I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for filesystems.
I taught myself shell scripting while automating the installation of Disksuite, Sun’s free but sadistic disk mirroring software. I barely recall the actual work, instead remembering a hallway. I undertook a literal journey to learn programming, a repeated pilgrimage to the desk of a friend who took visible pleasure in explaining to me what I was doing wrong.1 It’s fair to say that if filesystems were less painful in the 90s, I would not be where I am today.
When Sun started advertising ZFS as the (finally!) successor to Disksuite and the filesystem it was built around, UFS, most of its functionality seemed obviously good - make the computers manage the disks, don’t demand people know up front how big a filesystem should be, don’t fail miserably when the server crashes, little things like that. But what was this data integrity thing? I’m embarrassed to say it took me a while to realize I needed it - who really cares if your filesystem is good at storing data, amirite? - and even longer to understand how it worked.
To explain it, I’m going to have to teach you cryptography. Just a little. You’re welcome to skip ahead if you’ve already got this part covered, but I expect most could use a little, ah, refresher. Step 1 in cryptography guides is usually: “Get a masters in mathematics from MIT.” I’m hoping to do a bit better than that. Cryptography really is just a form of math, and while we can’t all understand the details (I certainly don’t) we can at least understand the “algorithms happen here” flow diagrams2.
Cryptography is most famous for its privacy utility: You use it to ensure you and only you can read your files and chat messages. It gets more complex once we need to read them on all of our different devices, but most of it is pretty similar in concept. Even more useful is ensuring both you and I can read some text, but no one else can. It’s more complex, but is essentially an extension of that first use.
Privacy is not the only use case for cryptography. It’s also useful for efficient validation. That is, it can be used to see if a file you have today is the same one you had yesterday. I sent you a document, you think it looks wrong; how do we make sure it did not get changed somehow in transit?
Obviously one way to do that is to just send it again. This is not a great solution, because if you did not trust it the first time, why would you trust it the second? That might also be a bad idea if bandwidth is expensive. You generally want a verification mechanism that takes less space than the original file, and less CPU power than directly comparing the two files.
Cryptography provides just such a capability, usually called a ‘hash function’. It’s an algorithm that converts, say, a large text file into a much shorter string. If you want to ensure the file is not changed in some way, just run it again and compare the output. The short strings are easier to compare than the long documents, and you could even read them over the phone to someone so they can check the file on their end. These algorithms generally produce a string of a fixed length, regardless of input - this makes them efficient for long term storage and comparison, and safe to run on any size file. Here’s an example hash from my files:
As you can see, it’s just a long string of gibberish. It’s not only useful for comparison, not meaningful in it’s own right.
What’s critical about these algorithms is that given a unique input they always provide a unique output. If you and I each have a file that hashes to a given string, then we can be confident we have exactly the same file. Of course, this can’t literally be true: We could design a hash function that only had 256 possible outputs, and there are obviously more than 256 possible inputs. This would produce a lot of what are called collisions, when two files hash to the same output, and, ah, is not terribly useful.
All of the modern hash functions are incredibly long. It is possible in theory but not in practice that a collision would happen. You’d need to execute the function 2^128 times. That’s 3.4 with 38 zeros after it. So, mathematically possible, but you can expect the sun to swallow the earth before the most secure hash functions get compromised. I mean, you can’t. You’ll be gone by then. But your files will still be safe.
Now that you’re at least as much an expert on cryptography as most of the bitcoin hodlers, why does any of this matter?
We were talking about data integrity.
You’d be right to guess that ZFS uses these hash functions to provide it. It goes further than just validating individual files. A little bit of cryptographic genius called a Merkle tree is the key. These don’t just hash the content on disk for later validation; they build a tree of hashes, where the leaf nodes are hashed by the nodes above them in the tree, which are themselves hashed by the root node. If any part of this system is corrupted - because the disk is broken, or someone changed the content some other way - it’s easy to detect. It’s not just that the individual hash will be different; remember each parent hashes all of its children, so now the parent is wrong. And its parent is wrong, too.
