The Right Toolbox

A significant part of maturing as a professional is learning to recognize the right tool for a particular type of job. As a programmer this skill may manifest when choosing between alternative solutions at many different levels of abstraction and granularity.

Some examples include decisions between:

  • a loop versus an iterator block
  • a Windows service versus an scheduled task
  • a message queue versus a web service

The next step of professional maturity requires recognizing that all of the decisions like those above have something in common. They are all custom software solutions. This means that there is another decision which has already been made. This is the decision to use a custom software solution.

Crucial to the process of gaining more trust, responsibility, and impact in your job is developing the skill of recognizing whether the solutions being considered are of the right kind. This usually involves asking a lot of "whys." In the scene below, Alice is a development lead and Bob is the IT director she reports to.

Alice: Why are we splitting this service into two separate services?
Bob: Because it's memory intensive and has been bogging down the rest of the process.
Alice: Can we add RAM to the VM?
Bob: Not without taking it from other VMs that can't spare it.
Alice: What about the physical hardware?
Bob: We have room to expand.
Alice: Can we add RAM to the server, and give it to the VM?
Bob: We can do that once more with this hardware, but if we run out of headroom again, we'll need to procure hardware, and that won't be cheap.... A RAM upgrade will definitely be cheaper than the engineering effort to split the process up. This time. But if we run out of headroom again, the next upgrade will be much more expensive.
Alice: Ok. Then rather than split the service now, we'll do an effort estimate so we can do a real cost comparison next time around.

It can be tough to cultivate the discipline Alice exhibits in this scenario. Alice wants to be a problem solver, and is eager take on more responsibility rather than waving it away. There are a lot of incentives to assume that important analysis has already been done and it's above your pay grade to worry about it. But for that exact reason, taking care in these kinds of situations can have big impact and visibility to the broader business.

What this all boils down to is that to take the next step in professional maturity, you need to consider a broader context. Before you sit down to decide which of your tools is the right one for the job, make sure you're even digging in the right toolbox.