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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Familiar Tools

A rut is when you’re spinning your wheels and staying in place; the only progress you make is in digging yourself a deeper rut. A groove is different: The wheels turn and you move forward effortlessly...a rut is the consequence of sticking to tried and tested methods that don’t take into account how you or the world has changed.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit


Every project is filled with new things to learn. There are new team members, new roles within the team, new business domains, new techniques, and new technology.


Amid all this flux, something has to stay the same, or you might as well be engaged in research. How can you provide any guarantees about anything to your customer? When you say it will take a certain amount of time to deliver some feature, your customers need some basis for their confidence in your ability to deliver.


Identify and focus on a set of familiar tools. Ideally, these are the tools where you no longer need the documentation—you either know all the best practices, gotchas, and FAQs by heart, or you have written them down on your blog, wiki, or wherever you have chosen to Record What You Learn. Armed with this knowledge, you can provide reliable estimates about certain parts of your work, limiting the risk to the new and unexplored areas.

Just because these tools are familiar to you doesn’t mean you should always recommend them to others. Sometimes the best tool for the job and the one you’re most familiar with are different. At those times, you have to decide if your productivity is more important than the team’s productivity. Just because you know Struts like the back of your hand doesn’t necessarily make it easy to use.

Still, these are the tools you carry with you from project to project. They’re part of what makes you more productive than the next candidate being interviewed. If you run into problems, you already know where to go for answers. You know the problems these tools solve and the problems they cause. Consequently, you know where not to use them, which is as important as knowing where they are best applied.

Over time, you will grow more and more comfortable with this small set of tools. This has benefits, in the form of increased productivity, but it also holds dangers. If you are not careful, you may start to view your familiar tools as “golden hammers,” capable of solving any problem. There is also the danger that you may become such an expert in these tools that you are unable to let go of them, or even to recognize when better tools emerge.

The real challenge comes when you need to throw away a large part of your toolbox. Sometimes your tools will become obsolete; other times you will discover that there are better tools out there. In rare cases, your familiarity with the “state of the art” will lead you to invent something that invalidates the tools you already know.

Ade was a very early adopter of the centralized source control system called Subversion. As it became more popular, clients would seek out Ade for their projects because of his Subversion expertise. Despite this, Ade has been tracking the emergence of a new breed of distributed source control systems from the beginning.[40] By the time Subversion becomes obsolete, its place in Ade’s toolbox will already be occupied by Git or Mercurial. Letting go of familiar and valuable tools is a painful process, but it’s a skill that you need to acquire.

We can guarantee that the tools you use as an apprentice will be obsolete by the time you become a journeyman. In time, all of your favorite tools will become junk. For your career to prosper, you must learn to acquire and abandon familiar tools with ease. Constructing a curriculum that supports this goal is one of the challenges that all apprentices face in the transition to becoming a journeyman.


Write down a list of your familiar tools. If the list has less than five items, start hunting around for tools that will fill the gaps in your toolbox. This may simply be a matter of identifying a tool you already use but don’t know well enough, or it may involve finding new tools altogether. Either way, put together a plan for learning these tools and start implementing it today.

If you already have five familiar tools, carefully examine them. Are better and more powerful tools available? Are you clinging to tools that are already obsolete? Are there emerging tools that threaten to render elements of your toolbox obsolete? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then start the process of replacing these tools today. If you need somewhere safe to experiment with new tools, make use of Breakable Toys.

[40] Ade’s research on potential replacements for Subversion: http://delicious.com/ade/source-control-renaissance?setcount=100.

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