If the content is changed by any mechanism that does not also also update the Merkle tree, then it is easy to detect by rehashing all of the content and comparing the results to the stored tree.
This is how ZFS validates data integrity. It can write a block to disk, then pull the block and ensure it still matches the hash. When it writes a block, it updates the parallel tree, and when you ask for the block later, it can tell you if the block is still correct. If it’s not, it throws an error instead of handing it back to you.
When I first learned of this, it seemed overkill, but over time I remembered just how many ways there are for data to get corrupted. The most obvious one is someone changes it for nefarious reasons, but far more commonly you have a failure somewhere in the writing or reading process. The old spinning disks were error-prone, and the new SSD drives degrade eventually. It’s the complexity of reading and writing that really gets you, though: There are multiple layers of caches, drivers, and connections, any of which could introduce corruption.
For the first time on a normal production system, you could at least detect any of those problems. It’s too bad no one ever used it.3
I know, I know, you came to hear about how you could get all the awesomeness of blockchain without using the blockchain and instead I’m giving lessons on two things you could literally not care less about, cryptography and filesystems. Don’t worry. It gets worse from here.
Long after I learned about and promptly forgot ZFS (after all, it’s not like I was using it), I adopted Git. It’s a version control system, used for storing and managing source code. Every geek knows about it, but most of the world only recently learned of it when Microsoft bought Github for $7.5B with a ‘b’. I was an early adopter, switching Puppet to Git in 20084. Eventually I even learned how it works. I was titillated and a bit horrified that I had duplicated in Puppet one of the key features that made Git work: A system of storing files that allowed them to be looked up by their content (or rather, a hash of their content). Normally you store files by a name, but if lots of people (or, in Puppet’s case, computers) store the same file, they might not call it the same thing, so Git and Puppet instead stored them by their hash. This ensured we never backed up more than one copy of a file, saving a lot of space, and made it easy to check for changes in files.
For Puppet, we just used this to back up files we changed, in case people later wanted to revert.
Git did a lot more than that.
Like ZFS, it builds a Merkle tree of the entire file repository, with a similar goal: To understand what files have changed and how. After all, git is used to track and share changes to a collection of files. The sharing is a critical component; you can easily copy an entire git repository to another computer, or another person, and it’s important that they be able to confirm that they have a faithful copy.
Git stores the hash tree alongside all of the files. At any point, you can use the tree to validate every file in your tree. If there are changes (which is pretty much the whole point of a version control system), it can automatically store the new files and update the related tree.
Just like ZFS, one of the key features here is that the Merkle tree allows us to validate every file stored. We can walk the file tree and compare each file to its hash, and then compare the file listing to its own hash, all the way up. Any discrepancy is easily spotted.
This is my favorite kind of cleverness: It’s simple in implementation, yet makes Git more flexible and useful. It has power that other version control systems are missing, just because it relies on this basic mechanism for storage and validation.
It would be easy to see the blockchain as a sudden revolution, a dramatic change in what’s possible. Viewed this way, it’s hard to separate the pieces from the whole. If all you see is the big picture, it’s easy not to notice that every individual component has its own history, its own value.
The blockchain was gradual, for both me and the industry. It was not one giant leap forward. It was part of a story, a sequence, and the most interesting aspect - Merkle trees - is decades old in math and now pushing decades old even in popular usage. Most of the interesting features touted in the blockchain come directly from them. Immutability (which isn’t) and trustless systems derive directly.
It’s worth understanding that history, to see which stages and steps apply to problems you have. The current cryptocurrency tech stack is built to solve problems I don’t think exist. Certainly they aren’t problems I have.
Unlike the blockchain as a whole, though, the individual technical components have been used for years, even decades, in production. Focusing on the current trend can blind you to the opportunity history demonstrates. I think you’re a lot more likely to find broadly applicable solutions there than in trying to replace currency.
Because I got here from the world of filesystems and version control, I see different benefits than you might if you approach thinking of currencies or exchanges. Or chat messages. That does not make me right or wrong, but it does, at least, mean we’re going to work on different problems.
I expect most of you think this is boring. That’s great. It will give me that much more time to build something.
My brightest memory is learning that of course the ’echo’ command resets the exit code variable. This was a critical early lesson in how your own debugging can dramatically change the behavior of a program. ↩
When people talk about the futility of trying to ban cryptography, this is what they mean: You can’t ban math. ↩
I am a tool junkie. I love the effortless balance of a well-known chef’s knife, like my hands know what to do all on their own. Heavy usage builds callouses and tunes muscles, its usefulness evidenced by scuff marks and changed infrastructure. Failure leaves blisters or even hospital visits in its wake.
A good tool proves its utility. Knives slowly shrink with sharpening, work pants thin, machines need oil. If they don’t, you’re either not maintaining your tools, or barely using them.
This wear is proof of your usage. They should be scratched. Dented. Aged. Patinas should be acquired from the shop, not factory treatments. Their callouses should pair yours. Tools can not be precious. They’ll just live on a shelf, then retire to your attic. You should seek that perfect middle ground, where you spend enough money that your kids can inherit them, but not so much that you are squeamish about giving them a job.
Tools only deserve the label if they help you work.
You might say I have strong feelings about them. I’m assuming this love led to my focus as a software entrepreneur on helping people people work. Or maybe my experience with tools in the physical world led me to seek them in the digital world, learning to make what I could not buy.
Given my tool fetish, you’d think I’d have a solid grasp of what I mean when I use the word. Apparently, not so much. I was recently pulled up short by a simple question, asked by Jordan Hayles of the Radical Brand Lab: What do you mean by tools?
What do you mean, what do I mean? It’s a simple question, right? The above text gives one example, but I would have thought I could answer it in a bunch of reasonable ways, none of which seem terribly controversial.
But the more I explored, the less simple the question became.
I’ve been describing my goal as building power tools for people. This phrase comes from my time building houses with my dad, and ‘power tools’ just meant the things you plugged in. You know? Because they needed power? It’s a common usage, maybe the word choice here did not mean much.
Except… I’ve spent more than a decade learning product management, describing myself as a product-oriented founder, managing that function in a growing company, and attempting to teach it to others. Yet here I am ignoring both the term and the field entirely. Why am I so quickly dumping my work of the last ten years? Is it just creative branding? Cynicism about my industry?
Why not power products? That’s a motor boat of alliteration: ‘power products for people.’ Awesome, right?
Ok, maybe not.
Product management as we know it began in the consumer goods industry. You’re handed a train car full of dish soap and told to sell it. You’ve got to package it, set pricing, convince a local store to carry it, argue with them about location, move it away from competitors, all that. Every product you see in your local grocery store is loved by a product manager who fights for its shelf space, believes it is beautiful, and wants you to give it a good home.
Product management can also be used for evil. Laser printers had toner cartridges you could just refill. Not very clean, but cheap and reliable to run once you plonked down the cash for the expensive printer. Modern inkjet printers instead use disposable cartridges. To sustain profit margins in a rapidly commoditizing industry, manufacturers started putting rules in place on the cartridges: You had to buy them from the manufacturer, they had to be replaced every year, you could not refill them, you could not print in black and white if any color cartridges are empty.
That’s good product management. Well, it’s evil, but you know what I mean. It’s effective. We’re talking big-B revenue effective. Hmm. A moral distinction begins to reveal itself.
These are examples of companies forcing their business model onto their customers. There’s no difference between the dish soap sold at retail and the one sold in bulk, yet they’re separate products, differentiated through packaging, shipping needs, and labeling. You pay much more for the retail package than the wholesale one, primarily because the business model behind them is so different.
