usable in any place a human can be used



[caption id="attachment_535" align="alignright" width="262" caption="Pictured Above: Programming"]monkey using rock as a hammer[/caption]

For about a year I had the unique experience of working at Abercrombie & Fitch's world headquarters in New Albany, Ohio as a Java Developer. It was a really interesting place to work, very stylish, loud music all the time, complex problems of incredible scale, and some of the best developers I've ever worked with. I was lucky enough to get placed into one of the most successful development teams, Planning. This team had developed a tool that was hugely popular and well regarded, and I was coming on board to maintain and improve this tool. The beautiful people and board-short dress code was just icing on the cake.

As a software developer this is a fairly basic scenario, there is some task that is complicated, business users want it to be less complicated, they give me some money, I make them some program, and everyone is happy. The odd thing though is that while programmers are completely used to making tools for others, they often forget that they can leverage this amazing skill for their own benefit. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of my colleagues there, Steve. It centered around the idea that most developers are happy to just get their assigned tasks done, but there are some that are toolmakers, and being a toolmaker is more valuable to a company than being a developer.

Fast forward to after my stint at A&F, I was on a new project and given the task of translating 80,000 lines of PL/SQL into T-SQL. The idea was to and this to work. With such a fine technical specification and a mountain of PL/SQL staring at me, Steve's words bubbled up to my brain, "Make a tool." I had a time window of a some number of weeks to do the translation, it was a bit of a gamble, but I decided to spend a week writing a tool.

After remembering how C# worked after a year in the trenches with Java I had a program that took in the PL/SQL parsed each line and translated it to T-SQL. The task was made easier by the fact that I didn't have to write a generalized parser for PL/SQL as the 80,000 lines were written in a fairly consistent style, which greatly simpified the translation tool. After running the tool a few times, fixing some bugs, I had finished the task in a fraction of the projected time. Triumphantly, I went to my PM to show how I had just saved weeks of manual laborious work. "Great, now here is your next task...."

[caption id="attachment_538" align="alignnone" width="150" caption="Expected Reaction"]ticker tape parad[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_539" align="alignnone" width="150" caption="Actual Reaction"]guy giving an overenthusiastic thumbs up[/caption]

So I didn't get the praise I was expecting, that's fine, I'm not 4, I don't need a cookie. I continued on in my tasks quietly pleased with saving myself weeks of tedious work. Then the day came when the database requirements changed, the hundred or so CREATE TABLE statements would need to be altered. The task wheel was spun, and since only my name was on it at the time (thus defeating the need for the wheel) I was the lucky person to go through and change various aspects of each table.

I thought to myself, "Great, there goes a day or two down the grunt-work hole." Then the part of my brain that I put in charge of remembering important things woke up and slapped me. "You haven't altered the SQL yet, just alter your tool to do this too and re-translate, dumbass." After pondering the suggestion, and possibly more importantly the insult, leveled at me by my brain, I opened up my translation tool. A few keystrokes later the change to the translation mappings was made and I fired off the program. Bits flew, gears cranked, and out came the exact result I was looking for, the tool had just saved me another day or two.

Ultimately the project was a big hit, we delivered on-time and on-budget for what was a somewhat aggressive schedule. The tool saved us a good amount of time, let us get the application bootstrapped and running, which allowed us to start iterating and get things working. Over the course of that project I created tools here or there that ended up saving me, and some thankful members of my team, time and effort.

The lesson here is that you should look around you and see if you can make some tools. Tools can be scary though, they are a bit of an upfront cost, and if it doesn't work out then you've wasted even more time. With time and experience it becomes easier to recognize when it's a good time to make a tool and when it's a waste. Here are some good guidelines for tool making success.

  • The best candidates are tasks with high amounts of repetition and little logic.

  • Check to see if a similar tool already exists, don't reinvent the wheel.

  • YAGNI (You Ain't Gonna Need It). You should be intimately familiar with the problem you are going to solve, solve exactly that problem, you can scale it out later. I didn't bother writing a general purpose PL/SQL to T-SQL translator, I only had one PL/SQL file to translate, if it worked on that then it worked on 100% of its input.

  • If it would take less time to do the boring thing manually than to build a tool, just suck it up and do the boring manual task

  • Share your tools, even if you don't think they will be useful to anyone else on your team, sometimes a tool can provide a surprising benefit to others

  • KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). This is no time to become a highfalutin architect. Tools are normally quick and dirty one-offs, normal concerns like efficiency, user-friendliness, etc. can be brushed aside. If the tool is getting used often and by many people you can refactor it to make it more efficient or user-friendly, but don't pay that cost upfront

Developing software often requires a high degree of focus on the problem at hand, I wrote the other day about one approach to problem solving, simplifying the problem. This strategy can be coupled with toolmaking to dramatic effect. Once you realize the simpler actions you can automate those and write a tool to perform the task for you. The next time you are facing some mountainous problem, consider the toolmaking route.


  1. "If it would take less time to do the boring thing manually then to build a tool, just suck it up and do the boring manual task "

    I suffer with this. I hate boring/repetitive tasks. In fact, I have scheduled a blog post comparing it to the punitive motivational techniques I was subjected to in high school wrestling. Stein, you lost to Smith go run

  2. Oops. Accidentally submitted early.

    Stein, you lost to Smith, go run laps.

    To me this is no different from,

    David, I need this, this, and this from the database, and if I can't figure out how to get it through subqueries and such, I get halfway there and look up the rest manually.

    Every time this happens, I am motivated to learn more and more SQL.

    It's punitive, but it works.

  3. Great example Matt. I procrastinate like he'll, then build something I can reuse in a few hours out of desperation. It makes the task more interesting :).

    Actually, any time I'm adding a feature or developing an application I want, it seems to happen automagically. Enthusiasm is the secret sauce you can bring to any development effort.

    Totally agree that devs can write for themselves.

  4. [...] I’ve written about my favorite MacGyver Moment before in a previous post toolmaker, the time that I wrote an automated PL/SQL to T-SQL translation program. In that post though the [...]

  5. [...] recovery so we don’t have to report errors). The problem is that programmers often have to be toolmakers as well. Sometimes when making a tool for other programmers to use we let our error reporting [...]