Wielding vs. Welding: How I Determined Coding as a Job Was Not for Me

It started with a conversation with a friend. It was nothing too out there; we were talking about his hobbies, and, in particular his attempts to learn how to code software. Basically, his plight was that he always lost interest before he ever managed to start (or even come up with) an idea to create. At some point, I told him this:

Code is a tool, like power tools or factory machines. Often times the interest is not in the tool itself, but what you can create with it. If you find a project you think you would want to work on, then you can find the tools to try to build it and see if you like the process.
Not many people like “swinging hammers,” so I do not understand why people judge interest in programming by how much one likes “writing code.”

While my analogy was well-received, he responded by saying that he actually enjoyed swinging hammers before explaining more in-depth what he felt was the problem. With the result of that conversation in mind, we talked about my first creations and discussed an idea he came up with. I helped walk him through some initial planning and offered up a spot on my VPS to use as he wished. By the end of the conversation, he had gone from “[programming] never kept my interest..” to “Hmm.. Ok. This is very promising..” (he has a thing for double dots; I stopped questioning it). Awesome — mission accomplished. Not only had I convinced a friend to give coding another try, but he was showing genuine hope in a hobby he had long considered not an option. I felt satisfied with the progress we made in his journey to find constructive, engaging hobbies. However, his comment about “enjoying swinging hammers” still lingered. I just could not get it out of my head. As it festered in the depths of my mind, I realized something (a few somethings, actually).

It seems that people who like creating things fall into two major categories: those who like to use tools to create, and those who like to create using tools. It is an odd line, but essentially it boils down to a simple idea: some people like to swing their hammers at pretty much anything so long as they get to use the hammer they want to use, while others like to create a particular type of thing that just happens to require a hammer to create. I let that sink in for a while, and eventually I started looking at this concept in a new way: what would make people in each group miserable? Why I decided on that particular train of thought is either a really complicated question or a really simple one; at this time I choose not to determine which. Instead, I will present my findings.

Sticking with my original analogy, the first group of people really love their hammers, but really do not stake their hearts on the actual thing they are creating. With that in mind, taking away a group one member’s hammer and making him or her use a nail gun instead sounds like a foolproof way to generate some resentment. On the other hand, group two members would probably be happy to work with whatever hammer or nail gun provided so long as the tool itself is actually useful for their goals. So taking group two members and having them create something they do not believe in is an effective way to make them dread even coming to work. Whoever holds the authority can even give that group full control over the tools they choose to use, and in the end it will not matter. However, group one members put in that circumstance will probably never want to stop working on whatever creations are requested from them.

Members of group one remind me of traditional RPGs, where individual characters pretty much stick to the same sort of equipment. Swordsmen use swords (who would have guessed?), archers use bows, thieves use daggers, etc. Every character’s entire identity was one with whatever he or she was wielding. For that reason, I deem members of group one “wielders.” Group two holds a slightly more difficult set of people to metaphorize; while wielders have a very narrow view of what means they will utilize to meet an end, the ends are, well, endless. Members of group two are the opposite, they have a much more limited view of what ends they are willing to meet, but they tend to meet them by any means necessary. Since I honestly have no logical term for these people that also meshes with “wielders” very well, I deem group two members “welders” (because they “weld” whatever they need to to reach their goals? Sure, let’s go with that).

In the end, people in both groups tend to value the quality of their work in their trade. The fundamental difference is what members of each group attribute their abilities to and what motivates them at their core. Wielders live and die by their tools; they believe that, with the right hammer, nothing is impossible and are motivated by continuously proving that. I hypothesize it comes from truly believing (and wanting other people to believe) that anyone can create amazing things as long as they find their hammer. Welders are a little more strange about it; they live and die by the impact of their work. That makes their work and drive a bit more personal, so it is harder to quantify in concrete values what their motivators may be in general. It seems that, at the highest level, welders’ motivation is based on whether or not those who come in contact with their creations are going to be impacted (and generally want that impact to be positive). While all of that sounds super insightful, what does that actually mean?

It means that wielders keep working on a creation even if they have no sense of if they are happy with it. They have to see the end result to determine if it is to their standards, but they instantly know whether or not it was all worth it as soon as that creation is complete. That is why wielders are the kind of people that can easily keep going with the “eye on the prize” mantra. Meanwhile, welders feel a very different way. They pretty much know if it is even possible for them to be happy with their creation just by knowing what it is supposed to be; if it is not something they think will produce the type of impact they strive for, they have likely already checked out (and maybe do not even know it). Even if they have landed on that magical project that makes them warm and fuzzy inside, the “eyes on the prize” mantra is difficult, because the prize is not exactly tangible. Welders have to wait to see how their creation is received to know whether or not it is a success, and often they are not even given that chance. In the world of creating, it is common to see people thrown at the next big thing before the that last one even cools.