But when I think of a tool, these complications are missing. When I use a hammer, it just has to fit my hand and smash stuff. When I pick up my drill, it works with every bit I own, regardless of the logo. The battery and charger are proprietary, but the vendor’s most visible role in my life is color choice. My yellow drill works just fine with bits from the blue or green companies. (You probably visualized brands by my just mentioning colors. That’s still effective here.) It does not matter whether I bought the drill from Home Depot or inherited it from my dad; once in my hands, it just works.
I think this begins to answer the question of what a tool is.
It helps you do your job, without your worrying about the vendor’s needs.
I know that DeWalt and Mikita need to make money to sell me a drill, but I don’t think about it when I’m using their tools. Even after more than two decades without one, I can comfortably recite that “my” hammer is the Estwing 22oz waffle head with a straight claw1, but none of those details mean I need the vendor’s permission to hit a nail with it. I make a decision about the right tool, I buy it, I use it. End of story.
It is small. If you call something a tool, not a product, you’re saying it’s less, it’s not as complete a solution. This can be belittling, insulting, but it does not have to be. It’s also a statement of independence. Of freedom. Of, and this is going to sound crazy, compatibility.
Products have an implicit, ongoing dependence on their vendor. If that’s me, I love it: I want you to pay me all the time, not just once. That ongoing relationship is how I afford to keep improving what I’ve built for you. This can be a great way to ensure we have a long-term, sustainable partnership. But it’s not always a healthy relationship. The more you have to deal with how I make money, the worse the experience is for you.
I think this is what I like about tools. They’re self-contained. Independent. Using them is fundamentally pragmatic, not a lifetime commitment.
That independence has downsides for me as a vendor. You don’t get any of those delicious growth-hacker buzzwords. Your product isn’t “sticky”, there’s no “moat.” Those are examples of my customers being constrained by my business model, and their absence means revenue is harder to build, to protect.
One might argue I’m better off because treating my customers with more respect makes a better business in the long term, and I’d probably agree. This kind of respectful partnership should deliver higher returns than one that traps and mistreats its customers. I think this is often the right answer, but it’s not a popular one. It’s harder to get funding, to get off the ground. I might be accused of not “wanting to build a real company,” or I might have Silicon Valley’s most dire insult hurled at me: “That’s just a lifestyle business”.
Tell that to Adobe. Or AutoDesk. These are great tools companies. They are the behemoths we know today because they knuckled down and solved their customers’ problems. They worried about that, rather than how they could extract maximum revenue over time. It was a different time, but people have not changed.
I don’t think that every product is compromised when the vendor’s needs show up in the customer’s life, but I think most are. Some of it is laziness, shoring up product limitations with business model innovations, but a lot of it is strategy, recognizing the value of painting your customer into a corner.
Honestly, some of it is just survival. A lot of those inkjet printers are unaffordably cheap, but buyers care only about cost, not value. Some markets are intrinsically dysfunctional, with users and vendors slowly killing each through bad deals and cynical behavior. But as a vendor, I get to make a choice about what markets to play in, and how to work with my customers.
I am a simple person with a simple dream: I want to build something that helps someone work. I have to make money while doing it, because that’s the nature of the job, but I’m more interested in my customers’ work than my own. I know I need a business model, a go-to-market strategy, a plan for growing and supporting my business. But my customers should not need to care about that, should they? If they like what I’m building, they should be able to buy it, and use it. And tell all their friends how great it is. They should not wake up one day to find they’ve accidentally gotten married to me.
I just want to build tools. And I’m proud of it.
We told with great pleasure the (most likely apocryphal) story that this hammer was illegal in Florida because the metal haft could cut your thumb off. ↩
Last year I decided to write more. Daily, in fact. One of my first actions was to ask Om Malik for advice. I had been following him since he was writing for Business 2.0, which was an actually valuable business magazine in the tech bubble. I am now lucky enough to know him through True Ventures.
When we talked, he shared a story about his first published piece. I did not find it helpful.
The magazine he was writing for (Fortune, I think) said his article was too long. He shortened it. A lot. It was still rejected. He compressed it more. Again. And again. I believe the original 1500 word piece became 300. Om’s punch line was that they told him it was their best-ever first contribution by an author.
I don’t think I’m cut out for writing 300 word articles. It’s not just that that kind of compressed writing is hard. It’s also about the missed opportunity: If you’re reading one of my articles, I want to take full advantage.
But my lack of desire to write short pieces is not why his story wasn’t helpful.
It’s one thing to say: “Write shorter”. Ok. I can see how that makes sense. Everyone knows the line, “I’m sorry this is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” It’s intuitive, implying that investing in the quality of writing somehow intrinsically shortens it.
But more than a year after this story from Om, I had still not found a way to put this principle into practice.
I could compress writing a bit. Programming taught me that shorter code is often simpler and clearer. Of course, it still took years to be good at it.
Stephen King had taught me that adverbs often indicate a problem. If you can get rid of them without losing meaning, your work is almost always better. One way to do this is to choose more expansive verbs.
I was able to translate my speaking coach’s advice into writing, too: She helped rid my talks of filler words. You might not think this is useful in writing - I never find myself typing out ‘um’1 - but I am over-fond of long phrases that can be easily replaced with a single word.
I tend to over-qualify. This is an opinion piece. You know that. I can skip all the incidences of “I think”. One “maybe” is enough, I don’t need “should maybe”. Two examples suffice; I don’t need three and an “etc”.
For example, in this piece, I replaced the phrase “was still not able to learn” with “had not learned”. “I had learned as a programmer” became “programming taught me”. Both of them are clearer, simpler, just… better. In particular, the verbs are much stronger.
Again, it’s not that I had learned nothing over the last year. I just… I knew I was using tactics. Simple rules. My writing was shorter, but… not short. The Hemingway app was still harshly judging all my failures.
It reads more like poetry than prose. I do not like poetry. Nearly every paragraph is a single sentence. Almost none grow to more than one line.
Many books on writing can be summarized as: Sit down and write. Seriously. Now. Keep doing that.
Not this one.
I can’t summarize it for you. It’s, it’s… dense. But I can share a little I have learned. And how it has cursed me.
I received a new term from it: Transitions. I knew what adverbs were long before Stephen King taught me that they’re suspect. Not to be entirely avoided, but hold your nose when you use them.
I already knew my sentences were too long. Even when I broke them up, I knew I relied too heavily on words that connect them (like the phrase at the beginning of this one). This knowledge wasn’t useful, because I wasn’t able to translate it into methods of fixing them.
The first thing Klinkenborg gave me was a name for these words: Transitions.
Like adverbs, they’re usually a sign that you’ve failed somewhere. That you were lazy.
This labeling did not magically fix my writing, but it gave me something to track. An easy measure for how I was doing.
Then he delivered the kicker: Simple guidance on how to eliminate them. Or at least, reduce them.
Knowing sentences should be shorter is not useful if you don’t know how to get there. What makes a great short sentence, vs a crappy long one?
His answer is incredibly dense. I have to slow down when reading it: You should minimize the distance between the period of your previous sentence and the point of this one.
Those long, complex sentences I like to write aren’t bad because they’re long, or because they have too many phrases. They’re bad because their point is so far away from their start. The reader is left to wander through it, holding out hope for a conclusion.
What are you trying to say? Say that. Immediately. Did you leave something important out? Say that. Now. Keep it up until you’re done.
Your old, complex sentence is now a series of short sentences, in order of importance, each getting right to the point.
Of course, that’s not how the book describes it. My description would likely horrify its author. There’s far more to it than this. But it’s a start. And a huge departure from what I was doing.
It’s also why I can’t write any more.
