Software & Sandcastles

Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash

Excerpt from User Defenders: Podcast episode 078 with Bob Baxley.

My two youngest daughters were building sandcastles the other night.

No, not on the beach sadly (we’re landlocked Coloradans), but at the sand volleyball court at church.

After several minutes, the older one came up to me, visibly upset because her younger sister had rewarded her and her labor of love with the destruction of it.

Which of course begged the question: Why was she so upset about something that she knew was not going to exist for very long anyway? Something, we certainly couldn’t bring home with us, let alone preserve for any length of time.

After thinking on this for awhile and reflecting on my recent conversation with Bob Baxley, I came to a simple, rational conclusion.

The reason she was so upset was because she put thought into her creation, and time and effort crafting it, and likely wanting to share her proud achievement with her audience, aka her mother and I.

That’s when Bob’s words struck an even deeper chord in me.

Every one of us software designers truly are building sandcastles on the beach. Nothing we design will be around for any significant length of time.

Caution, pondering that truth too deeply may yield significant amounts of disappointment and discouragement.

It’s interesting to me how the hourglass has become the iconic metaphor of this temporal and fleeting life. Looking back toward the end of a well-lived one, many would say that the sand has passed through rather quickly.

Hmm, there’s the sand again.

Now what if we considered every grain of sand surrounding our sandcastles as a precious fellow human life, that could be dramatically improved and radically changed in some way by the sandcastle that we built, even if just for a short period of time.

Now think about the countless grains of sand, there are on the beach. I can’t even begin to imagine, or even count that high. In fact, there’s only One who can.

Psalm 139:17-18 says, “How precious to me are your thoughts, oh God. How vast is the sum of them. If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”

Wow. Tangent, but wow.

If your work could potentially, (and it can) reach and radically impact hundreds of millions. Would all the blood, sweat, tears, and sandcastle crushing be worth it?

I think most of us would say, yes.

Now what if our work only really reaches and touches just a few of those grains comparatively, but does so in a way that changes their lives, their world forever, and for the better.

Would we still be able to say that all the blood, sweat, tears, and castle crushing was worth it?

I still believe most of us would say yes.

Several years ago, I watched a television series called Mr. Robot.

At the end of one of the episodes, Elliot, the main character, who’s a hacker massively struggling with his identity and whether to use his super power for good or evil, says something really profound that I wanted to hold on to. He said:

“My father picked me up from school one day, and we played hooky and went to the beach. It was too cold to go in the water, so we sat on a blanket and ate pizza.

When I got home my sneakers were full of sand, and I dumped it on my bedroom floor. I didn’t know the difference, I was six.

My mother screamed at me for the mess, but he wasn’t mad. He said that long ago, the world’s shifting, and ocean moving brought that sand to that spot on the beach, and then I took it away.

“Every day” he said, “we change the world”.

Which is a nice thought until I think about how many days and lifetimes I would need to bring a shoe full of sand home until there is no beach…until it made a difference to anyone.

Every day we change the world. But to change the world in a way that means anything…that takes more time than most people have. It never happens all at once. It’s slow. It’s methodical. It’s exhausting.

We don’t all have the stomach for it.”

Pretty heavy, right?

As software designers, our work is perishable. We throw away more work than any of our fellow software disciplines do, but we do it willingly so we can make a difference and change the world, even if only for one grain of sand at a time.

There’s an old fable about a man who was walking along the beach. He looks off in the distance and he sees a young boy continuously picking things up from the sand and throwing them into the ocean.

As the man drew closer, he saw what looked like tens of thousands of starfish washed up along the sand. Filled with curiosity, the man asked the boy, what are you doing? The boy replied, I’m throwing these starfish back into the ocean. If I don’t they’ll die. The man scoffed, you can’t possibly make a difference.

Look at all the starfish, there are upon the sand. Well, the boy looked down and frowned for a second and then proceeded to bend down to pick up another starfish. After throwing it back into the ocean, he turned to the man with a satisfied look on his face and said, I made a difference for that one.

Knowing we’re all building sandcastles on the beach that could make a huge difference for whether it’s 1 million or just that one.

Let’s be okay with and even lean into crushing our sandcastles more to create the best one we can.

The one we’re proud of.

And yes, the one that will eventually erode.

You see whether we have the stomach for it or not, the sands of time will not cease to continue running through our proverbial hourglasses.

But just think one day we’ll look back. Likely at our screenshots and case studies because well, sandcastles, and we’ll proudly say,

Look what I made with my friends.

If you found value in this, would you please share it out to your social channels and give it a round of applause (Pro tip: if you hold the 👏, you can clap up to 50!)

Definitely check out the latest User Defenders: Podcast episode 078: There and Back (and Forward) Again with Bob Baxley.

There and Back (and Forward) Again with Bob Baxley pictured as UX superhero, GUI Bob for User Defenders Podcast episode 078.
Listen to the deep dive and super-inspiring episode at userdefenders.com/078

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Thanks again so much for listening, and last but not least I want to say, as always…fight on my friends!

👊 Jason

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Jason Ogle

Jason Ogle

Host of @UserDefenders podcast. Human. Designer. Story-Catcher. Deep-Diver. Husband + Father x 7. Has a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe.