I left my lawnmower behind.
Living in suburbia, I had a pretty nice lawnmower. Not a riding mower, but it had that self-propelled feature and the bagging or mulching options both worked. I didn’t have that much lawn to worry about, but a lawnmower, a trimmer, a rake or two, a snow shovel and something to pick at the ice on a driveway or sidewalk — all of those tools were necessary and I used them.
In the corporate world, I had started with open source software, working for a government lab that had more dreams than budget. I moved to Java when I moved up to Big Pharma in California, and I stayed with Java through the long winter of J2EE, into Spring (that is a pun for the software engineering nerds — if you don’t get it, be grateful!). My work with EDS, an international consulting company that has changed names and owners several times since I left, started in Java, but EDS Canada had a guru who was all in on .Net, so I was suddenly on the ‘wrong’ team, and moved over to Business Analysis, where my tools were Microsoft Office and Powerpoint.
We had 4 kids in elementary school when we moved out here, so we had a Chevy Suburban. When we left California, I bought a red Acura Integra hatchback, so we were a two-vehicle family for the first time. The Acura was the commuter car, and the Suburban was for family trips.
Suddenly, almost all of my tools became irrelevant.
The Suburban is waiting for us to need it enough to replace the transmission (again). The Acura was used to teach a couple of teenagers how to drive, and then totalled off in a Tim Horton’s parking lot. You’ve seen the Mazda CX-5 we have now. When we bought our land, we immediately started thinking about a truck. It had to be a 3/4 ton so that it could handle a water tank. It had to have a second bench seat so the kids could fit in it. Our first one was a GMC. It hit a deer, so we bought a Dodge, which we miled out. We are now on our third 3/4 ton, a Ford.
One of the lines we learned while building a log house was “there’s no problem you can’t solve with a sledgehammer or a chainsaw.” I became intimately familiar with both of those.
I started with a cheap Poulan chainsaw (something like this) and didn’t lose any fingers before breaking the pull cord and being laughed at for having such a weak and ineffectual tool. I then borrowed my father-in-law’s chainsaw, only to have it stolen. I replaced it, and bought a small Stihl saw before ending up with my preferred tool, and the saw that cut up the firewood in the picture, a Stihl MS 362 that can handle cutting up firewood for two hours straight without overheating.
Just this spring, I pulled out the battery-operated hedge trimmer (now that Lithium-ion batteries don’t drain in 20 minutes anymore, it’s usable). I’m starting a multi-year project to clear some bush that I hope will turn into a lawn eventually. So far, I’ve cleared most of the thorns, but the ground is nowhere near ready for a lawnmower.
In my work life, I actually took a job for a year with Sciquest, who had purchased an Edmonton startup called Upside Software that had a product built on .Net. That meant that all my Java loyalty was no longer helpful, so I spent a year working with Microsoft tools. When that job ended, I came home determined to restart my home-based business, North Creek Consulting. I had worked on a project using Java, but the overhead of creating a Java website was so high that I couldn’t get any momentum. I put my name out as a data integration specialist, and the first couple of contracts I got were for PHP projects.
PHP is an interesting story — it has been around for a very long time, and it still runs a large percentage of the internet. Facebook started as a PHP website, and WordPress still runs on PHP. If you want a website, the hosting provider that you talk to will almost certainly offer a PHP solution. But all of this usage didn’t mean quality, or performance. It is only in the last few years, since right about the time I was forced to start using PHP, that the language has been modernized so that I don’t have to be ashamed of saying I use PHP.
The real reason I’ve stuck with PHP is that if I want a website with an attractive template, a login system, a database backend, a sensible way to add users, and decent security, I can have that built for me in about 5 minutes using a couple of commands. Within an hour, I can have a development version online on my desktop, and a test version up on databutler.net (my test server), and a production version, all working off of the same codebase. I may have been able to get that level of productivity in the Java or .Net world, but PHP gives me that after reading a couple of tutorial websites. I haven’t had the need to go back to my corporate toolset.
When we moved out to our acreage, we agreed that we didn’t want an open yard that required us to spend every Saturday mowing the lawn for hours. 10 years in, I am missing lawn (a place to play tag, to play catch, to sit on a blanket and read a book) even as I enjoy the forest around my house. Today I spent the day running for water in my 3/4 ton truck, clearing thornbushes with my hedge trimmer, and writing this letter using an online mailing platform that didn’t exist when I moved out here (not that my internet connection was stable enough for that back then).
You have to find the right tools for the job, and you have to get comfortable with them. If you try to make the wrong tool work, you end up with a lot of wasted time, some weird blisters, and a cautionary tale. I have been fortunate enough to have had the time, money and good advice that has led me to my current toolset.
Are you using tools because you have them, because you’re familiar with them, because you don’t want to change? Is it worth it to take another look at your tools, and maybe invest some time and money in getting comfortable with a new tool?
Hopefully this letter was helpful. If you’ve read this far, click on the Chevy Suburban link near the beginning for some interesting photos, and if you send me a reply, I’ll tell you the story. ;-)