The topics I’m working on now are incredibly important to me. They’re hard to reason about, to capture. And while I’m sitting here struggling with the content, the writing itself keeps getting in the way. The form. The structure of the sentences. The line breaks.
Where I put paragraphs.
It’s not that I’m embarrassed. It’s that the process of writing is distracting me from what I am trying to write.
So please. Forgive me a little writer’s block. I promise I’ll get better.
When I do, I hope you’ll also tolerate experimentation and failure in how to put all this to work. Expect wild oscillations in sentence length. Inconsistency between sentences and paragraphs. Confusion across pieces. I’m in that ‘conscious incompetence’ phase of short sentences, and it’s going to be a rough path for a little while.
I’ll come out a better writer, though. And hopefully you’ll gain something from witnessing the process.
I recently updated Om on my progress, sharing how much his story confused me and these tactical lessons I’d just received. Thankfully he appreciated the note, and was happy to see I took his story as a challenge, rather than a judgement. And he didn’t seem fazed in the slightest that it took more than a year to make anything of his help.
Except, obviously, in this case. Not never. Just not usually. ↩
Congress recently required Mark Zuckerberg to defend his lifelong practice of mistreating your private information. Movements to give you control of this critical data took the opportunity to claim they can prevent future such breaches. Blockchain is the new solution in search of a problem, and personal data is in the crosshairs.
But can the blockchain actually help secure your personal data? What would that take? And seriously, what do people mean when they say we should own our own data?
It sounds nice. Too bad it won’t help. The problem is not “ownership” (whatever that even means in a world of infinite digital copies). It’s centralization. Having one person’s data is a small threat, only to that individual. Having everyone’s data is a national crisis.
By now we’re familiar with the huge amounts that Facebook, Google, Amazon, and apparently everyone except Apple have on us. But how did they get it? Mostly, we gave it to them, through using their products. What we didn’t give to them, we gave to someone else who then passed it on.
There have been massive breaches at Equifax, Facebook1, and many others. Even the general public is becoming aware of the real causes. Some of the the largest companies in the world exist purely to collect your information and sell access to you based on it. They might not sell your data, but they definitely sell your attention using it.
These are the problems you know about. Don’t worry; it gets worse from here. If you think your birthdate and pictures of your kids are personal, what about your DNA?
Anne Wojcicki is married to a Google founder, and she liked their data accumulation so much she started her own company to build a huge pile of even more personal data. 23andMe does not scrape the internet - or your cheeks - to get your DNA; no, people pay for the privilege of giving it to them. Yes, they offer a service in return, but do they clean house after? Hah! No. They keep it. (Hopefully somewhat more safely than Equifax does.)
What’s so wrong about there being a database of DNA from a big chunk of the population? Let’s ask the police.
You might not be afraid of the police. You should consider yourself lucky. I know anyone of color in the US is and should be. I know I am; I grew up on a commune, and policed raided us using helicopters and assault rifles in hopes of busting us for cannabis. I don’t mean to imply that hippies have been as systematically oppressed as African Americans (and certainly not in the south); just that I grew up with my own justified skepticism of exactly what that force was here for.
Even if you don’t fear the police, you should fear the consequences of DNA testing. The science behind most parts of DNA are absolutely rock solid2. The police work is another matter. Beyond outright fraud used to wrongly convict people, the messy world of testing DNA at crime scenes just makes it hard to get correct results. Juries inappropriately treat a complicated test as foolproof. It could be compromised anywhere from the crime scene to police handling to the lab itself. The failure rate even without fraud is high enough that I would not want to trust my life to it.
Not to imply that DNA testing is worthless; quite the contrary. It has been used to exonerate many people who were incorrectly imprisoned and put on death row. It’s not that it always fails, just that you don’t want to finding yourself gambling on it against life in prison.
But remember: This is just for cases where someone has a single person’s DNA. Like having just your fingerprint. What happens when someone like 23andMe has a whole database of it?