While I was thinking about all of this, I had questions burning in my mind the entire time I was thinking about this all. Why does this matter to me? Why did that little comment set me off on a search for why creators do what they do? What does any of that have to do with anything going on in my life right now? Well, it was because my workplace at the time was a wielder’s wet dream. There was flexibility in using an alternative tool as long as a case can be made for that tool. Projects were usually smaller and broken up into phases, so keeping your “eye on the prize” lasted weeks instead of months. And, on top of all that, once that gratification is obtained, there was always a brand new project (or seven) waiting for someone’s hammer. It really was perfect for wielders.

But, I am not a wielder. Even though I had always thought I could be (or even that I was), I had never been a wielder. I always thought I could be happy crafting the perfect creation. However, pushing out creation after creation — with their shiny new paint and excellent composition — only gave me a faint glimmer of hope. That hope always faded when I had to turn my back and return to my mad scientist lair to work on the next creation without ever really seeing the last one out in the wild. In the end, simply creating one thing after another was never enough.

Everywhere I had worked up until that point had been that same sort of wielder’s paradise. The two jobs I had before the wielder’s paradise felt like never-ending nightmares; not only did I grow to not believe in them, but I never really got the chance to see the impact of any of my work. Before those, I got by at a start-up working on one particular project, and the owner threw a lot of resources at it. Conveniently enough for me, I was creating something I actually believed in. But through the natural growing pains of a small company, that all changed and eventually so did my feelings about that job. Requests for “just a little more before release” left me never actually seeing my work hit the shelves during my employment there. And digging way back to my days at the University, there I had managed to wiggle into the position of working on all of the internal creations that ran the department. It was probably the last time I was sustainably happy with a development job, because I saw the impact of my work almost every day. Any other work I did at there I was miserable doing.

It was not until I looked at the things I have been creating in my own time that I noticed something else. I have always focused on what impact my creations would have. In particular how they can improve the lives of people dealing with what I considered sub-par solutions to particular problems (even if those problems are completely superficial). That is when it struck me: as long as I have that vision of impact, the creation lives.

I also discovered something else that is a bit of a paradox. When I actually sit and think about it, I really, really do not like to write code. If I am supposed to write code for anything besides a creation I care about, I am miserable. I dread every time someone adds or changes a requirement. I loathe anything that could cause me to write another line of code, and the quality of code I do write diminishes very, very fast. And I pity the fool who hopes to see a result any length of time before the deadline established. I am sure to procrastinate until the the heat is on — the moment when I realize I better do something, or I will probably get fired.

On the other hand, I have seen what I am capable of when I actually care about a creation. Honestly, it is downright astounding. I mean, sure, some things can be improved. But the sheer amount of high-quality code I can produce is nothing short of a miracle in certain circumstances. I have saved entire projects in a single afternoon. And while some things could use a little clean up, the code is written in such a way that improvements can be made almost as it if is leading you to make those improvements (sometimes quite literally; I have been known to leave myself passive-aggressive notes in code shaming myself for the shoddy job and explaining what should have been done instead).

And just like that, the answer became clear. I had been a welder in a world designed for wielders, and I did not even realize such a distinction existed. In my mind, there was always just a disconnect between how management and creators thought about things, and that most people are just a lot better at grinning-and-bearing it that I am. As it turns out, that does not seem to be the case at all, and it was one of the biggest weights ever lifted from me.

Also, I think I am going to turn all of that into an article and post it on LinkedIn or Medium or something.
 — Cyle Dawson, 09 June 2016

This entire post was written in the form of a rant to my close friend and colleague Mike Branski. It started when I told him I was going to put in my notice at my workplace at the time. I am willing to bet that, by now, he was probably not surprised by the extremely long-winded answer to a very simple question. While the post’s original form was a bit more raw and contained less detailed versions of what I presented above, the core content remains true. I whole-heartedly thank Mike for documenting this rant, as well as putting up with the many, many other rants I have spewed on numerous subjects (some of which have no actual meaning in his life).

Disclaimer: Mike Branski is not the double-dot offender from the original story that started this post. However, he does know the identity of the offender, and he is certain to take it to his grave. Or else.