The Special Tool

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow is a GIS Supervisor for the State of Minnesota and the operations manager of the Minnesota Geospatial Commons. He has served on the GeoHipster Advisory Board since 2014.

This past summer, I put a new set of stairs on the end of my deck. In the grand scheme of home improvement, it was a small job, but I’d never done anything like it before, so there was a lot of cursing, achy muscles, and extraneous trips to the hardware store. But that’s how I roll: chuck the manual and learn by doing. I’ve found that understanding your own learning style is a surprisingly underrated secret to success.

In a way, I learned that secret from my dad, who also made sure I had the skills to figure out how to get a job done with the tools available. He told cautionary tales about how my uncle would often dismiss a potential project because he thought “you need a special tool”, or it simply couldn’t be done. The way my dad saw it, that was a poor excuse for not doing the job. Sure, having a “special tool” would make it easier, maybe even faster. But if you had the will, you could find a way to get it done.

My uncle passed away years ago, but my dad and I still honor his memory with a running joke about “the special tool”. You see, now that he can afford some of those tools, he takes a sick pleasure in buying them for me. That way I don’t have any excuses when it comes to my own home improvement projects.

For example, the first Christmas I was a homeowner, he gave me a basin wrench. I looked at it and was like, “Dad, what the heck is this thing?” He replied, “Mike, that’s the special tool!” He proceeded to explain how important it would be in the upcoming faucet replacement jobs I had planned. And once I looked at the old, rusty supply-line nuts under the sinks of my 1915 St. Paul home, I knew he was right: the basin wrench would save me tons of time.

The original special tool: a basin wrench
The original special tool: a basin wrench

But if I hadn’t had it, I would have found a way.

Years later, he gave me his old carpenter’s square shown below. Could I have drawn that angle on the 2×4 without it? Sure. Did it save me time because I had it? Absolutely. And I’m sure there are also a bunch of hyper-specific tools that might have saved me time in adding those stairs. But if I had waited around to acquire every single special tool that would possibly aid in the process, I’d probably still be working on it now.

So, what does this mean in my day job at the intersection of IT and geospatial?

Well, if it’s not obvious by this point, I’m going to be wary of anyone who says they absolutely need software X,Y, or Z in order to get a job done. Listen, I’m going to tell you my requirements for a finished product. I’ll try to get you the tools you need to get there, but ultimately I don’t care how you get there, you have to figure it out.

With developers, I cringe if I hear them say stuff like, “I need a fully loaded Eclipse IDE with a local JBoss server and plugins for Git, Maven, Spring, and Hibernate pre-configured.” Well, for one, I barely know what some of those things are, but for the small web apps we build, I’m thinking you’re only going to need about half of them. Heck, if you really know what you’re doing, you ought to be able to write a decent app with Notepad++. But I simply can’t guarantee that you’re going to have the exact suite of tools you had at your last job, and you’re going to have to adjust.

On the geospatial side, I get concerned if someone says they need the full Esri stack to get anything done. “No, I don’t just need ArcGIS Desktop, I need the Advanced level. I also need an ArcGIS Server install with enterprise ArcSDE at 10.2 and an AGOL subscription.” Well, that adds up to some pretty hefty maintenance fees very quickly. If I just need a map of our office on our website, most of those tools are overkill.

Ultimately, I guess I can’t blame people for wanting to work with the best tools available: whether you’re talking Esri, Microsoft, Oracle, Mapbox, or Google, there’s some amazing stuff to work with out there in the IT and spatial worlds. Having access to so many amazing tools is a tremendous modern luxury. And if you’ve had a tool before, I know it can be hard to go without it. But sometimes, your favorite “special tool” won’t be available, and I might not be in a position to change that, even if the reason is simply “bureaucracy”. So let’s make sure we know enough about the problem to fix it with whatever we have at hand. After all, we’ll never run out of problems to solve.

Besides, the best tool you’ll ever have available is the one you’ve been using since you were born: your brain. So let’s put it to work, get the job done, and learn something along the way.

Maybe next time my dad will give you the basin wrench.

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