“If you didn’t do anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear.” Pfft. Yes, it starts with requests for the DNA of individual suspects, but it escalates to doing a database-wide search for DNA that matches. And by ‘matches’, we don’t mean, “is 100% guaranteed”, we mean, “eh, it’s pretty close”. A DNA “match” directed the police to someone they thought was a relative of a suspect, who was then brought in for questioning. So I guess as long as you’ve never done anything wrong, and aren’t related to anyone ever doing anything wrong, you’re fine. Right?
I feel so much better.
I had investors literally laugh at the idea that collecting this data introduced security concerns. They grew up at Google, so it’s not surprising they could not see centralization as a problem. Just like Equifax started out wanting to make it easier to get loans, and now they’ve got so much power you can’t get one without them.
There is a world of difference between giving someone your data, and allowing someone to include your data in a massive pile of it. Any discussion of the risks of data needs to acknowledge that.
Now we see our discussions of owning your own data don’t quite have it right. What we actually want is decentralization of data. We don’t want a single company to have access to this much information about huge groups of people.
And now you see the problem.
New technology can’t break Facebook’s business model. It can’t prevent Google from scraping every web site on the internet and identifying you by connecting everything. Whether you give it to them or not, they’ll know what you look like, where you live, and who you hang out with.
Most importantly, it can’t prevent people from sharing all that data with these services. After all, they’re getting something valuable in return, like connecting with friends and family. Or figuring out their family tree.
The problem is not the centralization. It’s the effectiveness of a business model built on centralization.
So anyone who comes to you and says “The blockchain will allow you to own your own data!”, ask them in return, “How will you make it such a joy to use that Facebook will go bankrupt?” And please, record the conversation, because I want to see them stammer.
This is fundamentally a product and design problem, but the technofuturists are treating it like a technology problem. “Oh, if only those college students had access to better cryptographic tools they never would have shared that data with Facebook!” 🤯 No. People will stop using Facebook, and 23andMe, and Google, when there are better solutions. And unfortunately, they need to work ten times better, not just a little bit.
So talk to me about the blockchain. I really do want to hear how you’ll use it to help people own their own data, and remove the incentive to centralize all of this data.
But talk to me of products. Of user benefits. Of business models built around all of this.
Because people have to want what you’re selling, and the only way to get that is to build something they want to use. Only then will they be able to own their own data.
I don’t know what the rest of the world thinks when they use the phrase ‘power tool’, but for me it’s visceral, literal. My experiences using them and watching them transform my family’s work permeated my time building Puppet. These power tools aren’t little plugins to expensive frameworks, they’re large capital investments that dramatically change your job.
I grew up building houses with my dad. The worst task he gave me was trying to paint a set of louvre doors for a closet while in high school; I had to flip the doors over every 90 seconds to catch drips getting through the slats. After three days of misery, my father relented and rented a paint sprayer, with which we finished the job the same day, at a much higher quality.
Around the same time, my dad would rent a pneumatic nailer for big framing jobs. By the time I finished college a few years later, that critical tool went from borrowed to owned and traveled everywhere with him. Initially used only for large jobs, most contractors now have multiple nail guns to cover framing, trim, and every other use case, and the air compressor needed to power it is as important as electricity.
It might not be obvious, but both of these are examples of automation. You replaced a very manual process - applying paint, or nailing things together - with a machine. If this were a factory, these days you’d call those machines robots, but because it’s a construction site, we just call them tools.
And these tools were expensive. Even with how much faster we finished that painting job, I expect it cost more to rent the sprayer than to finish the work manually, because of how little he was paying me. (This does ignore the soft costs of listening to me complain, which were likely high.) Even today paint sprayers and nail guns are often rented rather than purchased, because good ones cost a lot of money and aren’t needed all the time.
It’s no surprise that discussions of tools and productivity are easier to understand from my experience as a carpenter than as a sysadmin. There’s plenty of room for arguments about what is or is not a software power tool, but when it costs more than a week’s wages, it trails a bright orange cord everywhere it goes, and it can nail your hand to the wall while you’re standing at the top of a ladder1? It’s a power tool.
