Learn How to Hold a Hammer

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I was one of those kids who drove my family nuts building various devices and contraptions at my father’s workbench. At best these devices did not work, and at worst these “experiments” worked exactly as I had intended. My father as a precaution put a lock on his workroom door, but when I realized that if you simply removed the pins from the door’s hinges that…

Sorry Dad. If it makes you feel any better I think that your grandson has inherited this particular character trait of mine and that karma is in full effect.

The point is that besides learning fundamental physics (such as things in motion will stay in motion until they collide with something both valuable and fragile) through these “experiments” I taught myself how to use tools. To be more precise I taught myself how to use tools incorrectly. For years I thought I knew how to hammer a nail. Hammers are such simple devices after all, and all you need to do is grab the hammer and then whack away until the nail disappears. And since nails tend to bend easily the hammer comes with a nice claw on the other side to remove bent nails with. Nothing to  it!

Eventually I reached an age, despite my many “experiments”, when my father decided to have me assist him with simple projects. For one of these projects my father handed me a hammer and told me to nail some paneling to a frame. I immediately began bending nails and after about five minutes my father said “You are holding the hammer wrong.”

My look of bewilderment said it all. How could I be holding the hammer wrong? The stick part was in my hand, and the hammer part was on the other end! That is how you hold a hammer, right?

My father took the hammer out of my hand, positioned my hand lower on the hammer’s grip, and then guided me through a couple of slow motion practice swings. Dad explained that a hammer was designed so that the operator did not need to use a lot of force. The reason that I kept bending nails (until that point I was sure that it was the hammer’s fault) was because I was using too much force with too high of a grip. If I held the hammer lower on it’s grip, used less force, and practiced more control over my swing the nails would not bend.

Like all young know-it-all boys I was absolutely speechless when I discovered that my father was right. The nails stopped bending. The problem was not with the hammer, nor with the nails. The problem was with the hammer’s operator. I foolishly confused being able to swing a hammer with knowing how to swing a hammer properly.

This lesson on how to hold a hammer that I learned from my father all those years ago has been just as applicable to my IT career as it is to basic carpentry. In the world of IT we have a lot of tools with which to do our jobs, and many of these tools are designed to be as simple as possible to operate. Click the GUI and stuff happens. Type a command, hit “Enter”, and the infrastructure reacts accordingly. We spend all day hammering away at our keyboards and tablets getting work done.

You have to take a moment though to ask yourself “Do I actually understand how to use this tool? Am I confusing my ability to manipulate this tool with knowledge of how to properly operate this tool?”

If pesky error messages appear, or a warning pops up, do you just click “Next” and move along? After all, what is the harm if by pressing forward the outcome is still what you wanted?

When these moments occur, and they will, just remember that the user’s manual was written for a reason. Open up that documentation and start reading. Even a quick Google search will probably reveal useful information on why you came across a “bent nail”. Take the time to pause, research, and learn. You might even avoid these types of moments if you spend a lunch break reading that user’s manual if you have not already done so.

IT professionals are not paid to click through GUIs and run commands. IT professionals are paid to understand why the GUI should be clicked and the command needs to be run in the first place. You only acquire that kind of knowledge through a deliberate effort to understand how the tool works and not just how to manipulate the tool. You might even learn that you have been using the tool incorrectly despite getting your desired results.

Never stop learning, and never confuse manipulation with operation. Those are the lessons that an IT professional lives by. Now if only our children came with user manuals.

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