough that the climate in my home had become stifling. I had the cooler panel off and with my left hand I held the black tubing that carried the water from the pump up to the top of the device. I gripped the knife firmly in my right hand and like a good Scout I remembered to “cut away” from myself as I pushed very hard to sever the tube. It wasn’t cutting very well so I tried a little sawing action which seemed to help. Then (quite suddenly) the knife cut through the tube—and through the thumb on my left hand.

I spent at least 2 hours in the hospital emergency room getting 14 stitches to the material covering the tendon inside my thumb and 11 stitches to suture my skin together (which I later took out in a hotel room in Chile, but that’s another story). Looking back at this event in my life I know with clear certainty that I should have had the right tool for the job. Yes, the utility knife did get the job done and yes, this story wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if the knife had simply cut the tube and not my thumb. But that’s not the point. Also, I see no justification for putting the blame anywhere other than squarely on my decision to use this tool outside of its intended use.

I can’t blame the cooler or tube manufacturer for making the tube out of hard-to-cut material. In short, the only person I can blame is myself, and really that’s how it should be. I’m accountable for my own decisions and whether I was fully aware of the possible consequences of my decision or not does not in any way alter the fact that I made the decision to use this tool to “shortcut” the repair process when another tool would have been more appropriate.

I believe the same type of scenario happens with software (and hardware). We make decisions based upon our limited understanding of the software tools available. Sometimes we understand one tool and we use it often for more purposes than it was intended. Other times we don’t completely understand the tool and may use it improperly without proper training. We affectionately call this misuse of tools “human error” or “PEBCAK” but in reality a computer can only do what we instruct it to do. So if we instruct it improperly then logically we should expect improper results. If we attempt to make the application do something outside of the intended use and the application produces poor results then is it the technology’s fault? No, it’s our fault. All we can do to remedy this situation is to become more informed about the technology—it’s uses, limitations, rules, etc.—and then make good decisions on how to use technology. It is this combination of good technology and well-informed humans that produce successful results.

Photo Credit: US National Archives via Wikimedia