There’s a common story about what robots and automation do to people like my dad (and both of my brothers, who followed in his footsteps): It steals their jobs and ruins their lives.
What utter poppycock.
If you think of your job as driving metal spikes into wood, then a nail gun is a mortal threat. But if this is your value add, your biggest danger was never automation. My dad never sold his ability to join raw materials together quickly; he sold homes, he sold the opportunity to enjoy your house and family more. How did these new power tools affect that?
They were awesome. Painting and nailing are classic examples of menial, low-value work, and yet we spent most of our time on them. All of the differentiation we offered to our customers was packed into a narrow slice of work, because implementation took so much time and money. As we were able to bring more powerful tools to bear, the menial work shrank and larger portions of our time could be spent on design work, customer interaction, and tuning our customers’ homes.
Interestingly, my father’s next career step was even more pointedly about experiences enabled by tooling. He took a job with a state hospital in Tennessee, fabricating custom furniture for severely disabled patients. Suddenly he was using industrial sewing machines for upholstery, and partnering with medical professionals to design multiple beds for each patient, enabling them to be happier and more comfortable (and also avoid bed sores, thus saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient). Given the tragically minimal budget allocation for this kind of work, every dollar saved through automation and tooling directly delivered health and happiness to his patients.
It’s no wonder I see the value in power tools, that I am more conscious of the benefit they can deliver than the loss of low-value menial work.
I had a similar experience as I was building Puppet. I would meet executives and salespeople (I don’t know why it was always them) who would say, “Oh, automation? Great, you can fire sysadmins!” No. Beyond the obvious reality that I was selling directly to my users, who would never buy on the promise to fire their coworkers, that was just not why we were valuable.
Puppet gave people a choice between lowering cost but keeping the current service quality, or keeping your costs flat while providing a much better service. “Wait, making things better is an option? I didn’t know that!” Most companies were aware that their IT sucked, but they only knew how to measure and manage cost, so that’s what they did. Once you believed in the power to make things better, power tools turned out to be great investments for both the user and the buyer.
By letting people spend more time on the parts of their work they enjoyed, the work that makes them special, we also delivered higher quality experiences for their customers and constituents. “Spend less time firefighting and doing menial work, and more time shipping great software.” If the heart of your skillset is clicking buttons or responding to outages, Puppet might have been a threat to you, but our users knew where their real value was. We helped them spend more time there and less time on the boring, low value stuff. The sysadmins hated the work, the customers hated to need it, and the executives hated paying for it. Great, done, don’t worry about it.
That’s partially why productivity has stagnated2. The world has not changed that much - some of the greatest improvements to productivity come from making large capital investments in tooling for your workers - but how we spend our money has. People balk at a $5k computer, when the Mac IIci would cost more than $13k in today’s dollars just for the hardware, yet was a powerhouse in desktop publishing. This is to say nothing of how the mobile app stores have driven down what people are willing to spend on software.
Yes, Adobe’s software is expensive, but it’s that price because it delivers so much value. If it didn’t, no one would buy it. Every large market should be so lucky as to have the collection of power tools that graphic designers get. It sounds crazy, but we’re suffering from not enough expensive software. Instead of building the most powerful software possible and finding customers who see its value, companies are building the simplest thing they can and trying to get everyone to use it.
There are bright spots in the industry, like Airtable and Superhuman. I’m hoping they help to shift momentum back to automating away the tedious work and enabling focus on what humans excel at.
More powerful tools improve your life, but they also make you happier even if you can’t buy them. They tantalize you, promising you great returns, if only you can come up with the cash. And they’re maybe just a little bit scary, warning you that buying them is not enough. You must master them.
A friend of ours managed to do this when working alone in the time before cell phones. ↩
Yes, I might be being simplistic to make a point. ↩